“It’s more important than ever to see Asian Americans,” said Indian-American Zayira Ray of the recent growing marginalization of her wider community. Using talent in photography and visual arts, she creates unique photo projects. Much of her work has a common theme, and she tells us more about what drives her passion for breaking stereotypes.
When I read Zayira’s answer to the last question of this interview, it really made me sit down and think. As an Asian expat (though not in the U.S.), I have seen firsthand the insatiable expectations of women in Asian societies. Of course, this can be extended to women everywhere, but from an Asian perspective, I’ve seen firsthand that it can be overwhelming. Throughout her career, nearly every Asian woman expects to successfully balance multiple careers and roles at the same time. As Zayira rightly mentioned, they never seem to have a break.
Essential photography equipment used by Zayira Ray:
Zaira told us:
Phoblographer: Hello. We would love to have you tell us about yourself and how you got into photography.
Zaira Ray: Hi! I’m Zayira, I’m an Indian-American photographer and visual artist born and raised in New York City. I’ve been shooting since I was 14; but not randomly – I’ve had drawing as a hobby for as long as I can remember, but when I started taking pictures it became the right medium for me, and I’ve never back.
New York was an important part of my rapidly soaring love of photography: I found it to be the most accessible way for me to drown out the noise and sensory overload of the city, and instead focus on smaller, quieter places “in the blink of an eye” will miss” moments and interactions. In my free time early in high school, I explored the city as much as I could, learning the fundamentals of photography (composition, lighting, scale, etc.) and developing my visual eye, all within the confines of a worn-out iPhone. Next 3 cameras.Later, I invested in my first DSLR camera – a Canon Rebel T3i – I started to expand my business and make portraits.
I quickly became obsessed with portraiture – I was fascinated by how to capture a person and their story in a single moment. Over the years, my work has become increasingly integrated into my community, photographing other women of color in an empowering, multifaceted way, whether through highly stylized fashion editorials or laconic portraits in their apartments . Now, I’m 22 and about to graduate from college, so I’m at a pivotal point in my life, focusing on developing my passion for photography into a sustainable career, while producing work that resonates with me.
The Phoblographer: What tools do you use to express your creativity?
Zaira Ray: For my digital work, I’m a longtime Canon shooter, but I’ve recently switched to shooting with Sony mirrorless cameras a lot. I like the Sony’s warm and moody visual quality: images feel sharper and more vivid, especially in low light. My work tends to feel warm and affectionate, so I found it to be a perfect fit. Most of my recent digital personal projects have been shot on a Sony A7riii, equipped with various Sony and Zeiss lenses. For the featured work, I also use Lomography’s Petzal 55 gold lens. The lens has an adjustable bokeh ring that produces gorgeous photos with a dreamy blur, which is perfect for some projects where I want to achieve a very soft and ethereal visual aesthetic.
Most of my past work has been shot with a Sigma 35mm f/1.4, Canon 24-105mm 50mm f/1.4 lens on my Canon 5D Mark III. I still shoot Canon for a lot of commercial work; personally, I find the saturation of the colors, the more refined aesthetic, and the Canon system generally better for commercial work. I also love shooting film, and I shoot a lot of medium format with my recently purchased Mamiya 645 with a 45mm lens and an 80mm lens. My favorite films are Portra 400 and Kodak Gold, but I’d really like to experiment more with others.
Phoblographer: what is it Brown Love should be about? Where did the idea for this series come from?
Zaira Ray: While trying to figure out what I wanted my senior thesis project to be, I came up with the idea of ”Brown Love” after a bit of deliberation. I knew I wanted to do a large-scale project rooted in love and community, hoping to connect to my own roots while having an impact beyond my own lived experience.
Thus, “Brown Love” was born from these emotions. In short, this is a portrait photography project that documents the wide-ranging relationships between the South Asian diaspora – romantic, platonic and familial. With intent and care, I hope these photos will depict brown love in its purest form, with tenderness and a sense of belonging. The themes and relationship dynamics I focus on rarely gain visibility in the light of honesty, love, and empowerment—”Brown Love” is devoted to all love stories that are largely misrepresented or not shown at all. So far the project has only been in New York due to the pandemic, but I’ll be continuing to shoot in New Delhi and Kolkata, India this summer, and I’m really excited to say the least. This is a project that is very close to me and I’m excited to expand on it.
The Phoblographer: It seems to have a lot to do with the empowerment of Asian women. Does the series have a personal backstory?
