“This is something that’s really good for you; good for everyone. So how come only one kind of person is seen doing it?” Part of a new campaign from yoga studio Stretch, Ma’s latest work sets out to subvert homogenous ‘wellness’ imagery
Finding her likeness largely absent from contemporary yoga imagery, for many years the Beijing-born, London-based photographer Sirui Ma “consciously stayed away” from the practice. Search ‘yoga’ on Google images, and it’s not hard to understand why: ‘wellness’ culture is permeated by visuals of mostly white women, slim and toned in their perfectly matched lycra sets and swanky studios. “I never felt like I had a space in that environment,” Ma says. “It felt exclusive. I’m trying to reconcile that this is something that’s really good for you; good for everyone. So how come only one kind of person is seen doing it?”
Titled Hold Space, 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 of the studio’s Stretch Series, a visual campaign led by art directors Laura Tabet and Lauren Barrett, who are focussed on how yoga might be perceived if portrayed in a different way. “We’re both passionate about yoga,” explains the duo, “but find the way it’s presented in contemporary culture is one-note. Stretch Series provides an avenue to open up the visual language associated with the discipline to create a new dialogue.”
Ma was initially introduced to Stretch via the project’s stylist, Kyanisha Saphire, who she met while working on an assignment for hip-hop title Brick. The pair subsequently collaborated together on Ma’s final year photography project at London College of Communication. Whether Ma is working on commercial jobs for the likes of GAP, Nike, Stüssy and McQ, or personal projects like the 2018 New York Street Style zine she re-released earlier this year to raise money for Asian Americans Advancing Justice, her photography manifests romantic realism throughout; a potent sense of beauty in the ordinary.
“Sirui has such a strong 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 real strength and independence in the characters she portrays.”
“A lot of my work is about representation,” says Ma. “Obviously, we [the industry] weren’t always about inclusivity, diversity, whatever, and so having the opportunity and power to represent people who would not otherwise have seen themselves in imagery – for fashion, commercial [campaigns], anything – it’s very powerful.”
“You’ll often see people doing crazy poses and it feels unattainable, but yoga’s not about that. It’s just about moving in your body and feeling at home in your body”
In its early stages, Hold Space took inspiration from a “funny, outdated” book titled Yoga for Men. “It had images of women 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 clean-cut tropes of women in flashy leggings and sports bras, instead opting for simple undergarments that moved the focus to the silhouette; ultimately creating a rich portrait series that stands on its own.
Working with casting director Najia Saad, the Hold Space team were conscious to maintain a policy of inclusivity, inviting all body types and yoga levels to take part in the shoot. In the images, the models appear strong and assured; calm and poised. “You’ll often see people doing crazy poses and it feels unattainable,” says Ma, “but yoga’s not about that. It’s just about moving in your body and 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 other people resonate with how I felt about this series: it’s a really simple idea – putting different kinds of women, different bodies, in front of a camera doing yoga – so why haven’t I seen it? I really hope now that people can see yoga as something that should be for everyone.”