Drawing inspiration from the Dutch Masters, Robbie Lawrence’s images strikingly juxtapose light and shade. His photographs feature vibrant blocks of colour, which instantly steal your gaze. Throughout his career, Robbie has worked for an impressive range of clients, from the Wall Street Journal Magazine to The New York Times and the U.N, each one drawn to his ability to tell a compelling photographic story.
Predominantly focusing upon travel documentary, Robbie’s photography aims towards honesty. However, he also looks for the positives in a situation, unbiased by any previous opinion. Despite having found himself in tricky situations, Robbie tells It’s Nice That, “it’s important to not focus on what could go wrong.” Although he questions whether photographs still have the power to impact and change public opinion, he believes they can act as a vehicle to encourage people to rethink their current lives.
Below, we speak to Robbie to hear more about his work.
It’s Nice That: To begin with, what do you look for in a photograph?
Robbie Lawrence: When I was an intern photo editor at the International Herald Tribune (now the Global New York Times) in Paris, I was taught how to illustrate a story with just one image. I became very interested in this idea – using a photograph to back up the writing and that image being responsible for telling the whole story. Therefore, I try to a make a photograph that, in that particular moment, tells as much of a story as possible.
INT: Your images focus on light and shade, would you say you’re interested in a particular colour palette?
RL: It all goes back to when I studied painting in New York and earlier at school in Edinburgh. my painterly references range between the Dutch Masters and the Fauvists. I love the tangibility of paint. I try to re-create that with the photographs I take, making blocks of colour that stand out. Light and shade is a structural and storytelling element. I shoot in natural light; I like the problem-solving component of using light, learning how to use it has been an interesting process.
INT: Do you think that the concept of time factors into your photography, through trying to hold onto a particular moment?
RL: I like that. The photographers who have always inspired me were those who were able to open up a small crack into the moment that they were experiencing, and then leave it open for us. That’s the same for me. I like looking at the moments which are not necessarily interesting, those points where you take a step back. These moments are so day-to-day, but they are emblematic of a broader mood. As I spend a lot of time on my own, travelling with work, I become more outward looking.
INT: Have you always been interested in travel documentary?
RL: Funnily, when I was a kid, I used to always get homesick. I never thought I’d be away as much as I am. I love it, and I struggle with it. It’s an inevitable consequence of a photographer’s career to be on the road a lot. I think companies responded to the storytelling element of my work and this would then lead to commissions focusing on travel.
However, I do like travelling, notably Sierra Leone last year and I am also about to go to the Congo. I love Africa. I don’t know whether it was an intake of negative western media over time, but I was initially apprehensive about going. However, when I got there, I knew immediately that this would be a place I would return to many times in my life.
INT: If you’re travelling alone do you find taking photographs makes you feel less lonely?
RL: I think it certainly connects me to the place. I have just spent a month in Japan, which was definitely the loneliest trip I’ve ever been on. I often go to a country and wing it, sit at a bar, chat with someone and then inevitably meet people. Japan was the first time I’ve struggled with that. I’d describe the trip as a non-deliberate silent retreat [he laughs]. Taking photos during this time kept me in a good mood and kept me focused upon something. I feel that when we are travelling, we are much more reflective.
INT: Do you think you’d like to change the perspective of how western people currently view Africa?
RL: That’s an interesting thing to say because I was commissioned by the UN last year to do a project on family planning and female genital mutilation in Sierra Leone. White male photographers are being scrutinised at the moment, in particular in this colonial context – going to an impoverished area, documenting it, bringing it back to your peer group, them clapping their hands and the work not going anywhere. The notion of being associated with this stereotype I found particularly unappealing. I tried not to do the typical UN imagery of children looking miserably into the camera. I looked for the beauty in the place, which wasn’t difficult to find at all. There’s a picture I took of a young female journalist and she, in her serene, quiet beauty, spoke for how I felt about the people there. After experiencing such dire disasters, the Ebola crisis etc., I found a strength in Sierra Leone that’s impressive to witness.
INT: Finally, do you manage to distance yourself from your stories emotionally, or do they affect you and how you then progress in the world?
RL: What is interesting is, that with some projects, when you’re taking photographs, you get into the thought process whereby you’re making something useful out of an essentially dire situation.
I don’t know if photographs necessarily have the power to change situations anymore – as we’ve entered a stage where so many people are taking photos, and we have them dumped on us on a daily basis. When I was shooting a gun crime project in the U.S, I was not looking to take pictures of overt violence – it was more about the suggestion of it. The human mind is a much greater tool to convey fear or emotion than a literal depiction of it. For me, the best photographs of war are suggestive. I don’t want to slam my opinions down anyone’s throat; I would much rather have them contemplate and ask questions about what it is they are looking at.
Back to the question: I do tend to get anxious or worried, but I try to remember that if I’m in a potentially negative scenario, I’m just dipping my toe in, other people are there for life. it’s important to recognise that this is why I got into this stuff. If I can be a vehicle for communicating these subjects, then that’s what it’s all about; this is the most important thing about being a photographer.