american teen: zayira ray

Photographer Zayira Ray is both a first generation American and a real New York City native. At only 18, she has already traveled the world, teaching photography to low-income Muslim women in India and shooting professionally for agencies in London. Here, Zayira shares honestly about her hopes for this generation and the ups & downs of growing up in the city that never sleeps. 
Zayira Ray - Feature ImageZayira Body Image (Diptych #1)Zayira Ray (Image 2)

Teenagehood can be tough. Which age was the hardest for you and what helped you through?

Fourteen. It was a year of unprecedented relationships and taxing life transitions, with subsequent experiences I wasn't mentally or emotionally prepared for, but it was also the year I was introduced to photography. Photography definitely pushed me through those obstacles; the newfound passion felt like a first love that I kept going back to, without fail. 

What are the best and worst parts of growing up in NYC? 

I honestly feel utterly free in New York City. It's almost a feeling of empowerment; I find inspiration in the streets themselves and a sense of limitless potential. I think the hardest thing for me is that the city is filled with other artists and dreamers, which is beautiful and inspiring, but it's also easy to feel overwhelmed and lost in the crowd – like I'm kind of wandering aimlessly without a clear path. 

As a first generation American, how do you stay connected to your Indian roots? 

I don’t think that I felt “connected” to my Indian roots until the past few years. Earlier, I would be overly reliant on the comfort and flexibility that NYC brings me and was hesitant to even explore Indian culture. But photography definitely brought me out of that. I started to document my family’s neighborhoods and small communities in India. And over the past year, I’ve taught two photography workshops for low-income Muslim women and child brides in rural India, which has definitely been the most empowering and immersive experience of all in terms of grappling with Indian culture (which also entails extreme oppression, struggle, marginalization, etc.).

Which social norm are you most excited to see your generation redefining? 

I'm definitely the most excited about our generation redefining, or reclarifying, consent. I think there are so many gray areas in the realm of consent that have become deeply normalized in our society to the extent that women don't come forward, and men don't think they're doing anything wrong. Education on what enthusiastic consent wholly entails is crucial, and I'm already really happy to see a conversation surrounding that.

What advice would you give other 18 year old creatives? 

Take advantage of opportunities, strive for greatness, and actively work on your goals. You don't need to wait to go after them – you are ready and you're not too young for success! And at the same time, this isn't a race. It's easy to constantly compare yourself to other young artists and feel like you're not doing enough, but remember to go at your own pace. You're on your own path.

Zayira Ray (Image 3)Zayira Ray (Image 4)

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