For a while I’ve wanted to try to use photography to convey some of the aspects of yoga that I find really powerful. Not just how it can transform the physical body, but yoga (whether physical postures, or a seated meditation) can be a way of carving out an internal quiet space amidst the busyness and noise of our everyday lives. Whether it’s a repetitive mental dialogue or the external noise of traffic, sirens, construction in London, life can get really noisy. Underneath all that narrative and external noise there is in us all a quiet space. It just doesn’t seem very accessible much of the time.
When we move on a yoga mat, focused on our breath, concentrated on holding a posture, the mental noise can quiet down, and the external sounds often drop away from our focus too. Photography has the same effect for me. I wanted to do a yoga shoot in the heart of the City on a weekday afternoon when it’s busy.
I collaborated with Vanessa who I met via Facebook when I was struggling to get a yoga class covered and she stepped in to help. Her yoga background is very different to mine. As a child I refused to do ballet, had flat feet and came to yoga in my late 20s initially to try to regain some degree of flexibility from cycling. Vanessa is a dance artist – lithe, strong, flexible and incredibly graceful.
And while it’s not helpful to encourage the idea that you need to be really flexible and look like a ‘perfect’ yogi in order to do yoga – you don’t – it is inspiring to see, and beautiful to watch, someone who can hold and move between really challenging physical postures with ease.
Prior to meeting I made a list of a load of postures I thought would look great for the camera, quite a controlled and safe way of approaching a shoot. But as I cycled to the meet her I decided to abandon that list and treat the shoot a little like yoga i.e be a bit more open to what unfolds in the moment. I had a couple of locations in mind I wanted to try but then why not just wander and see what happens. Likewise with the postures, as a starting point I asked Vanessa to begin by standing on some steps outside and just start with a yoga flow – to move as she wanted instead of being directed, holding a posture then flowing into another in a sequence. She started to move using the steps and the handrail – responding to the landscape and echoing their form. So we started using the buildings and landscape around her to inform the postures.
Going through the images afterwards there are two quite different sets of photographs – the quiet moments where it’s about Vanessa’s posture in the urban landscape and some more street photography style photographs where the unexpected collided with us.
What was remarkable (although perhaps not unsurprising coming back to the original point of London being chaotic and everyone rushing about so absorbed by their mobile phone that they don’t see anything else) was the sheer number of people who just walked by without seeming to notice this incredible figure holding herself still on one leg.
It’s often hard to choose a favourite image from a shoot. It’s often luck that gives you a great street photography shot being in the right place when an interesting set of events collide and quick enough to capture the image. It’s very satisfying to get a strong documentary shot and that kind of observational, slightly distant photographer style of photography is what I’m comfortable with. But the image I’m most pleased with is the quietly held paschimottanasana (seated forward bend) shot from above down onto the staircase. Why? Because every image I’ve ever seen of this posture it’s either shot side on, or from in front of the feet, and this feels quite different. And because the idea came to me when we were there. It evolved out of that moment – I saw the treads and asked Vanessa to take the posture in the same form as the stair tread. The softness of her pose contrasts all the sharp lines and shapes around her, and the stairs and brass, her skin and clothing all echo each other.
The photographs are roughly divided into the two categories mentioned above.
If you would like to arrange a shoot out around London please get in touch. To see more of Vanessa’s work and find out where she teaches please visit: https://www.vanessamichielon.com