We caught up with the gifted photographer, Robert Sturman, before his appearance at the Hanuman Festival in Boulder, where he will give a talk on creating powerful images of yoga that transform the way we see humanity.
AS: Your images of yoga are so powerful, from prisoners doing yoga at San Quentin to African orphans doing yoga in Kenya. How did you first get introduced to the practice?
RS: I grew up in Los Angeles and yoga was something that was part of life there, long before a lot of places in the West. It wasn’t until 2000, though, that I began to take it more seriously. I realized that it could be a valuable tool for me as an artist – to learn how to sit still in the fire of existence instead of trying to run from it. Some of my heroes in the history of art lived lives of self-destruction, and I had an opportunity to rewrite that story, to create a life focused on joy rather than desperation. Yoga is a valuable foundation for me to live the life I want to live.
AS: Can you tell us a little about your presentation at the Hanuman Festival in Boulder?
RS: I will open the talk by explaining the fundamental basics of creating a powerful image. We need good photographers that are making powerful images of yoga. I figured out how to change the world and I can’t keep it to myself: the way you change the world is that you make powerful images that will transform how we see the world. Photography presents ideas. One of the things I teach people is how to take a picture of a subject on their level. What that eventually does is it helps us to see them without looking down upon them. It changes the way we see. It changes the way we feel.
AS: In that regard, you have made a profound impact with your photographs of yoga rehabilitation in the prison system. How did you first become involved in prison yoga?
RS: I was asked by a warden if I’d like to come and photograph the growing yoga program at her prison, and I said yes. She was a cool warden. We sat down and spoke for a while, and one of the things she said that I will always remember, because it was so simple and so profound: “I’ve noticed that the guys who do the yoga make better choices.” End of story.
I later contacted James Fox at the Prison Yoga Project and said that I’d like to photograph the guys at San Quentin. I tell stories with my work, and I was confident that through my images, people would become aware of the project and that it would get people very used to associating yoga with prison, so much so that it eventually will become normal and expected that yoga is going on in prison. I have now been to San Quentin five times and the images have circulated globally, on a massive scale.
AS: Can you tell us a little bit about your connection with the inmates?
RS: I think that one of the things that has touched me the most is that sometimes after the class, the guys wanted to know if the images would be posted on Facebook. They wanted their families to know they are doing something good. I could just feel their isolation, their shame, their desire to be better and that’s the thing that yoga represents so beautifully: no matter who you are, these asanas tell a story of our longing to be better people.
AS: You have also created a gorgeous body of work for the Africa Yoga Project. How did that come about?
RS: I contacted Paige Elensen (Co-founder of the Africa Yoga Project) and the next thing I knew, I was on my way to Africa. Two weeks after I returned, there was a major feature about the work in the New York Times. That helped me truly realize the power of the photograph. I went there with the desire for the Africa Yoga Project to be seen and it happened. People resonate with images on a cellular level. It amazes me how powerful the camera is. With the invention of social media, the world is just changed. The image-makers are the ones who have a very serious torch if used properly.
AS: Can you talk about that sense of responsibility, about your calling as an artist?
RS: I don’t know if it’s a calling – it takes effort, but it’s from my soul. I’m skilled at making pictures and bringing out the best in people. I get to hang out with these incredible human beings who have triumphed over obstacles. In the week before Memorial Day, I worked with six different veterans who have done multiple tours overseas. Their stories are that yoga and meditation have helped them to survive the traumas of deployment, which so many soldiers who return from war do not. And the beautiful thing is that once the work is there, the artist can begin work on what’s next. The work lives on.
To find out more about Sturman’s talk at Hanuman Fest click here.
To learn more about Robert Sturman, you can visit his website http://www.robertsturmanstudio.com or follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
To learn more about the author, you can visit her website at http://www.ashleyshires.com or you can follow her on Facebook and Instagram.