This project will continue in summer 2016.
Find out more at TheImageOfYoga.com
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What does yoga look like?
In late July, I hosted a community discussion bringing together neighbors from across the city who were interested in yoga and how it is portrayed in our society. We had a rich conversation around diversity, body image, media criticism, commerce, public art etc… and we also made a few images.
On Saturday, Oct 3rd, I’ll be sharing them via a special FREE screening and reportback event at The Cedar Works. But for right now, I’d like to tell you a little bit more about the project.
First, we’ve got to acknowledge that you can’t actually photograph yoga…
The fancy gymnastics that much of our culture identifies with yoga is simply asana, the physical practice of yoga. But the word actually means “union”, implying union between breath & body, self & world, personal & divine. It’s expressed in many ways, from physical and breath practices to meditation, selfless love (haven’t figured that one out yet!) to community service.
So “yoga” is a lot of things, or it’s something both complex and simple and hard, if not impossible, to photograph.
… but you can photograph yogis.
You can photograph the people who practice yoga.
And since it’s a practice that is accessible to anyone who can take a breath, you’d expect those images to be pretty diverse… but if you do a quick google image search for yoga, you’ll find some pretty narrow results.
“Yoga has an image problem”
That’s a quote from one of the discussion participants who came to the event in July, and I tend to agree. As a person who creates images, I’d like to do my part to help fix this.
I’ve detailed in another post how this project came to be on my front burner via a potential corporate sponsor… it looked like we were all set to move ahead, but when things got a little more complicated on the legal stuff, I had to take a step back, slow down, and make sure not to rush into that partnership in a way that wasn’t right for my community.
The door’s still open for that partnership, but public art and corporate ad campaigns are very different things; I decided rather than trying to navigate it on my own, I’d bring the community of interested participants together to get their input into what a project like this should look like.
Through both a facilitated discussion session and a series of preliminary photo shoots and interviews, I’ve learned a lot. It was a pretty amazing weekend, and I’m so grateful to everyone who participated!
What do we see in representations of yoga in our culture?
I asked this question, and here’s some of what came up. You probably have already noticed this. Yoga is presented in spotless glamorous scenes, with young skinny white flexible able-bodied women, ease-fully doing impossible looking poses. It’s serious. Or it’s sexualized. It’s spotless.
What do we *not see* in representations of yoga in our culture?
So what’s missing?
Some of these things I already knew… but it was so great to get all of this input… for example, I hadn’t noticed how most of the poses depicted are more “active”, “open” poses, whereas inward folding and restorative poses aren’t depicted.
Similarly, the props such as blocks, blankets, straps or chairs that help make the physical practices of yoga accessible to most any body are never depicted. And then there’s all the things that are the converses of the things listed above… men, youth, elders, varying body shapes, urban spaces, etc. Sweat, laughter and tears.
What does this imply?
There are many implications… first and foremost that it’s just a physical practice, and then one that is only for a select group of people… that yoga is “not for you.”
So what do we do about it?
I invited the group to split up into a few small groups…
I was curious about a few questions:
What should the visuals look like?
I was envisioning images in theatrical lighting on a black background, much like my How Philly Moves project… but there might also be value in making images on location, in nature, cities, studios. The HPM model makes it easier to include a large group of people… but there may be pros and cons to this type of imagery. And then more specifically, what do you want to see in these images content-wise?
Where should they be seen? Not be seen?
With my potential corporate sponsor, we’d discussed the idea of making the images public domain… which would open up potentially beneficial scenarios such as a stock library for yoga teachers, community yoga studios, blogs etc. But it also opens up potentially exploitative situations like a bank using the images for a random ad campaign, or a blogger tactlessly using inappropriate language disrespectful of the participants. At the other extreme from public domain, we could make this an exclusively fine-art project, with no online presence, and just a traveling exhibit. What are the appropriate and beneficial uses for the images? What feels right, and what feels wrong?
Who would you like to see included?
What kind of groups should be invited to participate? Any specific outreach contact suggestions? This group brainstormed all of the different categories that should be represented in a project in order to help fix this ‘image problem’ of yoga. We’d already discussed some of what’s missing, but here we delved into more categories, examples, and thoughts for outreach.
Title, language & guiding principles…
How do we talk about a project like this?
How should a project like this operate in order to be true to the principles of yoga?
There’s important things to consider both in the outreach to potential participants, in the actual creation of images, and in the presentation / dissemination of them.
Again, it was great to have so much thoughtful input from the participants.
We then brought the groups back together to share what they’d come up with and invite comments from the other groups. I’m extra super grateful for the participants who got roped in on the fly to help facilitate and synthesize the group conversations…
… and for Rachel, who used to work as my part-time assistant, and agreed to come back on a project basis to help organize this event…
… and for all of the awesome helpers who made the event run smoothly… couldn’t have done it without them!
