A few years ago, Israel-native, New York-based artist Sivan Askayo left a corporate media job to focus on freelancing, combining her interests in photography, travel, and later writing. “It wasn’t something planned, but a bunch of circumstances that eventually (and luckily) directed me to my real passions and personal/professional path,” she says. Since then, her work has appeared in European and Israeli travel and lifestyle magazines, including Marie Claire Italia.
Sivan has traveled to several continents, photographing cities, food and children. When asked about her favorite pictures, she replies, “I have a few. Some of them were random or not planned shots I took and the outcome was surprising, which is what makes them favorite. I have some of New York from when I started shooting the city.”
She also works with emerging artists in New York and Tel Aviv, and is involved with the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York as a student and teacher assistant.
Jetting Around talked to Sivan about capturing urban environments, the impact of expatriate life on her work, and… a laundry photo project.
What is your favorite subject to photograph?
I love to capture the city’s dynamics; the way people are interacting with their surroundings. It can be as street art (which is part of the interaction) or reflections.
As I don’t always take portraits of people, I prefer to define myself as taking portraits of a city or a place, and tell a story. I also love photographing kids; they are shameless, free and not always conscious of the camera. It’s magic.
What do you try to convey through your photos?
Looking at what is in front of me in a completely different way. Finding the beauty in little details, in subjects we didn’t think of as special.
Where does your inspiration come from?
Creative people always inspire me. Travel magazines, foreign movies (specifically Pedro Almadóvar), interesting architecture, and streets of New York.
How do you choose what locations to photograph?
Some locations depend on whether I have a planned shoot for a magazine or a client. Some are based on my own will and places I’m curious about – whether there is a great graffiti scene (Buenos Aires) or if something interesting is happening at the moment.
Sometimes I just follow my gut, like I did with Vietnam last February. Other times I will choose locations that are known for the laundry scene to shoot for my project Intimacy under the Wires. It happened to me with Lisbon (friends of mine from Lisbon who saw my project convinced me that I should go there) and with Naples.
Tell us about the laundry series.
Like a lot of things in life, this project was not planned. It started with a random shot I took of laundry hung in Jaffa, Tel Aviv. I was on a holiday visit to Israel in April 2010 when it all started.
I had made plans to meet a friend at the flea market in old Jaffa and he was late. While I was waiting for him, I wandered the quiet back streets of this old and vivid neighborhood, when a woman’s voice from an upper floor caught my attention. I looked up and saw her hanging her laundry outside the balcony.
For some, it may be an ordinary chore, but I haven’t seen that since I moved to Manhattan 11 years ago. I stayed there, standing in the street under the crumbling balcony, and observed her. A few minutes after she hung her clothes, a warm breeze from the sea came by and animated them. I just had to take that shot.
What happened after that?
After Tel Aviv, I had a stop in London for a few days, and then there was the eruption of the Icelandic volcano, so I got stuck for another week there. I used the time to walk in the streets of London and take a lot of pictures. I was in Brixton, London, when I took the second image for the series (back then I didn’t know it would be a series).
This is an ongoing project, for which I’m taking pictures of laundry in different locations in the world. It has become quite popular and has been featured in various blogs and magazines. I’m being contacted by people from different places who invite me to come to their hometowns and take pictures of their laundry.
What have you observed or learned during this project?
Laundry is something so personal and private, yet so public. Looking at laundry seems so mundane, yet when you delve into it, you realize it tells of people’s intimate lives.
This project doesn’t only focuses on laundry per se, but also on the differences between cultures and people around the world. For example, I learned that there is a law in Paris that doesn’t allow you to hang things outside the windows, whereas in Portugal it is so popular. In New York’s Chinatown you won’t see as much laundry as one might expect, because the Chinese run the laundromat business in NY and use dryers. But Chinatown in San Francisco is filled with laundry outdoors. There is more on Monday than on Friday.
Do you have any similar projects in the works?
It’s a bit different, but also involves travel. It is called On the Table. These are snapshots of table tops I take with my iPhone in different locations I travel to. It is sort of a visual diary for me of different locations where I’ve had coffee, lunch or something else. I usually add a sentence or two to remind me the context; whether I was with a friend and we talked about Europe, whether I met my girlfriends in Tel Aviv and we talked about design, etc.
Your most memorable photo shoot?
I was in Vietnam in February, right after Tet Holiday (Vietnamese New Year). I had planned my visit in such a way that I would be in Hoi An during the first full moon after Tet.
Every full moon, there is a ceremony of lighting paper lanterns and sailing them on the river. The first one is always the biggest one.
It was one of the most exciting experiences I had and views. I was in such awe that I had to put my camera down just to fully experience what was around me.
Where else would you like to work?
Oh, there are so many places! From the top of my head: Cuba (before it gets Americanized), Brazil, Shanghai, and Morocco.
What equipment do you travel with?
As much as I try to travel ‘light,’ I doubt there is such a thing for photographers. I carry my Nikon D90, 18-105mm, 50mm/1.4f, 35mm/1.8f and a lens baby. In addition, I always carry my laptop and two hard drives. I recently got the new Pentax K-01 with the Mark Newson-designed 40mm “pancake” (very flat) lens and an additional 18-55mm lens. I’m excited to try it out.
Do you have advice for young photographers, those starting out and those hoping to get published?
For those starting out, I would recommend to shoot as much as possible and try different things and approaches. I used to give myself assignments or went shooting with another photographer and we challenged each other.
For those wanting to get published, well, that’s a tricky one… I still haven’t figured it out completely, but my motto is to look at everyone you meet and come across as an opportunity.
In the realm of social media, everything seems to be faster and more direct. Make connections, network, don’t be shy, and – more importantly – don’t take ‘no’ personally. Keep going – it’s the nature of the business.
What made you take up writing in addition to photography?
The urge to write was always there. Before I started my blog, I was busy writing a draft of my book (that one day will be published ;-)). Now I enjoy doing both.
I don’t try to explain my pictures, only tell about my experience while taking these pictures. I want my blog to be a mini-guide for people who appreciate travel in a different way.
Beside my blog, I also write articles for travel and lifestyle magazines. I think that when writing and pictures are done by the same person, the result is much more authentic than having a writer who describes his experiences and then someone else trying to ‘translate’ them.
How has expat life affected your work?
Being an expat is – by definition – being an observer, looking at things in a different way, not taking things for granted. All that works well with the job and the role of a photographer. It allows me to look at things from another point of view.
New York is a city of expats, so I don’t feel different. However, when I visit Tel Aviv, where I’m originally from, I feel like a tourist and I look at ordinary things in a different way.
What does travel mean to you?
It’s funny that you ask, because I just blogged about it. I had an argument with my mom the other day when – half joking, half serious – she said I was addicted to airports, flights, and travel.
I came across a great essay “Why we Travel” by philosopher Pico Iyer (if you haven’t read it or Alain de Botton’s book “The Art of Travel,” I highly recommend it). A few sentences really hit home when I read them:
“We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again—to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.”
I couldn’t describe it better than that. Travel, besides discovering new places and communicating with new people, is also a state of mind. It also cures my curiosity.
Photographs provided by Sivan Askayo. All rights reserved.