Self professed ‘Tumblr Girl’, founder of Shade Mag and photographer Azha Ayanna might be the coolest girl on the internet. Her photos tell a story of youth and art in the Bay Area. A heady mix of pastels, neon and pan dulce.
On a gloomy morning we had a phone conversation about everything from her roots to what art means to her.
BT: Who are you and what do you do in your own words?
Azha: I’m Azha Ayanna Luckman. I go by Azha Ayanna or deniminthedesert. I just recently made my own photo blog which is a really big deal for me because I have a problem with owning the fact that I’m a photographer.
BT: Could you elaborate?
Azha: I don’t know. I just don’t really own that title because I feel that photography is such a saturated medium, but a lot of my friends have been pushing me to,”Just make a dot-com and just make a Tumblr strictly for your work.” I’m like, “Okay, nobody is going to see it, so this is fine.” Some of these photos I’ve taken while on photo shoots where people were taking photos of me and I was just like, “Oh I like that or I like my friend’s shoes.” Now that I’ve gotten to know some people they’re like “Oh, you’re tight.” I’m like, “Wow, I didn’t even plan on releasing any of this stuff.”
I guess…let me see what I would call myself, because I wouldn’t call myself an artist. I’m a young creative because my abilities extend beyond the mediums I am most fond of when it comes to working on projects and art. I am from Sacramento, California originally. I moved to San Francisco in 2012 and I went to San Francisco State University. I still go there. I’m a communications major. I was going to go to art school, but I decided not to because art school is really expensive and I just was like, “I’m going to do this on my own.” Yeah, that’s who I am.
BT: You say that it’s hard for you to identify as a photographer, or it was hard for you to put that label on yourself. Could you explain that a bit more?
Azha: Yeah, because I am a kid from Sacramento and I’ve always had DSLRs because I went to this cool high school and we had lots of funding or whatever, so I didn’t realize that’s a privilege. I’ve been playing with DSLRs since I was a sophomore in high school. Then, my dad finally bought me one and one of my friends, Cyle Tahsini, taught me about aperture priority, and manual focusing, and things like that. One of my first photos I ever took was of him and it was just practicing. It got … Back in 2010, it got 3,000 notes on Tumblr and I was like, “Oh my god!”
I mean, from there I moved here and I met this guy named Josh Farria. He was a really big photographer on Tumblr, super popular. One thing that was really different was that it was film photography of women of color. It was all of these beautiful black women that he would take photos of. I actually ended up running into him when I came out here. I didn’t even know that he was from the Bay Area. I was seeing him while I was younger on Tumblr, and he actually ended up taking photos of me. My DSLR that I got from my dad broke so Josh was like, “You should start taking film photos.” I was like, “Really? I’ve never thought about that before.” I was just around all these guys who took 35mm film photos.
BT: So is that how you got started?
Azha: Well I hung out with this group called ‘Them Hellas’ and they have lots of friends who’d be around them, and it was all guys who did film photography for street brands. They took photos of girls with their asses out, beer bottles, titties, weed and shit like that. That was what my idea of photography was at first. Then I just started taking pictures of my friends. It was never like, “Oh, I’m a photographer.” I was just like, “I’m going to take photos of my friends or people I meet.”
BT: Could you elaborate a bit on your feelings towards photography as a medium?
Azha: I met this guy two years after moving to San Francisco named Mancy. [Emphasis ] Now he’s a real photographer. He does digital work and I think that being a photographer is so much more than kids realize. It’s so much more than picking up a camera. It’s years of loving this shit and knowledge and you need to know how to do things. There’s so much shit I don’t know about photography, and now that I know more about photography, I realize maybe some of those people I looked up to weren’t even photographers.
BT: So how do you define yourself now?
Azha: I guess, I’m a young creative because in the sense of people will ask me, “Oh, yeah. What do you do? You take photos?” Often, I get mistaken for a stylist because of the way that I dress or, I don’t know, my involvement in certain things. I’ve been asked to direct a lot of things and I just don’t really see myself as just a photographer, or maybe I don’t think I deserve that title yet, that I’m fully there. Maybe I’m coming to terms with it and trying to own it. I think it has to do with my fear or hate for mediocrity or being mediocre. I feel like a lot of people disrespect the art. You can’t just jump into it and be like, “Yeah, I’m a photographer. I took a picture of a flower and a girl smiling.”
