Zayira Ray Enjoys Telling Unique AAPI Stories with Her Photos

“It is more important than ever for Asian-Americans to be seen,” opines Indian-American Zayira Ray about the increasing marginalization of her broader community in recent times. Using photography and visual arts talent, she creates unique photo projects. With a common theme underlying most of them, she tells us more about what drives her passion to break stereotypes.

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When I read Zayira’s response to the last question of this interview, it really made me sit back and think. As an Asian expatriate (although not in America), I’ve seen firsthand the unending expectations Asian societies place on women. Granted, this can be extended to women in general everywhere, but speaking from an Asian perspective, I’ve seen it can be overwhelming firsthand. Successfully balancing multiple careers and roles simultaneously is almost expected of every Asian woman throughout her career. And like Zayira rightly mentioned, they never seem to get a break, ever.

The Essential Photo Gear Used by Zayira Ray:

Zayira told us:

The Phoblographer: Hello. We’d love for you to tell us about yourself and how you got into photography.

Zayira Ray: Hi! I’m Zayira, I’m an Indian-American photographer and visual artist born and bred in New York City. I started shooting at the age of 14; but not at random — I have been drawing and painting for as long as I can remember as a hobby, but when I started making photographs, it just clicked with me as the right medium, and I never looked back.

NYC was a huge component of how my love for photography skyrocketed as quickly as it did: I found it to be the most accessible way for me to drown out the noise and sensory overload of the city, and instead hone in on the smaller, quieter “blink and you’ll miss it” moments and interactions. In my free time in early high school, I explored the city as much as I could, learning the bare bones of photography (composition, lighting, scale, etc) and developing my visual eye, all within the constraints of a beaten-up iPhone 3 camera. Later on, I invested in my very first DSLR—a Canon Rebel T3i – and I started to branch out and make portraits.

I quickly became obsessed with portraiture— I was fascinated with the possibilities of how I could capture a person and their story within a split second. Over the years, my work has increasingly leaned more into my community, photographing other women of color in empowering, multifaceted ways, whether that be through a heavily stylized fashion editorial or a stripped-back portrait shoot in their apartments. Now, I’m 22 and about to graduate from college, so I’m at a pivotal turning point in my life where I’m focused on nurturing my passion for photography into a sustainable career while making work that resonates with me.

The Phoblographer: What gear do you use for your creative ideas?

Zayira Ray: For my digital work, I’m a long-term Canon shooter, but I have recently transitioned into frequently shooting on Sony mirrorless cameras. I love Sony’s warm and moody visual quality: the images feel more crisp and vivid, especially in low light. My work tends to lean towards feeling warm and soulful, so I’ve found it to be a great fit. Most of my more recent digital personal projects have been shot on a Sony A7riii, with a variety of Sony and Zeiss lenses.  For select work, I also use Lomography’s Petzal 55 gold lens. The lens has an adjustable bokeh ring that produces gorgeous photographs with a dreamy, blur-like effect, which has been the perfect choice for some of my projects where I have wanted to achieve a very soft and ethereal visual aesthetic.

The majority of my past work has been shot on my Canon 5D Mark III with the Sigma 35mm f/1.4, Canon 24-105mm 50mm f/1.4 lenses. I still shoot Canon for a lot of commercial work; personally, I find that the saturation of the colors, the more polished aesthetic, and the Canon system, in general, lends itself better to commercial work. I also love shooting film, I’ve been shooting a lot of medium format on my recently purchased Mamiya 645 with a 45mm lens and an 80mm lens. My favorite film stocks are Portra 400 and Kodak Gold, but I would really like to experiment more with others.

The Phoblographer: What’s Brown Love supposed to be about? Where did the idea for this series come from?

Zayira Ray: The idea for “Brown Love” came about after some soul-searching when trying to figure out what I wanted my senior thesis project to be. I knew that I wanted to make a large-scale project rooted in love and community, in hopes of connecting with my own roots while also making an impact beyond the scope of my own lived experience.

And so, “Brown Love” was born from those sentiments. In short, it is a portrait photography project that documents a wide scope of relationships— romantic, platonic, and familial— in and from the South Asian diaspora. With intention and care, I wanted these photographs to depict brown love in its purest form, with tenderness and belonging. I focused on subjects and relationship dynamics that rarely get visibility in an honest, loving, and empowering light— “Brown Love” is dedicated to all of the love stories that have been largely misrepresented, or not represented at all. So far, due to the pandemic, the project has so far only taken place in New York, but I will be continuing to shoot it this summer in New Delhi and Kolkata in India, which I’m really, really thrilled about to say the least. This is a project that is very close to my heart, and I’m so excited to expand it.

The Phoblographer: It appears to have a lot to do with the empowerment of women from Asia. Is there a personal backstory to this series?

