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Long-time NCCU photographer dies

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Robert Lawson died Sunday at the age of 74. Robert Lawson died Sunday at the age of 74.

A Durham man who spent half a century recording history with the click of his camera has passed away.

Robert Lawson died Sunday at the age of 74 after decades as North Carolina Central University's photographer.

"What I loved about him the most was the fact that he was always curious. Curious about tomorrow,” said Andre Vann, archive coordinator at NCCU.

He said while Lawson was always looking ahead, the pictures he took tell the school’s past.

"I think it's important to be able to go back and really take a look at your background and your history and your heritage and really to understand how you got to where you are today. And, I think having someone, a photographer and illustrator like Mr. Lawson really has helped to make the university's name a real marketable piece,” he said.

"His breadth of work really has helped to capture the imagination, I think, and history and culture of this institution,” Vann said.

Lawson’s daughter, Apryl Lawson Daye, said her father arrived on campus in 1958.

"His dad dropped him off and told him, 'Son, I think you can make it from here.'"

Lawson graduated from NCCU in 1962 and earned his masters degree 15 years later.

For years he was mentored by the school’s photographer, Alex Rivera. Lawson took the job full time in 1992.

"He would often say, 'I don't want anybody to say anything about what I did.' And, his pictures spoke for him,” Daye said.

Lawson’s daughter said he took pride in his work, particularly photographs of notable people.

Vann said Lawson took photographers of every chancellor in the school’s history, except the founding leader.

When Barack Obama visited campus during his 2008 election campaign, Lawson was able to snap a photograph, despite initial trouble with access.

"He goes about everything like, 'This is my campus. I can go anywhere I want to go, do anything I want to do and nobody's going to ask me any questions.' And, of course the Secret Service would be like, 'Hey, wait a minute, hold on, who are you?' He was like, 'They don't know who I am. I'm going to take this picture,’” Daye said.

Lawson captured the world leaders and also the stars on the NCCU athletic fields.

“The university lost an icon. Robert Lawson started taking pictures of student athletes here at NCCU back in the 1960s and in that time he’s responsible for really documenting our athletics history through the camera lens,” said Kyle Serba, NCCU’s associate athletics director for media relations.

He said Lawson captured those images with a sense of humor.

"He had a, how could I say? A stinging wit. I call him a truth-teller. So, if you don't want to hear the truth, then don't ask Robert Lawson,” Serba said.

Last week, Lawson received the Lifetime Achievement Award from NCCU Athletics.

“While he’s moved on and he’s gone, his images will last forever as a history of NCCU athletics and the university.”

Daye said her father took pictures at other universities and local schools in the Durham area as well. At various points he owned his own photography business, a seafood market, florist and limousine service.

There are only a handful of pictures of the man behind the lens, she said.

"He'd say, 'I don't have time for that.’”

Lawson’s passion was putting others, and his beloved university, in the spotlight instead.

Vann said, “It’s important not to just assume that a grave or marker or tombstone will help to ever tell the story of one's work. I think the photographs he's taken over the years and the work that he has done will live on long after his name is maybe lost in time."

Lawson retired last year due to health reasons. His daughter said he no longer had the strength to hold his camera up.

A memorial service is planned for 1 p.m. May 31, at St. Joseph's AME Church on Fayetteville Street.

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