the photographer swimming with mermaids in hawaii

Delve into the ocean and lap up the warm waves of Hawaii, where photographer Yana Toyber’s sea nymphs lie in wait.

by Tish Weinstock
25 May 2016, 7:05pm

Ever since she was little, New York-based photographer Yana Toyber has been captivated by the magical island of Hawaii — from its lush mountains and lava rocks to its exotic beaches and cool blue waters. For Yana, there's no place like it. Inspired by her natural surroundings and the local women that inhabit them, Yana's latest project, Sacred, is a series of images of nude women bathing languidly like mermaids in the island's enchanted rock pools. Taking the connection between women and water as her focal point, Yana creates a bewitching commentary on the natural world and our place within it. Here we catch up with the photographer about love, life, and capturing what she knows.

Tell me a bit about yourself and where you grew up.
I grew up in NYC: Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. I went to Lincoln High School where I discovered my love for photography, and the School of American Ballet where I learned all about discipline, hard work, and pain.

How did you get into photography and what makes it such an inspiring medium?
I was actually being asked to model by many of the photo students in high school, that's how I first found about the class. I started hanging out in there, looking through books and listening to the teacher talking about different photographers' work; I instantly became intrigued. I begged the school to let me take the class. I finally got through to them got accepted into the program; the rest is history!

How would you describe your overall aesthetic?
Actually, I haven't really thought about it that much. My work has grown and evolved a lot since I first started shooting! The one thing that always seems to be a common theme is the way I capture women. My subject matter is often very female-centric. I have documented sex workers, female surfers, fellow female photographers, models, and brides, all with a delicate yet empowering eye. At least I would like to believe that!

Who or what inspires you? Why?
Nature and love inspire me. My mind is clear when I am in nature, especially [when I'm] by the sea. It's like a blank canvas for my mind. And love is the driving force of everything.

What's the story behind Sacred?
Sacred is a project I started a year ago in Hawaii. The idea came to me instantly when my friend took me to my first tide pool. We had to hike down lava rocks to get to one; it wasn't easy, but when we finally arrived, the beauty of the water took my breath away! Tide pools are often fresh water pools surrounded by the ocean.

What is the significance of nudity within these images?
Nudity is the natural state of the female form; it makes a connection between women and water, the truth and honesty of the female body, and the earth.

What kind of connection are you trying to make between the naked female form and these fresh water pools that they inhabit?
I am just showing others the beauty of this combination. These pools are often called 'queen's baths' on the islands of Hawaii; when I discovered them I knew I had to shoot women bathing in them. It just felt like the natural thing to do.

Your work centers around the female form. Where did this interest come from?
I guess I like to capture what I know. Being a woman makes me an expert on the female form.

How does this body of imagery depart from your earlier work?
My last body of work was very different from this one in some ways and similar in others. First of all I shot on instant film, on Polaroid. There were a lot of images in or around water but none in the depths or under water. My last project focused on humans — both men and women — and landscapes, so there was that comparison with nature, however this project is different because it is very female-centric and has direct comparisons with women and water.

What overall message are you trying to convey about the human race and the natural world?
In all of my work there is a strong connection between humans and nature because to me, it's beautiful and feels natural. I am also aware that many people don't feel this connection as strongly as I do; for those humans who don't, I like to remind them.

What else are you working on at the moment?
I'm working on putting out more books and zines with Paper Work NY, exhibitions, and campaigns. I like to work on commercial projects as well as personal projects. I believe commercial work gets my vision across to a wide audience and I'm always happy to collaborate on many levels and through many portals.


Text Tish Weinstock
Photography Yana Toyber

film photography
Yana Toyber