Photographer profile: Lawrence Smith

Lawrence Smith rates covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics as the watershed moment of his career.

The Fairfax Media New Zealand photographer says covering three events daily for two weeks produced many memorable highlights, but witnessing the performances of Jamaican sprinting superstar Usain Bolt was special.

Lawrence Smith

Witnessing the start of sprinting superstar Usain Bolt’s career at the Beijing Olympics was a highlight for Lawrence Smith

“There are so many moments of elation and despair at the Olympics,” he said.

“Sometimes it’s not only taking the picture – it’s about experiencing the moment and knowing that you’re going to be able to tell your grandkids: ‘This is how it felt witnessing a moment in sporting history’.”

Mr Smith was awarded Photographer of the Year at the 2009 Qantas Media Awards (New Zealand) on the back of his images from the Olympics held in China.

Despite the overall amazing experience, Mr Smith describes covering the games as a “gruelling physical burden.”

Behind each image is a photographer who hasn’t slept for days, isn’t eating properly and is lugging around huge amounts of heavy equipment.

“There were times when I’d walk into a photo room in Beijing and you’d find photographers asleep under tables,” he said.

Mr Smith says covering last year’s London Olympics was very different to Beijing because while London’s crowds were more enthusiastic, Beijing was more accessible for photographers.

“I found London quite hard because there were so many photographers trying to get in on the action that you were very limited as to where you could stand,” he said.

“If you weren’t in your spot at least three hours before the race then you would be struggling to get one.”

His coverage of the London Olympics represented a homecoming of sorts.

Mr Smith first took an interest in photography when he travelled from the United Kingdom to Asia with a new camera in the early 1990s.

“I just thought, wow, this is what I want to do. If I can find a job that enables me to do this for a living and get paid for it, I’d be very happy,” he said.

From there it was a long, hard slog trying to break into the newspaper industry through the time-honoured tactic of “badgering”.

Lawrence Smith

Lawrence Smith is currently focusing on portraiture. Here he captures comedian Jessie Mulligan who had recently given up vegetarianism

‘As a photographer, you crave some sort of action. There’s always that drive to go out and chase that breaking news’

After taking a short course at the London School of Photojournalism, Mr Smith wound up with an administrative job at News International.

“Eventually I befriended someone at The Sunday Times and I just made it very clear that I would do anything to get a job on the photo desk … I would make tea, it didn’t matter to me and the money wasn’t really the issue.”

Five years as a photographic researcher followed before he moved to New Zealand and finally switched to the other side of the camera.

Mr Smith has now been a photographer at Fairfax Media for 12 years and covers events in Auckland and the surrounding areas.

“Once you have a job as a staff photographer, it’s amazing and you don’t change. You just want to hold onto it and you’re happy,” he said.

Mr Smith covers everything from breaking news and sport, to celebrities and product shoots.

In 2008 he spent hours capturing images of an out-of-control fire in an Auckland warehouse.

“As a photographer, you crave some sort of action. There’s always that drive to go out and chase that breaking news,” he said.

Mr Smith is currently focusing on portraiture where he says the trick is natural lighting, communicating with the subject and coming into the shoot with ideas.

Lawrence Smith

An Auckland warehouse fire in 2008 was captured in these breath-taking images by Lawrence Smith

“I like the experience of meeting them and in that short space of time trying to come away with an image that defines who they are.”

He has also just started experimenting with video which he says is going to be a big part of any press photographer’s future.

“You still see things in the same way as a stills photographer, but with video it gives you so much more opportunity to tell a story because you’ve got to think of the different layers involved,” he said.

According to Mr Smith, being across different platforms and rounds means you get to experience a new slice of life every day that trigger varying emotions.

“Sometimes you can be moved to tears, sometimes it can make you really angry, but what it does is it gives you a tiny little microcosm of life,” he said.

“Most people are stuck in an office. There is no job quite like it and long may it last.”

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