Lauri Lyons
March 2009

by Ron Steinman

Getty Images recently signed Lauri Lyons as its first black female photographer. Though there are black photojournalists and women photojournalists who work for major photo agencies, Lauri Lyons is the first black female under contract to a major agency. This is an important move and hopefully a harbinger of things to come.

by Graham Letorney/Foto Visura

Born in the Bronx, New York, as a child Lauri Lyons was the "family photographer." But she had no idea it would become her profession. In high school she took a vocational aptitude test, which revealed 'photographer' as her top profession. But she had not yet made up her mind what to do in life, though she knew she would do something in the arts. She attended the Minneapolis College of Art and Design where her career choice had to wait until her sophomore year. Then she decided to major in photography/media arts. In 1993 she earned her BFA in Media Arts and went to work for Magnum Photos as a freelance photo editor through 1998. She also worked as a photo assistant for Bruce Davidson and National Geographic photographer David Alan Harvey. In 1998 she set out on her own as a professional photographer. When asked what she hoped to accomplish, she said, "My desire is to explore ideas and landscapes that intrigue me. My real intention is to be present to have the experience. The photographs are beautiful mementos of my experiences."

© Lauri Lyons
Lauri Lyons with flag.
As with many still photographers, she has been learning to shoot video. She says she finds it fascinating because of the multimedia aspect of working with moving pictures, natural sound and interviews, but she has no intention of giving up her work as a photojournalist.

When I asked about being a role model, she responded by saying, "I wouldn't dare label myself as a role model; that's asking for trouble!" That may be, but who she is, what she does, and will obviously continue to do may make it impossible for her to escape being a role model. It often comes with the territory when a person breaks new ground as she did when Getty Images gave her a contract as its first black woman photographer.

Lyons has exhibited at the International Center of Photography, Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Civil Rights Museum. "Flag: An American Story" is her first published monograph (Vision On 2001). From 2000 to present, Lauri Lyons has served as a faculty member for the International Center of Photography, Rhode Island School of Design and as the Director of Photography for the Leave Out Violence youth program. In 2006 she created the artist development lecture series "Strategies of Successful Photographers." Her photographs and essays have appeared in such publications as Stern, Trace, The Fader, Vibe, and The London Observer.

© Lauri Lyons
I conducted an e-mail interview with Lauri Lyons and also spoke to her over the telephone.

R.S.: Name the photojournalists who influenced you and why.

Lauri Lyons: There are several photographers who have influenced me. Bruce Davidson's "East 100th Street" and "Subway" series taught me the importance of an environment in regards to context and narrative. Richard Avedon's "American West" series made me realize the power and drama of the human face. Robert Frank's "The Americans" revealed the underbelly of an ideal. Gordon Parks' autobiographies illustrated the possibilities of having an adventurous creative life.

R.S.: There have been and are black male photographers working for major agencies. There are noted women photographers working for major agencies. Until you came along, no black woman photojournalist worked for Getty Images. Why you and why now?

Lauri Lyons: I think Getty is primarily focused on signing photographers who can provide specific content to fill their clients' requests. I think the demographics of their photographers are less important to them. The biggest challenge for a photographer is getting your work in front of the right person who can open the door for you. I had been contacting Getty via their online submission process for a year without a response. I later met a Getty employee who arranged a meeting for me with the Director of Photography. As it turned out the DP was very familiar with my editorial work and immediately offered me a contract. The DP was impressed with my ability to merge commercial techniques and narrative within an image.

© Lauri Lyons
Coney Island.
R.S.: What does this mean to you?

Lauri Lyons: The contract means I am able to circulate my work to a global audience. Accessibility, visibility, and quality are very important factors in regards to building a career.

R.S.: Do you feel a responsibility to other black women who are also photojournalists?

Lauri Lyons: We are all on our own journeys, but I am responsible for producing good work, which will hopefully open more doors for photographers.

R.S.: Does being black and a woman affect the photos you take?

Lauri Lyons: My visual aesthetic is very layered, graphic, and colorful. My concepts are usually rooted in the idea of migration and the transformation of culture. I think this is the result of having Caribbean immigrant parents and growing up as a military child in several countries. Technically my photographic training is traditional, so the tools I use to take a photograph are standard. However, my cultural background influences how I choose to art-direct a photograph.

R.S.: Do you have any advice for other black women who are or who want to be photojournalists?

© Lauri Lyons
"Flag International" book front cover.
Lauri Lyons: My advice for all artists is: learn your craft, do what you love, and don't give up. If there is no niche for what you do, create the niche. Don't be afraid to live life outside of the box. My personal motto is "Live, transform, inspire."

R.S.: You have produced two books on the American flag. Your first was in America. Your most recent book about the American flag, "Flag International" (2008), incorporates photography, video, audio and handwritten text. Why are the Flag projects important to you?

Lauri Lyons: The Flag series is intended to get beyond the myth of the American Dream and investigate the truth of everyday life in the United States. The series is a platform for ordinary citizens to voice their opinions about their views and experiences of living in America, as well as viewing America from abroad. None of the people featured in the books were prepared to be photographed or interviewed. I believe that unstaged quality gives the Flag series its strength and character. On a personal note, the Flag series was unknowingly a visual metaphor for my own search for a national identity.

R.S.: What are you trying to accomplish with this latest Flag project?

Lauri Lyons: The first book, "Flag: An American Story," was published in 2001. Since its publication America [has] endured many challenges including 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Patriot Act, Homeland Security and Abu Ghraib. "Flag International" was intended to expand the dialogue about America outside of our national borders. I wanted to learn how the rest of the world views America and Americans in the 21st century. As I stated in the book's foreward, "Cultural understanding is not only how a nation views itself, but also how the world views you."

© Lauri Lyons
Los Angeles workers with flag.
R.S.: You do not restrict yourself to any one genre of photography. You do commercial shoots, fashion, and whatever interests you. How do you switch gears for each genre you work in?

Lauri Lyons: Well, the truth is sometimes I get bored or burned out by one genre and need to switch gears to give myself a creative break. I like various art forms, politics and traveling, so I get inspiration from a variety of sources. Documentary work allows me to travel on my own and interact with people outside of my social comfort zone. The experience is always challenging and cathartic. Working solo in an unfamiliar environment is both lonely and adventurous, but builds a sense of independence. Fashion is all about creatively directing a fantasy. The challenge with fashion is being technically nimble to execute an idea and working with a good crew. I've recently begun shooting videos and writing for online publications such as The Huffington Post. I like the idea of being versatile and having an array of options for my creativity.

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© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an
award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's
bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and
freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions.
Read Ron Steinman's Notebooks at Ron Steinman's