If you don’t know Joey L. from his work for the National Geographic Channel, the History Channel, or charity: water (his images have been displayed in little places like, oh, Time’s Square), then you might know him from his tutorials. Since 2006, Joey L. has been distilling his hard-earned photographic know-how into easy-to-follow instructional videos (originally in the form of hand-labeled DVDs, and now available on the World Wide Interweb). His most recent series, Dudes with Cameras, is a compulsively watchable mix of photographic wisdom, travelogue, and late-night sleep-deprived mischief. Highly recommended.
If there is such a thing as a secret formula to success, it might be this: work your ass off. After two years of talking nonstop with successful creatives, that’s the best we can come up with. And few exemplify this better than Joey L., a Brooklyn-based commercial portrait photographer who’s shot the likes of Robert De Niro, Jessica Chastain, and Martin Sheen, and worked with brands such as the US Army, National Geographic Channel, and charity: water.
It would make sense for most first-time narrative directors to keep the bar low. Shoot locally. Limit variables. Make something simple. Don’t, for example, incorporate a sacred bull-jumping ceremony in a remote Ethiopian village. Don’t, for example, shoot the entire film in a language you don’t understand. But of course Joey L. isn’t most first-time directors. And People of the Delta is not most films. Set in a brutal section of Ethiopia known as the Omo Valley, People of the Delta is the first narrative film of its kind ⎯ so unique that it will live in an Ethiopian culture museum as an ethnographic study of the region.
“On your way to wonderful, you’re gonna have to pass through all right,” Bill Withers warns filmmaker Damani Baker in his documentary Still Bill. “And when you get to all right, take a good look around and get used to it, because that may be as far as you’re gonna go.” In other words, it’s very hard to be great. And very few people get there.
For most creatives, healthy working relationships are a rare gift. There’s a lot working against us: Egos. Pressure. Deadlines. Differences of opinion and taste. And yet we can’t help noticing that some of the best work being done today is being done by people who genuinely like each other. A great example of this is National Geographic Channels SVP/Group Creative Director Andy Baker and one of his go-to photographers, Joey L.
The creative journey is a strange mix of creating yourself and becoming who you’ve been all along. On some level, we don’t have much control over our sensibilities. From early on, we like the things we like. We are drawn to things that inspire us. We don’t have to teach ourselves our favorite color: we just know it. Getting too far away from these things is what’s called being a poser. At the same time, though, our tastes need to be refined, expanded, sharpened. Ideally, macaroni and cheese will not always be our favorite food.