BT: What is the aesthetic or creative inspiration that you have for your photography?
Azha: Wow. This is really a deep question. You mean just what am I going for?
BT: Well do you feel you consciously create an aesthetic or do you just see a moment and capture it?
Azha: Definitely I think some photos I have conceptualized. They give me a different feel than when I first started out, but a lot of the times when I’m taking photos I definitely don’t conceptualize unless they’re portraits. I mean, I guess my aesthetic would be, I don’t know, super dreamy and capturing the art scene and culture of youth in the Bay Area, other young artists in the Bay Area. Mostly, I’m just trying to remember everything.
I’m just trying to make sure, I don’t know, if I think something looks really amazing I just want to capture it. A lot of the time I’m super nervous because I’m unsure of how my film will develop because I am a student and I am poor, so a lot of my photos are taken on broken thrift store cameras. A lot of my past work/photos have been taken on broken cameras. So half the time I’m just hoping that the film I develop doesn’t come out super grainy or there’s not a lot of light leaks. I guess, I’m inspired by a bright flash or a really clean look or I want someone to feel like they’re in a different place when they look at my photo. I want them to travel there or I want them to wish that they were there. I just want people to get a feel for, I don’t know, my lifestyle and my friend’s lifestyle through photo. If they’re into it that makes me really excited and happy.
BT: What’s your creative inspiration?
Azha: I guess my creative inspiration really is my friends, my environment, being young in the Bay Area and trying to grow into the person that I ultimately want to be. When I was young I was really bored with my life. I always would be on the internet and be like, “Oh, this is so cool.” I guess, my creative inspiration is evolving into that person that I thought was cool or those types of photos that I thought were cool. I’m really excited and super inspired because maybe my own life is living that now rather than it just being a dream. A lot of the people I photograph, they’re not regular people, I guess. They’re my friends and they do lots of things and they have super complex thoughts. I guess I want to capture how the person is feeling as well if it’s a picture of a person.
I learned that from Josh Farria. He always told me, “You need to hang out with your subject for at least an hour or a day before you decide to photograph them so that it can come through the picture.” A lot of times when you just have a model you don’t know you don’t really get that feel that you’re looking for in the photo.
BT:That brings me to my next question: do you have any muses?
Azha: Well, I try to have muses, but at the same time , something that I don’t like is that I want people to like the photography and the composition of the photo. Oftentimes than not, you have to worry if you’re taking pictures of a beautiful girl, me as a photographer, and especially as a female photographer, and posting stuff on Tumblr, I’m asking myself, “Do they like my photography or do they like this girl”
BT: Is there a time of day that you feel really creative?
Azha: I love taking pictures at any time of the day. I recently discovered that it’s great to take photos before 10:00 or after 3:00. I really like night flash photography because you’re never going to know how it comes out. That’s just cool to me. I really like shooting without flash during the day.
BT: Is there somebody you love to photograph or is there a type of person you love to photograph?
Azha: Skye, Skye was my first muse. My other muse would be Rewina. Then, my best friend, even though she doesn’t always like the photos I take of her, she created Shade Mag with me, Apryl Fuentes . Her feet are those shoes in that photo that probably has 14,000 notes. She definitely inspires me. I guess my muse is my magazine, Shade Mag, because I’m always trying to evolve, keep up with the times, be ahead of the game and know what’s next. Right now currently definitely my muse is my emotions towards boys. I’m working on photographing men for this zine that I want to release.
BT: Is there a place in your hometown that you would love to go back to and capture?
Azha: Well, I don’t know. I don’t really like Sacramento or the memories that I have there. I’m from a suburb called Natomas and I was never considered cool at all where I lived. I got bullied from elementary to damn near till high school ended. Now a lot of people are trying to be like, “Oh, hey.” Or, “Why don’t you talk to me anymore?”
I haven’t been back to Natomas since I left, honestly. I maybe have been back there twice and it was just for Christmas. Also, when I was photographing in Sacramento, I was literally probably just learning how to … I was learning angles. The photos that I have I couldn’t salvage anything from before 2012 because they were just all so awful definitely.
BT: Do you feel more like San Francisco is your home and there’s a place that you love to photograph here?
