Wayne Lawrence is a St. Kitts born documentary photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. His work represents a visual diary of his life’s journey, and focuses on communities otherwise overlooked by mainstream media. Wayne’s photographs have been exhibited at the Bronx Museum of Art, The FLAG Art Foundation, Amerika Haus (Munich), the Open Society Institute, and the African American Museum of Philadelphia—among other galleries. His work has been published by The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, TIME, Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, The Sunday Times Magazine, Mother Jones, Mare, COLORS,and Newsweek. His first monograph, Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera, was released by Prestel Publishing in October 2013, with accompanying exhibitions at the Bronx Museum of Art and The FLAG Art Foundation. Wayne’s work is in the private collection of Glenn Fuhrman, The FLAG Art Foundation, MSD Capital, L.P. Recent awards include The Arnold Newman Prize for New Directions In Photographic Portraiture and the Aaron Siskind Foundation Fellowship for The Black Orthodox.
Wayne Lawrence is drawn to communities that are often ignored or feared by outsiders. Through a careful study of the people who live there, his unflinchingly direct portraits give clues to the tension, history, and beauty of places like the Bronx, Rio de Janeiro, Soweto, and Colón, Panama. The photographs, which are shot on film and composed with an uncanny thoughtfulness, show the strength, dignity, and defiance of his subjects. They leave no question that something has happened before the click of the shutter — an interaction, an agreement, an exchange of respect.
Lawrence immigrated to Los Angeles from the Caribbean island of St. Kitts in 1994. After five years of living in the United States, he was pulled over for a minor traffic violation and ended up spending several nights in jail. The experience unsettled him deeply and gave him a visceral sense of how long twenty-four hours can feel. It prompted Lawrence to seek out a career that felt meaningful. In 2000, after finding inspiration in the pages of Eli Reed’s Black in America and the autobiography of Gordon Parks, he began studying photography at Santa Monica Community College and then at the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, CA. Several years later, Lawrence experienced one of the most traumatic events in his life when his older brother, David, was murdered in St. Kitts. Once again, he found himself confronted with a sense of existential urgency; now it led him to look for ways to give his photography greater meaning and purpose.
It was at Orchard Beach, in the Bronx, that Lawrence began to shoot the raw, powerful portraits of people with intentional gazes that have become his particular photographic language. He says that he always looks for some duality in his subjects, a twinned aspect that he also identified in his brother, who was at once a warrior and a protector. Lawrence told me that he makes an effort to connect with his subjects on a personal level; he wants, he says, to portray them without judgment, to highlight their individuality, to represent their strengths and vulnerabilities, and to find the love in each of them. Community, too, is crucial; it anchors the long-term dedication and focus of all Lawrence’s work, including his projects on Brooklyn’s West Indian J’ouvert festival, the fans at Urban Beach Week, the Black Orthodox Jews of Brooklyn, or summer beachgoers in the Bronx.
Lawrence took the portraits on the following pages in Colón, Panama, a port province on the Caribbean Sea that is one of the gateways to the Panama Canal. They are part of After Tears, his ongoing project about the African Diaspora. (The title of the series comes from a South African ceremony that takes place after the death of a loved one; the ceremony follows the burial and period of mourning and celebrates the life of the deceased.) When exploring a new place, Lawrence sets out to understand the history, traditions, and rituals that ground the community. He is especially attracted to ghetto communities — those typically considered insignificant, unsophisticated, less educated, and less valuable. He says that he sees After Tears as an exploration of his own identity, as well as a memorial to David. “There’s something in each photograph that brings me back to my brother. Not specific memories, but it’s seeing something, and recognizing it as familiar in a gesture, a moment, an energy.”
Taken during the Festival of Diablos and Congas, Lawrence’s Colón photographs highlight the rich heritage of the Panamanian and Antillean cultures, which have been intertwined since the early twentieth century, when Caribbean laborers migrated to Panama to help build the canal. The men in these photographs have martial stances, ragtag outfits, and ornate costumes — a display of both pride and power. The outlier among them is a baby-faced young man with a gun resting on his thigh. Lawrence believes it’s the man’s disconnection from his ancestral history that led him down a path that leans precariously toward violence. At the same time, Lawrence’s lens affords the young man respect; he appears to have no less a chance at redemption than anyone else.
Like his brother, Lawrence harbors a rebellious spirit. You feel it in his portraits: Both the subjects he chooses to memorialize and his approach are direct and genuine. In After Tears, Lawrence has created portraits with sensitivity, depth, and purpose, photographs that fulfill what he described to me as the central aim of his work: “I’m about putting as many positive images into the world as possible.”
Jessie Wender is a senior photo editor at National Geographic magazine.
Wayne Lawrence lives in New York, NY, and completed his residency at Light Work in September 2014. www.waynelawrence.com