At sixteen, Zayira is a photography virtuoso – evocative and deftly executed images give us a look into her beautiful and original perspective. Check out her story below.
Say hello to Zayira:
Where are you from? Where have you been?
I am a born and raised New Yorker, but I am also fully Indian. I visit New Delhi and Kolkata annually – I consider India a second home, though I feel more emotionally connected to NYC. I travel with my family often and have visited many countries including England, Italy, France, Turkey, Tanzania, and Germany. Unfortunately, I visited the majority of these before I began photography!
What’s your favorite place in the world?
My favorite place in the world is most definitely New York City, and likely always will be. If you’ve visited or lived in NYC, you probably understand why. The streets carry a certain feeling; the rush of people and sense of curiosity and excitement. In New York, everyone’s soul-searching worlds collide. The result is a passionate and diverse group of people, rich with opportunities and plenty to learn and be inspired by. There’s always something new to do, you never run out of options here. I have always felt like NYC belongs to me in a way, but then I remember that it belongs to so many others as well – and that is part of what makes it so special! I love using the city as a backdrop for my portraiture.
How do you find your inspiration?
I find my inspiration mainly in the works of other photographers. I research editorials and fashion campaigns, and sift through magazines and photography books. A lot of my inspiration comes from social media – especially Instagram, Tumblr, and Pinterest. I find that cinematography and music videos also open my mind creatively – I’m often left with several ideas for photo shoots after watching an artistically crafted movie or video. However, I try to limit the amount of photography references I use when gathering ideas. In my experience, too much inspiration can hinder my growth as a photographer – it can lead to discouragement rather than motivation. When finding inspiration, it’s easy to feel like every idea possible has been exercised already. You can end up comparing yourself to an artist rather than learning from them. It’s important to feel inspired at a level in which you want to create something original, directly from your thoughts or imagination.
Do you get photographer’s block? If so, how do you overcome that?
I tend to have very extended and frequent periods of photographer’s block. Usually, when I lose inspiration or ideas, I lack the motivation to shoot entirely and automatically become dissatisfied with any work I produce. It can be pretty draining, especially because I’m the type of person that always needs to be productive and hustling. Sourcing the issue is key. I find that I lose motivation when I overthink my work or don’t live up to my personal (and often excessively high) expectations. To overcome that, I go out of my way to find inspiration. For me, that often means something as small as looking for new faces to shoot or making a thematic mood board on Pinterest. It usually only takes one or two things to get me excited about a new idea and return my flow of creativity! When I’m focusing less on my success as a photographer and more on my passion for making art, overcoming a block becomes so much easier.
What sparked your interest in photography? How did you get started?
My interest in photography was pretty abrupt. I’ve always been artistically inclined – I have been drawing since elementary school, but had never experimented in photography as a medium until the summer of 2014. I met a photographer who encouraged me to start viewing the world around me in a new light and to start exploring my city. From that point, I began shooting with my iPhone around New York City and posting on Instagram. I quickly became passionate and invested in showing others how I see the world through my own, personalized lens. At that point, I was focusing on streetscape and architectural photography. I didn’t begin portraits until I bought my first DSLR camera, several months later. I started by photographing people in my high school, and soon found that portraiture was what I loved to do most. As I progressed and became more serious about my passion, I set up more stylized shoots and began shooting paid jobs.
What has been your biggest setback as a photographer?
In a few different ways, my age has set me back as a photographer. Because I’m sixteen, doing photography professionally has proven to be more difficult than it should be. More than anything, I want my work to speak for itself, and it to be judged – positively or negatively, solely based on that. When I show up to a job, it’s happened a few times that a client has visibly taken me less seriously as a photographer once they see that I’m young. They don’t seem to be assured that I can do the job until I show them the images, which can be discouraging for myself as well. One of my major goals is to reveal in my photography that I can think as creatively and originally as a photographer who is older than I am. I try to never limit my potential because of my age – I keep my horizons vastly open and always aim for the highest possible. I always want to maintain the mindset of never saving anything for “when I’m older.” My talent and success doesn’t have to be measured by my age unless I let it.
Of the photos you’ve taken, which are your three favorites?
I love this photograph for a few different reasons. It tells a story – it shows the model, Ruby Kahn, immersed in nature and looking back, as if to tell us to follow her into this secret, magical garden. The light is hitting her face perfectly, and I love the composition of layers – from the foreground of the out of focus flowers and shadowing, to the intense dark blue sky in the background. It evokes a feeling, which is one of my main goals in photography.
I took this photo in London this past summer. It’s one of my favorites because of its personality, serenity, and sense of peace. I think that it captures the model, Karjai, on an innate level – his essence and beauty is raw and open. I love the bold colors and the composition, from the gradient of color to the mirroring of his hands on his face. Although it’s almost symmetrical, I think that this is one of my most unique photographs.
It’s funny, I took this basically lying down on the pavement in the middle of a crowd of people in the Financial District in Manhattan to get the perfect photo. I wanted to capture Gabriella as if she were isolated in the city. This photo almost makes me feel like I’m being brought to a different time and place – I think that I was successful in portraying my goal of elegance and whimsicality.
What’s the best advice you can think of for someone just starting in photography?
