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“This is something that’s great for you; good for everyone. So how come only one kind of individual is seen doing it? ” Part of a new campaign from yoga exercises studio Stretch, Ma’s most recent work sets out to subvert homogenous ‘wellness’ imagery
Getting her likeness largely lacking from contemporary yoga symbolism, for many years the Beijing-born, London-based photographer Sirui Ma “consciously stayed away” from the exercise. Search ‘yoga’ on Google images, and it’s not hard to discover why: ‘wellness’ culture is permeated by visuals of mostly white women, slim plus toned in their perfectly matched up lycra sets and swanky studios. “I never felt like I had a space in that atmosphere, ” Ma says. “It felt exclusive. I’m seeking to reconcile that this is some thing that’s really good for you; good for everyone. So how come only one kind of person is seen doing the work? ”
Titled Hold Area , a new collaboration between Ma and London-based yoga studio Stretch sets out to redress the homogeneous aesthetics of yoga. It’s the latest product from the studio’s Stretch Series, a visual campaign led simply by art directors Laura Tabet and Lauren Barrett, that are focussed on how yoga might be perceived if portrayed in a different way. “We’re both passionate about yoga exercises, ” explains the duo, “but find the way it is presented in contemporary tradition is one-note. Stretch Series provides an avenue to open in the visual language associated with the self-discipline to create a new dialogue. ”
Ma was initially introduced to Stretch with the project’s stylist, Kyanisha Saphire , exactly who she met while focusing on an assignment for hip-hop title Brick. The pair subsequently collaborated together upon Ma’s final year digital photography project at London College of Communication. Whether Ma is working on commercial careers for the likes of SPACE, Nike, Stüssy and McQ, or personal projects such as the 2018 New York Street Design zine she re-released earlier this year to raise money for Oriental Americans Advancing Justice, the girl photography manifests romantic realistic look throughout; a potent sense of beauty in the normal.
“Sirui has such a solid point of view, ” say Tabet and Barrett, “not only visually, but socially and politically. As well as her work’s obvious beauty, there’s a genuine strength and independence in the characters she portrays. ”
“A lot of my work is all about representation, ” says Ma. “Obviously, we [the industry] weren’t always about inclusivity, diversity, whatever, therefore having the opportunity and capacity to represent people who would not or else have seen themselves in symbolism – for fashion, industrial [campaigns], anything – it’s very powerful. ”
“You’ll often find people doing crazy poses and it feels unattainable, but yoga’s not about that. It’s just about moving in your body plus feeling at home in your body”
In its early stages, Hold Room took inspiration from a “funny, outdated” book titled Yoga for Men . “It had images of ladies doing yoga nude, ” Ma divulges, “so we wanted to subvert that from a female point of view, for mostly female-identifying viewers. ” In practice, this meant rejecting the particular clean-cut tropes of women in flashy leggings and sports activities bras, instead opting for easy undergarments that moved primary to the silhouette; ultimately creating a rich portrait series that stands on its own.
Working with casting director Najia Saad, the Hold Space team had been conscious to maintain a policy associated with inclusivity, inviting all body types and yoga ranges to take part in the shoot. In the images, the models appear strong and assured; calm and poised. “You’ll frequently see people doing crazy poses and it feels unattainable, ” says Ma, “but yoga’s not about that. It is just about moving in your body plus feeling at home in your body. ” Ma recalls one model describing the project as an “ incredible experience”, and the images have received a warm response on Instagram in particular.
“It’s been really great, ” the photographer concludes. “[As has] seeing others resonate with how I sensed about this series: it’s a really simple idea – putting different kinds of women, different physiques, in front of a camera carrying out yoga – so why haven’t I seen it? I am hoping now that people can see yoga as something that should be for everyone. ”