INTERVIEW WITH HEATHER BONKER
How long were you living in Bali?
I came for 4 weeks and ended up staying 8 years…the kind of occurrence all too familiar in Bali.
What were some of your favourite things about living in Bali?
Oh, where do I start?! If I had to narrow it down, it would be the connection to lush, tropical nature (even when inside…all the tropical critter friends live indoors too), the abundance of healthy, fresh organic veggies delivered right to your house, the plethora of great yoga teachers and courses, the ease of “community” and ability to engage with an eclectic international group, vivid colors from local Balinese traditions, the ease of life and smiles from the local Balinese, warm weather, the low cost of living, relaxing lifestyle, jumping on a motorbike and being wherever you need to be in 5-10 min, coconuts, coconuts and more coconuts…I could go on. Bali is no utopia, though there is plenty to love about it.
Tell us about your yogic journey. Where did it all begin and how did it emerge?
It began about 12 years ago…I needed a “hobby”, my co-workers said, outside of my long corporate working hours and had heard that yoga was “good for you”. I really didn’t know much about it but was excited when the local community college was offering a 6-week course, so I decided to join. The classes were held 2 nights/week, started with an hour lecture followed by a 1-hour practice. I thought most of the traditions were a bit odd yet interesting… shoes off, bring your own carpet, home “cleansing activities”, chanting, weird waking hours, western teacher dressed in all white with a long beard… Even in all its’ oddities, what I did know is that I felt completely blissed-out, calm and on a natural high when I drove home from class.
After I completed the course, another close friend who’d been practicing yoga mentioned something about “down-dog”. “What’s that?” I replied. She was taken aback and retorted with “I thought you said you’ve been doing yoga?”. After conversing further we discovered I’d been taking Kundalini yoga while she was a hatha/vinyasa practitioner. Until then I didn’t even know there were different forms of yoga. She helped break it down for me and gave some suggestions.
From then on, I tried out hatha and loved it as well. I continued to a moderate practice where I was living in LA. When I began my travels through S.E. Asia, I knew I wanted to dive deeper into yoga. Once I arrived to Bali it was yoga everyday – hatha, vinyasa, iyengar, ashtanga…whatever I could get my hands on…sometimes twice a day, lots of workshops, intensives, courses…I couldn’t get enough. I even took a yoga teacher training just for my own personal practice (never with the intention or desire to teach), yet here I am…teaching now for several years by giving back what was taught to me. Though the bulk of my teaching has been in Bali, I’ve also been grateful enough to teach in California, Europe and the Middle East.
How long were you working at Radiantly Alive?
I met owner Daniel Aaron, and came on board shortly after arriving to Bali 8 years ago.
What was your role at Radiantly Alive and how did it evolve over time?
Because I thought my time was only temporary in Bali, I agreed to work as administrative support for his upcoming yoga retreat and then a yoga training before “moving on”. That was also the yoga training I took to “deepen my own practice”. The role and lifestyle in Bali was a natural fit, and before I knew it, everything lined up for me to stay in Bali. Why would I want to leave a life that checked all the boxes and made me happy? Seemed silly to leave so I made it happen for me to stay.
Once committed to Bali, I continued to take on more responsibilities with Radiantly Alive. I started teaching public classes in town (initially wrangled in as a substitute teacher and before I knew it I was on the schedule with regular classes)…and then in the last few years I was not only organizing the residential and studio yoga trainings, but I also began taking on more-and-more of a hands-on teaching role during the yoga teacher training courses both at the 200 and 500 hour level.
When/where did your photographic journey begin?
I had the great opportunity of getting to work as a production manager on photo shoots for many years when living in Los Angeles. I worked very closely along-side talented photographers and was surrounded by an artistic community. When it came to smaller production jobs the company needed, I was able to jump in and do the shoots on my own. I never had any formal training. And I’ve still never taken a class to this day.
I absolutely loved production work and photography but never imagined it as my sole career. I was too Type-A of a personality and couldn’t get my head past the idea that if I did something creative that I would be a “starving artist”. At that time I didn’t see attaching monetary value to something I loved as a good idea. I was afraid it would remove the joy if I had to worry about getting jobs to pay the bills. As if work/money had to be “work” and pleasure/joy had to be in another category. That of course isn’t and hasn’t been the case at all anymore.
But once I left LA, I let photography turn solely into a hobby while travelling. And before I knew it people kept asking me why I didn’t take more photos, or if I could shoot them, that I should have a gallery/show my work. It became a natural transition to just start showing and offering…and before I knew it I got very busy with bookings in a relatively short amount of time.
Sure, I make much less monetarily doing photography than my corporate life in LA, but I’m also much happier and don’t rely on it as my sole source of income either. And it’s still very much a passion and joy for me. I will readily turn down or refer out good paying jobs if I’m not excited about it and/or think someone else is a better fit. I of course appreciate getting paid to do something I love and even more rewarding are the constant thank you emails, tears, excitement etc. when the clients receive their images and see that they’ve created something beyond what they’d imagined and have keepsakes for life.
Where and how do you find inspiration for your photography?