Explore! Try out a few different types of photography – don’t stick to one initially, despite what your major influences may be. It’s important to be open-minded, you never know what you may fall in love with. Ask questions. Learn. Research. If possible, find a mentor. If you personally know someone who you look up to as an artist, someone who believes in your potential and is willing to help you, the value of this can be irreplaceable. I would also suggest to start with a beginner’s camera – if you start out with a professional camera, you may become too reliant on it. Go outside and practice as much as you can, develop your eye and your individual vision.
Who was the most unforgettable model you’ve ever met?
Hazkel Brown! He is amazing in his abilities to reveal who he is through modeling, occupy the space around him, and move with a sense of both boldness and grace. Due to his gender fluidity (identifying as both male and female), he revealed both his masculine and feminine side when modeling. The result was pure magic. I’ve never shot with a model who created art solely with his interactions between his body and environment in the way that he did. We’ve only shot together once, in lower Manhattan, but it was such a fun experience. I feel that in most cases, in order to produce successful portraiture, there has to be a strong dynamic between the photographer and model. Hazkel and I were super in sync and aware of each other’s perspectives as fellow creatives, making the result very special.
What’s your philosophy when it comes to being a great photographer?
Although it sounds cheesy, I think that staying true to yourself is key. It’s too easy to get lost in the work of other photographers and to try and imitate photographs/trends/styles, whether it be intentional or not. Photography that draws me in the most is the work that clearly and consistently reveals something of the artist. To achieve photography at a highly original and unique level, I believe that you have to use yourself as guide. Instead of forcing yourself to develop a “style” or a conscious sense of consistency in your work, focus on shooting what you love. Shoot directly from your imagination or your thoughts. Shoot the world around you how you see it, not how a photographer you admire sees it. Their work attracts you because they bring something different to the table. Developing a style or a trademark in your work eventually happens as you reveal yourself in your art, in the most natural way possible.
What do you think is the biggest thing holding you back in your photography?
Definitely my conflicting fears, especially about the future. An overwhelming pressure in my mind is “what’s going to make me successful?” or “what makes my work different?” Although I would much rather not focus on my future in terms of career and finances right now, and instead, just create with ease, these pressures always weigh down on my mind and even negatively impact my photography at times. Because I am so aware of how competitive photography is, I find myself often second guessing my work or even producing work to please a certain audience and advance professionally. My fears of success and recognition even drain my motivation to make art sometimes, which is when I have to force myself to take a step back and remind myself why I am a photographer. More than anything else, I am an artist for myself. I genuinely believe that if I stay true to what I love and the passion I have, and work hard for what I want, success will follow.
What are 3 tips you have for aspiring photographers?
- Research! Study other photographers, but expand your horizons past social media. It is important to also look at the work of classic photographers and professionals in the industry, along with photography used in real life – campaigns, editorials, advertisements, etc. I suggest to even go to a bookstore and to physically look through photographers’ books, it can be incredibly inspiring. Recognize that social media with strong platforms for photography, like Instagram, are very helpful, but cannot be your only source of reference in order to truly grow as a photographer and develop an understanding of photography as an art form.
- Do not rely solely on gear. You can have the Canon 5D Mark 9974392 and still take less than average photos. Photography will ALWAYS be about your vision, how you see the world, and how you choose to express yourself. If you aren’t satisfied with your work and it isn’t a technical issue, upgrading your gear won’t solve your problems. I can’t stress how vital it is to practice your eye instead of practicing the mentality of buying the newest technology as a means of producing art. Regardless of whether you have a point and shoot or a full-frame camera, you can take beautiful photos. That being said, there is obviously no issue in upgrading your gear or buying an expensive camera, as long as it’s for the right reasons! Personally, I upgrade a camera or lens when I feel like I have used mine to its full potential and practiced as much as possible with it.
- Build relationships. It is the best way to learn more about photography from different perspectives and to nurture your passion. If you’re a portrait photographer, get to know your models so that you can produce the most real and personal images. If you are a street or landscape photographer, try exploring your area with other photographers – there is so much to learn from other creatives. Collaborating, talking, and even just shooting with other people is not only insanely helpful, but also enjoyable and motivating. Social media can be really helpful in terms of meeting new people and finding new artists. There are so many people with the same passion as you who you can move forward with!
What kind of gear do you have?
I use a Canon 5D Mark iii and a Sigma 35mm f/1.4. I bought the Sigma very recently and I love its sharpness, focus, and colors! I’ve also recently been shooting film on a Canon EOS 1N, which has been magical.
What has photography done for you as a person? How has it changed you?
Photography has probably done more for me as a person than anything else, ever. Before I started shooting, I had barely seen anything in NYC 20 blocks past my neighborhood. So when I began exploring the city with a camera in hand, it truly opened my eyes. I saw the world around me differently – I observed things in terms of light and composition that I normally wouldn’t have looked at twice. I started to examine my surroundings and frame images in my mind everywhere I went. Also, working with models and meeting people through Instagram has strengthened my social skills immensely. I’ve made so many close friends, talked to so many inspiring people, and worked with incredible creatives!
What will you be doing five years from now?
In five years…I will be 21, and I hope that I will be studying something that I love, photography or not, in a university that is an ideal fit for me. I also hope that I will be creating art I am proud of, and at least begin to establish a career in fashion photography. Ideally, in my early twenties, I mainly wish to be learning extensively and growing as both a person and artist!
For anyone who wants to get in touch with Zayira, here’s some contact information:
Zayira, thanks so much for sharing your story with us! 🙂
If any artists out there want to collaborate with FStop, don’t hesitate to reach out to us.