20-Year-Old Photographer Captures Images Of Africa

Photographer Joey Lawrence discusses his new documentary "Faces Of a Vanishing World." It captures Lawrence's passion for taking portraits of indigenous people throughout the world, and explores the responsibility of photographers to be just and fair to their subjects in whatever setting. Host Michel Martin speaks with Lawrence.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

At the ripe old age of 20, Joey Lawrence has become the photographer of choice for A-list performers in music and entertainment, people like the Jonas Brothers and 50 Cent. You might, for example, have seen his photographs of the "Twilight" movie posters.

But Joey Lawrence has a passion for another kind of subject altogether: ancient cultures that are on the verge of extinction. He tells the story in a new documentary called "Faces of a Vanishing World" that describe his travels to document the people of rural Ethiopia.

It premiered this week on the cable channel Ovation, which is dedicated to art and culture.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Faces of a Vanishing World")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOEY LAWRENCE (Photographer): When photographing someone, you're trying to tell their story, and you only get a single frame to do it. I feel that people on both sides of the cameras dictate how that image will turn out.

MARTIN: Joey Lawrence joins us now from our studios in New York. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

Mr. LAWRENCE: How's it going?

MARTIN: And I also want to mention you are sometimes known as Joey L., for people...

Mr. LAWRENCE: Joey L., Joey Lawrence, whatever you prefer.

MARTIN: Okay. So many people, if they don't know you, will have seen your work, in part because of the "Twilight" posters, which of course are all over the world now. And I would like to ask how you got bitten by the photography bug to begin with.

Mr. LAWRENCE: When I was a kid, I borrowed my grandfather's VHS video camera, and I made home movies of me and my friends being chased by dinosaur puppets around our neighborhood.

And I think that's where it started, because after that, you know, I took a lot of stills and things like normal people when they start photography take, like sunsets and their friends. And then I got into shooting local music.

So when I first started, I photographed a lot of musicians. But I always photographed them in a very commercial way so that they would be applicable to the clients that I get now.

So my first portfolio, although it was kind of all these small bands that nobody's heard of, it looked much, much bigger.

MARTIN: How did you get interested in this project, this "Faces of a Vanishing World," trying to document cultures that may be disappearing. How did you get interested in that?

Mr. LAWRENCE: Well, I was doing this way before the documentary. The documentary just was able to follow me on one of my second trips to Ethiopia.

But I got into photographing cultures after just reading books. I'm really interested in anthropology. I've never studied it in school officially or anything like that, but I like to photograph all kinds of cultures. But the ones I've been paying attention to lately are the, I suppose what you'd call vanishing ones, so the cultures that are on the verge of extinction, tribes that are threatened by progress and losing their language and losing their ways of life that they've sustained for thousands of years.

MARTIN: How do you approach this work? Because ethically, this can be a complicated thing, there are cultures that don't...

Mr. LAWRENCE: Absolutely

MARTIN: ...approve of photography. They view it differently than we do. They view it as an invasion, as an intrusion, and there's the whole question of sort of an outsider...

Mr. LAWRENCE: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...fetishizing somebody else's life for their own, you know, amusement, enjoyment. That's not just with you know indigenous cultures around the world, but our own here in the United States. Of course, we have this whole history of Western photography that has some ethical issues to it. So how do you approach this work?

Mr. LAWRENCE: You know, there's a lot of ethics that have to be respected, and I think especially with digital photography today, it's so easy to forget the responsibility that a photographer has, especially a photographer going into these places and depicting these kinds of people with one frame. So, really, you're trying to tell something about somebody's life by taking one photograph to show people. I think that's a really big responsibility that can be overlooked. So the way that I do it is almost, stylistically, is in the same way as my commercial work. So it's very - a very slow process.

It's kind of like, sit down and I take portraits of the individual people. I don't consider myself a photojournalist documenting so much what they do. I'm trying to document the faces and the portraits of the actual people. I think when people look at my images, they can tell that the people trusted me when I took them. So that trust is established way before the photograph is even taken. So I take a lot of time just getting to know people, living with them, eating what they eat, doing what they do. I never hide the fact that I'm a photographer and I'm there to take pictures, but, of course, the images always come after once some kind of trust has been made.

MARTIN: How do you go about getting consent and discussing the use to which these photographs will be put?

