Sometimes I google-image the hometown of people I meet, to learn more about where they come from. Recently I googled “The Bronx”. Results? Many of the photos were mean and unflattering: ghetto, burning streets, gangs… you get the picture.
But there were a few photos which stood out. I clicked.
This is how I came across photographer Wayne Lawrence: the most exciting New York internet treasure I have come across since the last time I googled New York, and discovered cool brass boy band, Lucky Chops!
There was something arresting about Lawrence’s portraits taken on New York’s Orchard Beach. They were raw and beautiful. They didn’t offer me pre-packaged Bronx stereotypes. Instead, they made me want to know more about the people in the pictures – and about Orchard Beach itself. But even more strongly, I wanted to discover more about the photographer.
Wayne Lawrence was different. I could see that in his photos. And before I knew it, the question had surfaced in the front of my mind. “Is this photographer black?”. And then the second question: “Why do I want to know?” and finally, “Does it matter?”
He was different. I could see that in his photos. And before I knew it, the question had surfaced in the front of my mind. “Is this photographer black?”. And then the second question: “Why do I want to know?”
I began to think of the idea of what it means to be behind lens. A subject can see the person taking the picture. He or she can see whether the photographer is female or male, assess the photographer’s age, appreciate what the photographer looks like, his or her culture and style. The subject can even assess the equipment being used. Is the photographer using an i-phone, or he or she using a camera that connotes a “professional” portrait?
Portraiture is not like sports or landscape photography where the action or the scenery is happening anyway, and the job of the photographer is to find that “decisive moment“. Portraiture is deliberate. It makes the personal public.
Portrait photographers such as Lawrence, who ask their subjects to look at them face on, are asking people to give a piece of themselves not only to the camera, but to the photographer’s cause, whether it is reportage, art, fashion or promotion.
But once they have a subject before them, what do portrait photographers actually say when they ask, “may I take your photo?”. Do the words they use, the equipment they use, their culture, their accent, their attitude have an effect on what happens to the subject’s facial expression and body stance? I think it does.
Recently, Canon Australia produced a video entitled “The Decoy” where six photographers take portraits of the same man, believing that he is a millionaire, a convict, a lifesaver, a psychic a fisherman, or an alcoholic. The results are predictable: the photo session reveals six vastly different sets of photos where the photographers themselves have projected meaning onto the subject.
I take a lot of photos in my job as a writer/photographer for the family travel website Familyfuncanada.com. And I love taking photos of faces, even when I should probably be capturing landscapes and foodie shots. Why? Because I like people.
In my photos, most of my subjects are smiling. What do I say before I click the shutter? Perhaps they are just copying my expression. I am pretty sure I grin at everyone before I ask them to smile. Aha. There we go. I said it. Do I actually ask them to “smile”? It’s possible – professionally embarrassing, but very possible that I actually run around asking people to “say cheeeeese!”. How much of my own agenda is projected onto my subjects?
In 2003, I produced a student portfolio for the University of West London where I took colour photos of market vendors in West Ealing, London UK: a cobbler, a street cleaner, a cheese-man, a butcher. My subjects aren’t smiling in those photos. They look very serious and hard-working. The butcher’s cheeks are an identical colour to the beef steak he is solemnly holding in his own meaty hands. Reds and pinks contrasted by the white butchers apron.
What did I say to the butcher to make him solemnly display the meat in this way? “Hello sir, I’m a photography student; do you think you could possibly hold some meat and strike a pose that makes you seem moody, but hard-working?”
“Hello sir, I’m an photography student; do you think you could possibly hold some meat and strike a pose that looks moody, but hard-working?”
I looked back at this portfolio today and my written records shows that I asked each subject what they thought their profession would look like 10 years into the future. No wonder they are looking so glum!
How much of himself does Wayne Lawrence project onto his subjects? What does Wayne Lawrence say before he presses the shutter, and what does that say about his intentions? I went to find some more out about him.
Wayne Lawrence is my age, born in 1975. He is not from New York, but from the Island of St. Kitts, and a youtube interview reveals a soft Carribbean accent. In the interview, Lawrence says his job is to “stay there a little longer [and] connect with the people”. He speaks of feeling conflicted as a photographer, because like a tourist, he leaves while his subjects “have to stay and live through whatever”. His personality is gentle, and I imagine him behind the lens – not anxious like a fashion photographer, but relaxed, calm, and deliberate.
Photgrapher Wayne is definitely making his mark. His website bio says “his work represents a visual diary of his life’s journey and focuses on communities otherwise overlooked by mainstream media.” The Black Orthodox, his portraits of African American Orthodox Jews, certainly fits that bill. Who knew?
Another example of an “overlooked community” is his Portraits of Moms in Prisons for The Atlantic Magazine. Again, these are pretty arresting portraits (sorry, couldn’t resist), but let’s think about the “overlooked” part. Have women in prison been “overlooked by mainstream media”? Not at all. Last year women in prison were actually glamourized through the television series “Orange is the New Black“. They have not been overlooked, but totally misrepresented.
And the Bronx? Not overlooked. Anyone who has ever watched television through the 1980’s has some impression of the Bronx. I grew up in a world where The Bronx, like many other New York Neighbourhoods, was a place you saw often in the movies. It was always portrayed as a dark, dangerous place.
Has the Bronx been overlooked by mainstream media? No. Misrepresented? Distorted? Totally. Does Lawrence’s collection of portraits give us a truer picture of the region? No – just a new perspective, a different lens. A visually exciting collection of photos. Photos that make us want to know more about the place, and the people.
There are no conclusions in this essay except to say that I really love Wayne Lawrence’s work, and I really love New York. Perhaps my increasingly frequent New York Google-sessions indicate that I am due another trip to the Big Apple…soon!
When I return, I will share my own photographs, which will reflect my own journey, personality and agenda. They may not make it into a book or a gallery, but of course, I will share them with you.