This interview is part of DREAMERS, a collaborative project with MCQ that couples aspiring artists to their heroes for a one-on-one advice session. The conversations are recorded, redacted, and can be read in their entirety on my.mcq.com.
Tuesday 11 May 2021, 9 am NYC time
Peishan Huang: I call myself a city girl because I live in Shanghai and New York, but I grew up in a small town in China and have a wild heart. I belong to an ethnic minority group that informs my work, and I was wondering if your own heritage informs your work?
Mayan Toledano: For sure. I keep having more ideas and passion to go deeper into the history of who I am. My family is entirely Moroccan, and I was born in Israel and grew up there, and I am Jewish. So there’s multiple stories and identities that I’m looking to explore within my work. I’m actually currently working in a volunteer programme with Holocaust survivors, and the program has been going weekly for a year now. I started documenting them, which became very important to me, because they are the last ones that are still alive from the Holocaust, and still have the memories and the stories. I talked to them a lot, I recorded their stories, and I started photographing them. I think the more we learn about ourselves, the more we find passion to also put it into our work. I think it’s natural. Each year I’m growing more and learning to appreciate my culture more, so definitely, it’s always on my mind.
“I want to dive into projects and not just have them as decorative ideas; I really want to find the depth of the story in each one.” – Mayan Toledano
Peishan: So it seems like it would be a long-term project?
Mayan: I find a lot more interest in long-term projects because those are the ones that I think can create change. They become more meaningful to me, the more I research and invest in a project. I don’t want to feel like a project I do is transactional in any way. I believe that telling stories is a necessity for humans in general, and for image-makers or storytellers, as a part of the job. I think it’s important that the research doesn’t stop with an image. I try to dive more into interviews and writing alongside a shoot or making films and expand my perspective as much as I can, no matter what subject matter. I want to dive into projects and not just have them as decorative ideas; I really want to find the depth of the story in each one.
Peishan: How do you generally start a new project?
Mayan: Sometimes it happens kind of intuitively when I meet someone or think of someone that I know already and realise there’s a story that I’m interested in there. So it can happen as a true fast instinct and I go for it. Sometimes it’s something that I have to develop and research for a long time. The project that I’m currently working on putting out into the world is my first feature film, and it’s been in the works for almost three years. Each project is obviously different, and each project requires a different amount of time and dedication. But when I look overall at the projects that I make, it always derives from a story and kind of a necessity to find a way to tell it through my perspective. The stories that I choose usually need to be amplified and the subjects need to be strengthened; that’s usually the main motive and motivation for my work.
Peishan: From what you’re saying, you care a lot about integrity.
Mayan: Yes, there has to be integrity in the work. I don’t think I ever made a personal project that didn’t come from an honest place, or from a real connection with the person. I tend to be more passionate about telling stories of marginalised voices and really take the opportunity with the platform that I have. I feel that the type of work that I do comes with a responsibility. They’re meaningful and important stories that I believe people should hear and connect to and somehow raise awareness for. So of course there has to be integrity because it cannot come from a dishonest place, because then I’m not doing service to the people and the stories that I choose.
“I feel that because I’ve made a lot of personal work, the right type of clients have reached out to me.” – Mayan Toledano
Peishan: How are commercial projects different to you from the ones that are more personal?
Mayan: I try to take on projects that allow more freedom, even if it’s just in the casting. Sometimes I have more freedom in commercial work to tell stories, but when you work for a client and there are requirements, the brand has its own identity, and it won’t always be the way I personally like to portray a story. But I’ve tried to keep it in the same line as my personal work. And I feel that because I’ve made a lot of personal work, the right type of clients have reached out to me. I have been lucky to have a lot of commercial projects where I believe in the content that we create. But I can’t say that it’s always the case, you have to be flexible. It’s my job and I offer my perspective to clients, but it’s not always going to be 100% the way I create work, and that’s just a compromise, but that’s okay. Because as long as I keep doing and creating my own projects, and do what I believe in, then I don’t have to do it in every single project.
“It’s good to keep in mind that commercial projects give us the funds to then go and create personal work. It’s not like one or another, I think they always go together. ” – Mayan Toledano
Peishan: How do you find a balance between doing different types of work?