(Nor, for that matter, without my generous monthly sustainers, whose support helped me be able to move forward with this exploratory phase without any of that potential corporate funding. Thanks also to everyone who’s hired me to shoot their weddings, and my other commercial clients etc; by investing in me for your photo needs, you also help support my community work.)
What was really great about this event…
… was not just that we provided coffee and tea …
… although that was nice…
… what was really great was the conversations that were had…
… the energy that was shared…
… and the community that was brought together.
A bunch of of great connections were made, and in a participant survey, participants expressed a desire to get back together with the folks that they’d met. That’s part of why I’m organizing the screening event on October 3rd.
We had some great conversations, but we also made some pictures!
I invited everyone who came to the conversation to stick around afterwards for a quick seated portrait.
This was pretty amazing; a really special experience… all of the participants who’d already given the gift of their time and presence and insight also gifted us with their willingness to be seen.
Together, we made portraits of around 90 beautiful Philadelphians in under two hours… it was intense, and much fun. Kind of like a baby version of that Everyone Is Photogenic project that I failed to fund on Kickstarter.
I do have a few regrets here to file under lessons learned…
- I wish I could have offered lunch in addition to coffee & tea. It was a long day for folks!
- The date was picked due to venue and personal logistics, but then I realized that it coincided with the festivities at the end of Ramadan, which excluded my Muslim brothers & sisters who would have wanted to participate. If this project continues, I’ll make sure to host something that doesn’t conflict with such a major holiday…
- I decided to offer the portraits to everyone who came to the discussion on Saturday in an attempt to be inclusive… but not all of them realized that I’d also scheduled some people to photograph doing asana poses on Friday and Sunday, so a few folks might have been disappointed to hear that some of the folks they were sharing space with had been invited to come back for a photo slot the next day whereas they hadn’t… my intent to include everyone may have made some feel excluded…
… but it was still a pretty amazingly successful event…
The seated portraits are really some of my favorite… seeing them all side by side is really stunning. Much like seeing all of the HPM dancers side by side in the baggage claim exhibit at Terminal B/C at the airport…
… but since I’d reserved the space for the whole weekend, I took advantage of it to make not only this series of seated portraits…
… but also a series of asana images…
… where much like with How Philly Moves, I let the participants share their own practice with me rather than dictating poses to them…
… it’s super rewarding working this way, letting people be themselves…
… but just like with the dance that is dance photography…
… there’s a certain movement to photographing yoga, and you end up doing asana while you photograph asana.
(here, I’m doing a variant on a twisting lunge…)
… and so a squat (Malasana pose)…
… becomes Upavistha Konasana (Sanskrit name for wide legged seated forward fold)
I’m not sure what to call this pose… maybe a twisting navasana variation…
… whereas this is definitely a variation on Sphinx pose…
Of course, in all of these contortions, I’m always hunched over my camera… so after this weekend I was still pretty uneven and sore, and had to spend a few days at Studio 34 doing some real asana practice to work out all of that tension, and some time in the Darkroom of the Soul to balance out all of the outward energy that goes into hosting an event and making images like this.
Another thing that I love about this kind of project is the many different ways that participants can engage with it… for example Rachel D. here not only shared her practice as a subject of photos…
… but also used her yoga teacher skills to guide a few participants who were less experienced asana practitioners. Some of the people who helped run the project also helped fund it. Some who were photographed also did exit interviews. Such a rich experience!
So where are the pictures that we made?
I’m waiting until after the Oct 3rd screening to release the individual images. [RSVP here!]
After that I’ll make another blog post, as well trickle them out to Twitter, Facebook and maybe even Instagram. (Yes, I finally caved and made an Instagram account, even if their terms of service might still be questionable.
The participants will also get free high res downloads of the whole batch of them via my Million-Picture-Giveaway (that’s still somewhat in beta for the oldest images, but up and running pretty smoothly for new work.)
What’s next after that?
There’s a lot to be figured out for next year… I’m planning a lot of special things for 2016, and a continuation of this project in some way shape or form is in the mix.
The potential sponsorship is still a possibility, and we’ll see where that goes. If it doesn’t pan out, I’ll still be relying on my small pool of monthly sustainers (and hoping to grow it, so please consider joining them), finding other commercial work (referrals always appreciated; if you know an art director, communications director, fundraising professional, or person needing a wedding photographer that I’d be a good fit for, send them my way!)
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Ok that’s it for now – maybe see you at the screening on the 3rd… in the meanwhile, if you’ve made it all the way down here, thanks for reading!