Azha: In the Bay Area. Hmmm. Places that I love are in the Mission, but I really love the architecture and plants and the vibrancy of houses in the Bay Area in general. In all the neighborhoods. I love Oakland. You’ll be walking down the street and you’ll see this huge cacti. Or, you’ll see a huge agave plant or you’ll see this amazing tree and it’s a mint colored house or a pastel pink colored house. Those are some of my favorite areas to shoot in because I definitely think that’s something that the Bay Area has that a lot of places don’t. We have a lot of unique houses. I definitely feel like a lot of people don’t even notice things like that. It’s not something they’re thinking about. They’re like, “Yeah, I’m going to go photograph this. That house looks amazing.”
BT: You’ve been talking about the zine that you do with your friend Apryl. You said it chronicles youth and your friends and the artistic scene that you’re both a part of could you expand on that?
Azha: Something that’s super frustrating is that San Francisco has this huge, huge art scene. For me at first it just felt like, “Oh, it’s only men that they focus on.” Which is fine and all, but I’ve slowly noticed that there’s really no room for artists of color or women of color. The art scenes are very white here. I feel like I have no space. Even in, I guess, the scenes that are supposed to be for people of color, it’s really male dominated. Or, if you don’t have a friend who is someone important, you’re not going to get your shit anywhere at all, period. That’s just been very frustrating for me. We wrote something the other day. We’re still trying to cultivate it because originally Shade was supposed to pay homage to … I don’t know if you know anything about ballroom culture or the movie Paris is Burning or the trans community.
We were supposed to be a queer zine of color for artists of color and a safe space, which we totally still are, but we definitely realize that people who maybe don’t fit into those categories also identify with what we are doing. I guess it’s a safe space for young artists who feel like they don’t really have that creative outlet. Basically, our mission was to carve out our own space and include others. Shade is intended to uplift artists. I don’t know. Something that’s very redeeming is witnessing others feel uplifted by something that we have created for that purpose. It’s really about including others because we’ve been excluded for so long. [Laughs] I think that definitely has to do with Apryl and I not being very popular/accepted when we were younger.
BT: What’s your favorite picture you’ve ever taken? Can you describe the process and who it was of?
Azha: Oh my God. Let me see. I don’t know, man. That’s a really hard question because I love all my photos so differently and I definitely feel like I’m not to where I want to be at yet.
BT: Well, if you don’t want to pick a favorite, just describe one that made you feel really great.
Azha: I took this photo of the McDonald’s sign while I was in New York at Times Square and it just makes me feel really happy inside because I scanned it myself and it scanned backward. It’s a really shitty scan and I even think the sizing of it is off because I was learning how to use the scanners at school so it’s completely … It’s not proper at all. It’s not like photography. It’s really shitty. It doesn’t have a lot of notes on Tumblr.
It was from my Spring Break and I just really like it because, because it’s backwards it makes me feel like I’m in the Fifth Element. It’s very futuristic and it’s just a completely different scene than the Bay Area and it really captures, I guess, how I viewed New York when I visited New York. Another photo would be … Let’s see. I guess I really like this photo of my friend Apryl holding up a rose. I just think it’s the essence of her. She loves roses. She loves pink. We both love nail shops and neon signage and that photo definitely represents that. I would think that right now my favorite photo is that photo in New York.
BT: What’s your favorite social media?
Azha: Oh, yikes. Snapchat. Snapchat is amazing because you can take photos of a bunch of shit and videotape yourself and then maybe the next morning or even that night before you go to sleep you can watch it all. It’s like making your own movie about your own life.
BT: Plans for the future?
Azha: I’m going to the desert and I’m really excited because my blog name is deniminthedesert and I have this weird romanticization of the desert and obsession with the desert. I’m throwing a luncheon there with my friend, Mitchiko. I’ll be taking photos out there. That’ll be when I get back from France. We’re going to be putting out stickers for Shade Magazine. We just changed our URL to shadezine.com. We’re going to be putting our first zine that we did together at Shade Mag, Sassy, will be up for sale and we’ll be selling stickers. I don’t know. We’re going to change the interface of the website. I’m trying to get more professional and blogger ready.
BT: Last question. What does art mean to you?
Azha: Yikes. That’s a loaded question. Art is just a means of self-expression for when you’re sad, happy… Art is like a documentation, art is like therapy. Art is respect. Art is very respected. Art just makes me think of respect, which is why I’m not quick to own my photography medium, I guess, because I feel like I’m still learning. I’m young.
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