Zayira Ray: Definitely— I grew up watching Bollywood movies, and although many of those films are still near and dear to me, they also created a representation of brown love that felt far out of my reach as a young girl. The idealized, heteronormative, and colorist film industry only reinforced outdated conventions and served as a one-dimensional lens into our community. On the other hand, the Western perspective that I was fed of South Asia was frequently tainted with domestic violence and warped power structures at the forefront, where women were portrayed as defenseless victims that lacked any agency or autonomy. Neither perspective left room for nuance, which is why it felt crucial for me to center women and other marginalized identities and communities for this project, photographing them in a position of agency rather than submission, and finally in control of their own stories.

The Phoblographer: You mention that the backdrops used for this series were hand-painted. What’s the significance of this, if any?

Zayira Ray: The painted backdrops have been an integral part of the project from the very beginning. When I was conceptualizing “Brown Love,” I envisioned the painted backdrops to be the physical embodiment of a safe space. I wanted to create an escape from a world ridden with convention and suppression, where those who I photographed would feel liberated and immersed in their shared love. There are two backdrops so far (and a third on the way!) with color palettes of vast cultural significance and history in South Asia. It was really lovely to return to my artistic beginnings of drawing and painting. Spending hours on end painting the twelve-foot backdrops felt therapeutic in more ways than one; bringing the idea to life was not only incredibly rewarding, but it was also such a fun and playful process.

The Phoblographer: There’s an artistic angle to a lot of your projects – like Zameen, which incorporated clay and soil. What inspired this project?

Zayira Ray: Zameen is another really special project. It features a capsule collection of body sculptures made in collaboration between Pakistani designer and artist Misha Japanwala and Indian textile designer Aradhita Paramaruspira. They created the body casts using entirely sustainable biomaterials, specifically mycelium (the vegetative part of fungus), resulting in intricate pieces that replicate the exact texture, shape, and detail of the female body.

When Misha and Aradhita approached me to photograph their awe-inspiring collection, I immediately thought of themes of Mother Nature and the brown body. And so, it felt right to incorporate natural elements into the photographs wherever possible, like the large leaves framing nude bodies, and the beds of soil where the models sat in their most natural, bare state, adorned with the casts. The end result was a series of images that from ideation to creation were made and embodied by an all South Asian team, a beautiful and gratifying experience that I will forever cherish. The Urdu word “zameen” translates to “land” or “earth,” so it resonated with all of us as the perfect title for the project. We later pitched the project to Vogue India, and it was published in print as a four-page spread for their March 2022 “Body and Soul” issue, which was quite literally a dream come true.

The Phoblographer: It certainly jumps out at the viewer more than a regular portrait series would. Do such ideas pop up at random, or are they carefully thought out over long periods of time?

Zayira Ray: It depends— Zameen, for example, wouldn’t exist without collaboration on every level. The process of Misha and Aradhita making the collection, to us conceptualizing the shoot, to actually producing and creating it, happened over the course of more than half a year. More often though, I am making work on a whim, via a burst of inspiration, where I lean heavily into improvisation and experimentation. I try to be as intentional as possible with the work that I make, but also playful and unrestricted.

The Phoblographer: Subjects that might be considered taboo in Asia – how have you approached photographing them?

Zayira Ray: Subjects are stigmatized or taboo because there aren’t enough diverse voices being amplified in order to reach larger audiences. Art, to me, feels like the most accessible way for me to contribute to shifting those narratives through the access point of empathy.  You can’t refute someone’s truth or lived experience, it’s theirs and only theirs. I think that art is a really wonderful vehicle to tell those stories; and with my work, I try to always come from a place of honesty and vulnerability rather than provocation.

The Phoblographer: What does being Asian American mean for you? How do you tie this cultural identity to your photography work and style?

Zayira Ray: To me, being Asian-American means diversifying the stories and representations that come from Asia. Especially now, with the increasingly regressive state of our country, it is more important than ever for Asian-Americans to be seen in all of our diversity and individuality, rather than reduced to a monolith or belittled as an “other.” To me and my art practice, that means depicting AAPI subjects in ways that are true to our multifaceted and complex identities and in a state of freedom and empowerment, whenever and wherever I am able to.

The Phoblographer: Mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, friends – the constant pressure to juggle these roles as a woman and still be expected to function at optimum mental and physical well-being each day is something I’ve seen personally in the Asian community. What can be done to change this?

Zayira Ray: I keep coming back to the idea of rest. For generations, it has been ingrained in us that we must constantly be performing, serving others, and meeting the cruelly unrealistic expectations that have been inflicted on us.

But when do we get to rest? Mentally, emotionally, and physically? I think part of our liberation as Asian women and women of color is carving out the space and time to simply rest. To process, to nurture ourselves and our communities, to imagine a future for ourselves that we want— whatever that may look like

All images by Zayira Ray. Used with permission. Visit her website and Instagram to see more of her work.

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