Mr. LAWRENCE: Each tribe has their different rules. So I can tell you, one thing for a tribe of Ethiopia might be the same as a tribe for the Man Tuai. But usually I always get the individual person's permission, and I get the chief's permission, of the tribe. Now my images are never used for anything too commercially, like to sell a product or to sell - like, there was this thing where a guy's face ended up on a Folger's can of coffee. It's nothing like that. But, you know, I sell prints. I sell fine art prints of my things for sale. So there's always some kind of moral dilemma that you have to think about. But that all goes back to photographing them in the most dignified way. So when you do make those decisions, then you're doing them for the right reason.

MARTIN: Do you pay your subjects?

Mr. LAWRENCE: Yeah. It all depends. Some of the tribes in Ethiopia that are more visited, where they're used to being people there paying them, expect payment, and that's totally fine - especially this year for the documentary, when we went with a film crew. You would pay for a location in New York. So of course you're going to be paying them there. That's a good income for them. But some tribes that I photographed don't even, like, they have no use for money. So I have to make it worth their time in other ways. So it really all depends -it's all a case-by-case basis. Like, in Indonesia with the Man Tuai sometimes, we just traded tobacco for their time. So it all depends.

MARTIN: The film is partly about your taking photographs, but it's also about returning...

Mr. LAWRENCE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...to the country a year later to present your portraits to your subjects. Is that - was that always the original intention, or did that just come about in the course of doing your film?

Mr. LAWRENCE: Yeah. So what we did was we brought the portraits back to the subjects that I photographed a year earlier. And that's kind of, I suppose, the plotline of the show. But this is an idea that I had for a while that I wanted to do, because I think a lot of the tribes in Ethiopia have this unfortunate view of outsiders coming there to, like, take pictures of them, and rightfully so.

A lot of people travel and, you know, take pictures and just leave and they show up for an hour, don't really respect their culture, don't really care, just kind of want to get their, like, native picture and then leave. So I wanted to bring the prints back for many reasons. The first would be so I could gain the trust of those people, so I could continue photographing them and they would trust me and know what I'm doing. But secondly is the whole "Faces of a Vanishing World" part, whereas like these tribes are changing at such a rapid rate, even in just that one year period, that by bringing back a portrait of themselves, they almost have a connection to their identity as that tribe.

MARTIN: Are your photographs stylized for the documentary, the ones that you do for your - of indigenous people, are those stylized in the way that we understand, you know?

Mr. LAWRENCE: It depends how you define stylized. All my photographs are stylized.

MARTIN: In the sense that they're posed. They're composed.

Mr. LAWRENCE: Oh, posed, absolutely yeah. My - I think my style is in both commercial work and personal work, and something that I'm not afraid to admit is definitely, it's a very stylized thing. And, I mean, and you can have arguments whether or not that gives a more raw portrait or not, but absolutely, I would say my work is stylized.

MARTIN: But you're being very transparent about that. You're not trying to imply that it's a captured experience that would have unfolded anyway without your presence?

Mr. LAWRENCE: I don't think my work is photojournalism. If they have a ceremony or something that's documented, I would rather just sit and enjoy it. What I do is I take portraits of people. So these are intimate portrait sessions. So they're giving themselves for this one frame. So yeah, I think it is stylized.

MARTIN: Well, what do you want people to feel when they see your documentary? What do you want people to experience, to take away?

Mr. LAWRENCE: I want my documentary to be a celebration of the unique cultures of the world. So instead of thinking that the world would be such a better place if everybody thought the same and if everybody was on the same wavelength, I would like people to actually find out that there are different ways of living and there are different ways of experiencing the world, and all of them should be respected.

MARTIN: Well what's next for you? I mean, you've already done a lot of things that sometimes take people a very long time to achieve. I mean, I'm not being funny, but a lot of guys your age are just, you know, worrying about whether they're going to get, you know rushed for a fraternity, or, you know, whether the girl in their, you know, social science class likes them or not, or what's happening on Facebook. And you're kind of in this whole other space now, and I'm just wondering what do you do with that?

Mr. LAWRENCE: I hope I stay away from it, all that what you just said, just scares me. I don't want to think about that stuff. I mean, I've got way more important things, to worry about that.

MARTIN: All right. Joey Lawrence, also known as Joey L, is a photographer whose story of photographing some of the rural people of Ethiopia is told in a new documentary "Faces of a Vanishing World". It's been airing on the cable channel Ovation all week, and he was kind enough to join us from New York. Thank you so much for speaking with us. Good luck to you.

Mr. LAWRENCE: Oh, thank you very much.

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