For some people, the visuals make the album, but for 19-year-old photographer Michaela Lawson, an album actually prompted her to make visuals—her own visuals.
Inspired by Kendrick Lamar’s GRAMMY-nominated album DAMN. and a handful of Reddit fan theories, Lawson tapped into her long-standing love of photography to create a stunning photo series for each of the 14 tracks on the album.
By day, Lawson is a photography major at the Fashion Institute of Technology. By night, she is trekking around New York City with heavy lighting and camera equipment, pushing to complete her DAMN. photo series. “I started shooting at the end of October and finished around November 17,” Lawson tells me over the phone, still walking through the city. “I wanted to do it as fast as possible and I shot almost every single day.”
Wholly impressed, I ask Lawson when she made time for her studies, to which she revealed she built her entire course schedule around completing the project. For creatives like Lawson, higher education can be both a help and hindrance, but FIT has been instrumental in her work, allowing Lawson to rent out lights, studio time, and lenses. Her roommate, Shannon Treadwell, even serves as a creative director, helping Lawson select the final photos for each set.
Upon hearing DAMN. for the first time on April 14, Lawson says the album undeniably unlocked something creative within her, but it was not until August that she finished ironing out all the details. “I had to sit with the album for a while,” Lawson says. “The first time I heard it, I was amazed, but I didn’t really get the message behind it yet. Over the summer, that’s when I really studied it more.”
Lawson jumped head first into the deep hole of Reddit fan theories and YouTube videos as she began brainstorming the photo series, applying each theory to the album—for better or worse. Eventually, she settled on her own hybrid theory, which she reflected in the arrangement of the photos. Half of the photos are labeled “WICKEDNESS.” and the other half “WEAKNESS.”
“After really listening, I got the idea from songs like ‘LUST.’ and ‘LOVE.’. ‘LOVE.’ is more of a weakness and ‘LUST.’ is a wickedness,” she explains. Not all of Lawson’s creative choices were quite as obvious, though. The set for “DNA.” features three photos of Lawson celebrating her Jamaican heritage, yet they live on the “WEAKNESS.” side of the project.
“‘DNA.,’ to me, is a weakness, it’s something that you can’t really change,” Lawson elaborates. “It’s what runs through your own blood. There are wickedness factors along with everyone’s DNA, but you can’t fight it because it’s who you are.”
Lawson’s suggestion that weakness is synonymous with powerlessness is complementary to “WICKEDNESS.” being portrayed as all-consuming in sets like “LUST.” and “YAH.” Unlike the other twelve, these two sets are devoid of human narrative subjects. Instead, we get agency-less moments, the remnants of humanity, captured with images of pill bottles, fingerprints, and the hypnotic blue of a computer screen.
The images for “DUCKWORTH.” and “BLOOD.” are desolate and conjure an overwhelming paranoia. The use of red and blue gels gives each set a vibrancy similar to the kinetic feel of Kendrick’s rapping and his beat selections. Lawson carefully mapped her gut reaction to each song’s production and theme, using those impulses to direct the way she blocked her models and employed color.
The most poignant of the 14 photosets—and Lawson’s favorite—is the one for “XXX.” Breaking down her creative planning, Lawson explains why “XXX.” is the only set with a white model.
“I made sure that I asked him if he was okay with the message, [and] he said it was perfectly fine,” she says. “[‘XXX.’] represents America in general, but it can represent anything you want it to because you can’t really see the color of his hand unless I tell it to you. It can be like black-on-black crime or white-on-white crime—any crime. It’s really about America, and who we are, and how you can reach out for a helping hand and [we] end up shooting our own people.”
Lawson knows that some people may not understand the meaning of her photographs, especially since her reference material is so potent, but she is certain that “XXX.” will ultimately speak for itself.
At the tail end of our conversation, I ask Lawson where she summoned the drive to complete such a massive, time-intensive project. Her answer is simple: it made her happy. While the endeavor has had a profound impact on those lucky enough to come across her work, Lawson walks away from the project as a completely new person.
“It brought me joy,” she says gleefully. “It pushed me to be a better photographer… The project made me a better person, and I think this sends a message to other artists, in general, that if you put your mind to it, you can do it.”