Zaira Ray: Absolutely – I grew up watching Bollywood movies, and while many of them are still close to me, they also create an expression of brown love that felt out of reach when I was younger. The idealized, heterosexual, and graded film industry only reinforces outdated conventions and becomes a one-dimensional lens for our community. On the other hand, Western perceptions of South Asia are often tainted by domestic violence and distorted power structures at the forefront, where women are portrayed as unarmed victims, lacking any agency or autonomy. Neither point of view leaves room for nuance, which is why I felt it was critical to center women and other marginalized identities and communities in this project, photographing them in positions of agency rather than submission, and ultimately control own story.
The Phoblographer: You mentioned that the backgrounds for this series are hand-painted. If so, what’s the point of this?
Zaira Ray: Painted backgrounds have been an integral part of the project from the very beginning. When I was conceiving “Brown Love,” I envisioned the painted backdrop as the physical embodiment of the safe space. I wanted to create an escape from this world of tradition and repression, where the people I photographed would feel free and immersed in their shared love. So far, there are two backgrounds (a third is in the works!) with a palette of enormous cultural significance and history in South Asia. It’s really lovely to go back to where I started in the art of painting. Spend hours painting more than one feeling on a twelve-foot-tall background. Not only was it incredibly rewarding to bring this idea to life, but it was also such a fun and interesting process.
The Phoblographer: A lot of your projects have an artistic angle – like Zamen, which contains clay and soil. What inspired this project?
Zaira Ray: Zamen is another very special project. It features a series of human sculptures created in collaboration with Pakistani designer and artist Misha Japanwala and Indian textile designer Aradhita Paramaruspira. They modeled the body using fully sustainable biomaterials, specifically mycelium (the vegetative part of the fungus), resulting in complex parts that replicate the precise texture, shape and detail of the female body.
When Misha and Aradhita approached me to shoot their amazing collection, the subject of Mother Nature and the brown body immediately came to my mind. So it felt right to include natural elements in the photos whenever possible, such as large leaves posing nudes, and the models sitting in their most natural, naked state, adorned with plaster. The end result was a series of images produced and embodied by an all South Asian team from conception to creation, a beautiful and satisfying experience that I will forever cherish. The Urdu word “zameen” translates to “land” or “earth”, so it resonated with us all, making it the perfect title for this project. We then took the project to Indian Vogue and published it on four pages in the March 2022 issue of Body and Soul, which was a dream come true.
The Phoblographer: It definitely captivates audiences more than a normal portrait series. Are these ideas random, or have they been carefully considered over a long period of time?
Zaira Ray: This depends on- ZamenFor example, it would not exist without collaboration at every level. From the production of the series by Misha and Aradhita, to the idea of the shoot, to the actual production and creation, the whole process took more than half a year. More often, though, I create on a whim, through a burst of inspiration, and I’m very inclined to improvise and experiment. I try to be as conscious as possible in the work I do, but also fun and unrestricted.
The Phoblographer: Subjects that might be considered taboo in Asia – how do you shoot them?
Zaira Ray: Topics are stigmatized or taboo because not enough diverse voices are amplified to reach a wider audience. For me, art feels like the most accessible way for me to contribute to changing these narratives through empathic access points. You can’t refute someone’s truth or life experience, it’s theirs and only theirs. I think art is a wonderful vehicle for telling these stories; in my work I try to always come from a place of honesty and vulnerability, not to be provocative.
The Phoblographer: What does being Asian American mean to you? How do you relate this cultural identity to your photography and style?
Zaira Ray: To me, being Asian American means diversifying stories and representations from Asia. Especially now, with the increasingly regressive state of our country, it’s more important than ever that Asian Americans be seen in all of our diversity and individuality, rather than reduced to a monolith or relegated to “the Other” . For me and my art practice, this means that I can portray AAPI themes in an authentic way, wherever and whenever I want, in keeping with our multifaceted and complex identities, and in a state of freedom and empowerment.
The Phoblographer: Mother, daughter, sister, wife, friend – as a woman, under the constant pressure to juggle these roles, still want to function in optimal physical and mental health every day, something I have seen firsthand in the Asian community See. What can be done to change this?
Zaira Ray: I keep coming back to the idea of rest. For generations, we have been ingrained in the belief that we must continually perform, serve others, and meet the brutally unrealistic expectations that are imposed on us.
But when can we rest? Mental, emotional and physical? I think part of our liberation as Asian women and women of color is making space and time to simply rest.process, nurture ourselves and our community, imagine a future for ourselves us want – whatever it looks like