Lauri Lyons: Connecting Globally
Lauri Lyons is a well known photographer in New York and around the United States. She has worked as a Photo Editor for several magazines and organizations, including the prestigious Magnum Photos agency.
Since branching out on her own as a photographer, Lauri's range has enabled her to shoot celebrity portraits, ad campaigns and documentaries. Her photographs have appeared in such publications as The London Observer, Stern, The Fader and Art Forum. She is the first black woman to shoot the cover of Fortune magazine.
Lauri is the author of two acclaimed books; Flag: An American Story (2001) and Flag International (2008). She was the commissioned portrait photographer for the book INSPIRATION: Profiles of Black Women Changing Our World (2012).
Lauri is the Publisher & Editor in Chief of the online publication Nomads Magazine. She is also a contributing writer for The Huffington Post and her essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal.com and U.S.A today.com.
We met Lauri during our stay in New York and were introduced to her home which was an interesting experience; her bright personality matches its interior: we were inspired by the colorful and cultural touches as well as her large collection of books on themes such as art, culture, and spirituality. Coinciding with many of our interests, this sparked a great conversation and continued for our interview. We spoke with Lauri about her roots, her passion for culture and humans and what home means to her.
YOU WERE BORN AND RAISED IN THE BRONX, NEW YORK, DO YOU COME FROM A CREATIVE COMMUNITY?
I’m Jamaican and Jamaicans in general are creative, specifically sound is a big deal. My uncle was a well known DJ so I got a lot inspiration from him regarding music. But fashion is also a big deal, but not in terms of just designer brands or wearing things that are “trendy”, but more so putting looks together and being creative in how you present yourself.
This sense of creativity was something in my family for sure. My mother loves art, she has a really great eye for art, she was always buying art in different places. My father, I didn’t learn this until after I was out of college, actually worked as an assistent for a photographer in New York for a while. But when I told him I wanted to do photography he just smiled but didn’t say anything (laughs)! I remember he would buy special cameras and set up a slide projector screen in our house and he would take pictures when we would go places- but I thought it was just a hobby, because he never said anything about it. He definitely had creative inclinations but as an immigrant family everyone was just working very hard (laughs), no creative jobs.
WHAT LED YOU TO DEVELOP A CAREER IN PHOTOGRAPHY? AND WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR WHEN APPROACHING A POSSIBLE SUBJECT?
I think some people catch my eye for whatever reason, their energy, what they’re doing, an expression, their poeticism. It may be something very ordinary, that catches my attention, but I try to capture whatever it is in those moments. Oftentimes it might be an energy thing.
Many times when I notice people they might be just washing their car or doing something ordinary. I will walk into their space and say to them, “just ignore me.”. They don’t know me from anywhere and they are like, “oh okay”, and I go on photographing them. Afterwards I will say “thank you” and they continue to do their thing. Most of the time I’m looking for people being human. I want my photography to
be real, nothing hardcore or controversial or sensational. Photographing people in these moments is a skill. I learned this as an assistant to a photographer who worked for National Geographic. You can learn to become visible or invisible, not by hiding, but kind of how you feel your own energy. When you open yourself up in some way and relax and are a bit quiet, you can walk next to people, even enter someones space without giving off a threatening vibration. When you are relaxed, people relax.
What drove me to take pictures was actually not, let’s say the passion for photography, but I wanted the adventure of being out in the world. I wanted a diverse life and the photograph was a part of it, sort of like the after “artefact”. I wanted to be in places and interact with people and get something fulfilling, inspiring and exciting. Going up to people, starting a conversation, can be the greatest interaction you have; when you talk to them, you are acknowledging their existence in a certain sense. The connection that you make when acknowledging someone just by, let’s say, giving them a compliment about their hat, it’s quite intimate on a deeper level, where, by spending a few moments together, people will feel special.
When I was photographing my flag series, many people would ask, after I had introduced myself and asked them if I could photograph them; ‘why me?’ And i would say; ‘because you seem interesting or you look interesting and I really want to know what you think.’
And because of that people felt empowered, happy to be recognized and worthy of being seen and heard.
ARE THERE WAYS THAT YOU CONSCIOUSLY CREATE THIS CONNECTION?
Through conversation we learn a lot about ourselves and hey learn about themselves and how we are alike and how we are different. And I think thats what we are really here to do, to me that’s the exciting part of life. Even with traveling you can see beautiful new things but it’s really about the people. The interaction that you have with people, like at that little breakfast stand that you found, talking with the guy who works there, the music that they were playing - it is all of that stuff.
BECAUSE YOUR PARENTS WERE IN THE MILITARY YOU HAVE MOVED QUITE A LOT DURING YOUR CHILDHOOD. HOW HAS THIS INFLUENCED YOU? IS THIS WERE YOUR INTEREST IN CULTURES AND PEOPLE COMES FROM AND WHAT FASCINATES YOU MOST ABOUT IT?
Yes, definitely. Indeed both my parents were in the military, so we would move every 2 to 3 years. They would get an assignment and would have to move to a different country or city usually within 90 days.
When that happens, you always have to connect, disconnect, reconnect, (laughs). I was always starting over and, in some regard, remained the foreigner, the stranger. Actually it’s something I would feel like anyway, being from a Jamaican immigrant family.
It taught me to be open towards people and I liked to observe how people in different places think about identity and the places they live, the way they decorate their spaces, the language and how we are all very much connected even if we come from very different places and lifestyles. I think we are much more alike than different. I like to investigate that, I find that to be really fascinating.
Also, how the idea of culture really shifts all the time, even when people want it stay a certain way - it is actually always changing. To see that culture also ‘travels’, because people move around, and so does information. What you see in Texas, for example, you will see in Angola and you be like: ‘but those people from Texas have never been to Angola and those from Angola never to Texas’ (laughs). But the culture has migrated and shifted. Sometimes it stays the same and sometimes it’s changed but you will still recognize it. I think that’s very fascinating.
HAVING BEEN TO SO MANY PLACES AND HAVING MET SO MANY DIFFERENT PEOPLE, WHAT DO YOU FEEL LIKE IS A COMMON THREAD BETWEEN HUMANS IN DIFFERENT COUNTRIES AND CULTURES?
What makes us human is that we all have similar desires and fears. It may show up in different ways, in different words, in different activities but we all want love, shelter,
food and we all want to be respected.
We all want to feel like we matter, and when those things seem to be uncertain or in danger then we have the same fears, though we may act out in different ways.