Mayan: I think there’s years or months that I get more caught up and busy with work coming in, but because I freelance, I can set aside time for myself and for my own projects. I can’t say that I’m a super great planner, but I do it instinctively. When I feel there’s something I need to take more time for, then I block out that time and I don’t take on a commercial project. Also, I’m lucky to have an ongoing client that allows me to create personal work.
When integrity motivates your work, then I think it’s easy to relate to clients your idea and your vision. When you have a perspective, and you get into the commercial world, that perspective doesn’t go away. You match it to what’s in front of you and what the client needs. But your voice and your point of view is actually what they want anyways, that’s why they reached out to you. So even if we don’t get to show 100% of our abilities for certain projects, our point of view is always there. I think it’s important to remember that so that you don’t feel like you get lost in those projects, because no matter what you’ll do, your stamp will be on it, because you’re the person creating it, and no one else can take from you this special thing that you have. But also it helps to be constantly creating and having the security of your personal work because that gives you the ground to go out there and make projects that are different. It’s also good to keep in mind that commercial projects give us the funds to then go and create personal work. It’s not like one or another, I think they always go together. You do a few commercial projects, and then you have time and resources to create personal projects. The most time you take is in research and idea-making, gathering thoughts and creative ideas into a project. That’s why, as creative people, we’re always working, because our mind and our imagination never really stops.
Peishan: When did you find your visual language?
Mayan: It was pretty early on when I started taking pictures. It wasn’t the traditional route of going into photography and directing, because I actually went to fashion school. During my studies, I realised that I had a lot of criticism towards the way women are depicted in fashion and how non-inclusive it was. I felt a need to create work that spoke to that and includes people of all ages and races and body types, and that’s where all my first projects came from. With that in mind, even if the projects were different subjects, I think they had a similar intention. Still, today, before I shoot, I have conversations with people – I want to learn about them and do the research so that the photo matches who they are.
“It’s really important to be healthy and fill yourself emotionally and spiritually as well, because if I’m not full inside, then it’s very hard for me to create.” – Mayan Toledano
Peishan: I’m quite curious about what your day-to-day life is like, would you be happy to share?
Mayan: Each day can be very different. Today I’m going to be editing a video, but yesterday I was working on submitting my film to festivals and other applications. Tomorrow I have a shoot with a woman that I shot before, and I’m doing an ongoing project with her. But yeah, sometimes I need to be out in the sun and ride my bike around the city and be inspired by the external world. And sometimes I need to be home and do internal work and connect to my soul and my spirit, and have thoughts and write them down. It really depends on deadlines, and on what my body and my soul need, and I try to listen to myself for that. It’s really important to be healthy and fill yourself emotionally and spiritually as well, because if I’m not full inside, then it’s very hard for me to create.
Peishan: Do you have any special ways in which you manage pressure and stress?
Mayan: I think sleeping well really helps. I find it helpful to pray and set my intentions, and when I do that, I remember where I started and why I do what I do. Sometimes we get carried away by looking at other people’s ambitions or their progress, or by expectations that people we work with have from us. But it’s important to remind ourselves why we do what we do, to sit with that and put the intention back into the work. That is the root of everything. And, I don’t know, sometimes even talking to my mom helps. Just finding time for yourself.
Peishan: Thank you, I feel very relaxed when I’m talking to you!
Mayan: Oh, that’s so nice.
Peishan: Right now I’m feeling really pressured with my new work, and I also felt very nervous for our conversation as it’s been a long time since I’ve talked with others in English.
Mayan: English is not my first language, and I get stuck all the time with English and it’s normal, and it’s fine. It’s part of the beauty of our culture, I really connect to it actually. I even worry, sometimes, that I’m going to lose my accent because I’ve lived here for many years. So you know, it’s part of us. It’s beautiful. And who would understand you more than a foreigner, you know?
Peishan: Yes, I think maybe it will be better when I get back to America. So where are you?
Mayan: I live in New York.
Peishan: Ah okay, because I remember you saying in a video that Mexico is your creative home.
Mayan: Mexico City, yes, I go there a lot, and I shoot a lot there. I have a big community of people that I worked with there and that inspire me. It’s one of my other ongoing projects that I really enjoy. It’s been harder to go there in this year of COVID, and currently, I can’t go anywhere because I’m waiting for my visa, and I have to stay here in this country until I get it. There’s always visa issues, you know!
Interested in learning more? You can find all the interviews from the DREAMER series here.