Interview & Photography by Joana Meurkens
Zayira Ray is an established and well-regarded gen-z Indian-American photographer whose art captures the pure beauty within honest human connection and intimacy. In this interview, Zayira talks about photography’s role within activism and how quarantine has made her shift her photography to be more introspective. Read more about Zayira’s story growing up as a born and bred New Yorker in an Indian-American household and how her cultural heritage intersects with her artistry.
Tell us about yourself! Where were you born/ where did you grow up? What’s your cultural background?
My name is Zayira, I’m an Indian-American photographer based out of NYC. I was born and raised in New York, but much of my upbringing was spent in biannual visits to New Delhi and Calcutta in India, where my ethnic roots are.
Tell us about your photography, how did you come to your craft? What drives your inspiration?
I’ve always been a very visual person, and have been working in art mediums — particularly drawing and painting — since I was a kid, but nothing I was doing or creating was necessarily “clicking”. I started exploring photography in high school with my phone camera, and since then I’ve never really looked back. There’s something really special about being able to take a walk down the street and create images from your unique perspective, framed in the way that you (and only you) can see, and being able to hold onto those moments and frames for an indefinite amount of time. And so I fell in love with photography practically instantly, especially with that unique accessibility. As for inspiration, I’d say that above all, people inspire me, which is probably why most of my work is centered in portraiture. Raw human connection and intimacy inspires me, vulnerability inspires me, love inspires me, and I try to make work that speaks to that.
How does your identity/ cultural heritage influence your art?
Honestly, it’s a process that is evolving hand-in-hand with my own journey in connecting more and more with my Indian heritage and my sense of self. I frequently think about my identity — where I’m from; what makes me, me— and right now, I don’t really think that the vast majority of my work is really a reflection of my own identity as much as it is a reflection of my subjects’. I think that’s telling of an ongoing process of self-education and growing to become more comfortable in my skin. I’m eagerly seeking to bridge the gap between my evolving identity and my art practice. At the same time, though, it’s important to note that there are pieces of my identity that are so inherent and understood to me — my womanhood and femininity, for example — that inevitably shape my perspective as both an artist and a person. It would be dishonest of me to say that there isn’t at least a little piece of who I am in everything that I make.
Are there any themes that come up frequently in your work?
Definitely— some recurring themes are more intentional, while others come out more subconsciously. Femininity, for one, and broadening the scopes of how women are documented and represented. Introspection, and ideas of self-reflection within a space of solitude. The concept of belonging, both to oneself and to another (I think my ongoing series “Twins” perhaps speaks to this theme the most).
What do you hope the viewer takes away from your work?
I hope that my work comes across as honest, with a hint of magic. My goal is to create images that appear wondrous and almost utopian in their visual quality, but that evoke feelings of peace and calm.
In your opinion, what is the role of photography in the Black Liberation Movement and activism as a whole?
Oh, it has so many roles — I could talk about this forever, but I’ll try to keep it brief. For one, photography is so inextricably tied to representation and diversity, both in front of and behind the lens. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is: photography has the power to visually represent Black people and other people of color in ways that they have deeply failed to have been in the past, dating well back to colonial history. It has the ability to shift public perception.
And in a purely practical sense, images act as surveillance, and I think surveillance is crucial to any form of honest activism in order to reveal truths that is hidden from the media or public knowledge — this includes everything from police body-cam footage to the documentation of peaceful protests that subvert riot propaganda in the media.
Simultaneously though, photographers and image-makers first and foremost have the moral obligation to prioritize the safety and consent of their subjects, because it’s far too easy for photojournalistic practice to get muddled with exploitation. We see it happen all the time.
How has photography allowed you to experience different cultures?
In a few different ways! I try to diversify the subjects I photograph as much as possible, and subsequently photography allows me the wonderful opportunity and privilege to get to know and document people from all kinds of backgrounds, with a focus on women of color. I’ve also used photography as a gateway to connect more with my own culture by immersing myself more and more into India with each visit, camera in hand. Previously, I taught two photography workshops in rural Rajasthan and Lucknow, which were by far some of the most formative and educational experiences of my life.
How do you bridge together your personal style and opinions when working with brands and commissioned work?
It’s hard, for sure. I’ve always felt that with every client gig, you lose at least a little bit of creative liberty (which isn’t always a bad thing, as it opens the door for new perspectives). I sometimes struggle with whether I’m being hired for certain jobs for my work specifically, or if I’m being hired to either copy another artist or to regurgitate other images. Even if I’m being hired for the most clinical, stock photo-y headshots, I’ll try to incorporate some of my style into it so that I don’t feel like I’m entirely selling my soul!
How has photography changed for you personally during quarantine? How has the professional photography world changed due to COVID?
It all comes down to adapting, I think. In quarantine, I turned the lens onto myself and documented being in isolation. Photography made me look inward and sort of deal with my presence in a way that was therapeutic, because I had nobody else to physically turn to at the time. But I made sure to not push myself beyond my limits — quarantine was at many times mentally and emotionally draining, and sourcing out a creative drive was not always an easy task.
In the larger scheme of things, in the digital photography world there is always going to be a demand for images no matter what, so it’s really just about maximizing resources and innovating rather than slowing down. Take the rise of Facetime shoots, for example, that became so popular that they were being used in spreads for Vogue Italia and New York Magazine, to name a few. I’m super excited to see how the photographic medium continues to innovate within itself, and the multitude of ways that this unique time in history can be documented.
Anything else you want to share!
If you are able to, PLEASE exercise your right to vote! You have been gifted with a voice, I’m begging you not to waste it.
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