I just look around…I very rarely carry a camera with me unless I have a job or a special personal event. I’m perhaps oddly not in that category of a photographer. I don’t like to be encumbered with gear nor live solely through the lens. However, even without my equipment, I’m constantly taking photos in my mind, noticing angles, light, texture, color. Bali is a particularly rich and inspiring place, so nearly every turn could be a shot.
Next, my inspiration has evolved from a confluence of other deep-seated personal interests…peoples’ faces and expressions (seeing the best in people), yoga, the positive psychology of people, dancing, travel, vibrancy, love of physical form and more. They all get me excited, and any combination is pure delight.
What essence do you aim to capture in your images?
If I narrowed it down to one simple line it would be “the joys people experience in life”. And though capturing THEIR happiness, it’s also a reflection of how I feel and what I find pleasure in.
I hear all too often before shooting…(unless a model) some version of “I’m uncomfortable being in front of the camera”. But once I share a glimpse of what I see from behind the lens, they realize how absolutely empowering and uplifting the portrait process can be. It’s an honor and privilege to share this intimate experience with so many and to watch them discover that they transmit that incredible spark of vibrancy and beauty. This is one of my greatest joys and humble satisfactions of being behind the camera. There’s even a greater enjoyment when having to really draw someone out and create something they never thought possible for themselves. We don’t always see ourselves clearly or the way others do. So beyond “the pictures”, it’s a great tool to let others see themselves in a different light. I love this positive, psychological twist. If that’s all you ever know about me, it’s enough to say you know how I am constructed.
Next, I love creating stories within the images by shooting in day-to-day environments and using natural light.
And last but not least, I’m less interested in whether someone knows his or her angles. I’d rather catch the unguarded moment when the personality flashes an honest gesture or a beautifully uninhibited smile. Perhaps this means it’s someone falling out of a yoga posture rather than nailing perfect alignment. That’s the authenticity of someone’s “story” coming alive in the shot.
What is it beyond the physical asana that inspires you?
Yoga is so integrated into my life it’s hard to imagine it not being there. Beyond the asana, I’m drawn to the stillness, balance, peace, sense of elevation, presence, calmness, security of this personal time and space to come back to, no matter where I am and also the sense of community it provides.
What, in your eyes, are the components that create a great photo, a great piece of art?
I’m no curator or art critic; it’s all really so very subjective. Some like chocolate, strawberry or vanilla…none are wrong, but of course there are tastier versions. If someone appreciates making or looking at it than there’s some value.
Though my personal favorite images are ones that incite emotion, ones in which there is a noticeable shift in mood from the moment before you saw it. Or one that you can stare at and imagine writing a story about.
It’s been said that you make people very comfortable in front of the camera.
What is your method for putting people at ease?
It’s a secret! No, just kidding. Yes, people do say that all the time and I’m very glad for it.
First I always start with “light checks” which nobody ever seems to mind and everyone tends to be more “themselves”. But what they don’t know is that sometimes I’m no longer “light checking”. Yes, I intentionally become a little deceptive. There’s something about that psychological shift into “ok we’re shooting now” that can make people freeze. So this is why I keep shooting between postures as well. Ironically I relate with the discomfort of being in front of the lens, because I’m the same way. Being a photographer doesn’t let me off the hook when I’m in front of the camera either.
I also believe others’ ease comes from me being naturally relaxed. I am able to give them calm direction on angles, expression, body placement etc. Or I may give them a distraction like telling them just to track the people walking by and to try to get them to smile back.
Being photographed is one of the few scenarios where people really want feedback and feel taken care of when they’re told what to do. And being a yoga teacher has been a great resource with giving micro direction as if I was instructing someone in class.
What are some of your favourite poses to shoot and why?
Because it’s more about personality than the actual posture, I’m not too attached to poses. There are some that definitely work better (I love expansive) or don’t look as good on camera (unless you have a decent bakasana we should probably skip it), but otherwise I like to have the subjects actively choosing what they’d like to shoot. I will of course give guidance when they’re drawing a blank or let them know a standing (or folding, seated) posture would look better in the particular location we’re in.
If you could give 5 tips for anyone interested in pursuing yoga photography, what would they be?
- Start shooting! Play! Grab friends, students, other teachers etc. and offer to do trade just for fun.
- Sure, you’ll be influenced by other photographers (that’s normal), and start to let your own photographic personality come out.
- Capture the essence. Don’t be attached to the “perfect posture” or worried about having to get the entire posture in the frame. Close-ups and shots of only a piece of the posture can deliver some amazing images.
- Keep the camera on. Don’t put the camera down between postures…some of the best moments are coming in or out of a pose or when they think they’re “done”.
- Leave room for opportunities to present themselves. Don’t be attached or fixated on one particular shot or idea. It’s great to have some ideas in mind, and then let your eyes and the client’s personality, experience level etc. fill in the details. I will frequently be on my way to a specific location with someone when I see another opportunity (color, light, back ground, activity), which makes me stop and take a few shots right then and there. Perhaps we never make it to our intended location because what’s in front and around us is working so well.
So, we know you are quite the dancer. What is your favourite style of dancing and why?
Ah yes, my other “yoga”. I’ve gone through phases, but the last few years I’ve been hot for salsa (have you noticed the salsa classes on the Radiantly Alive schedule? J). It doesn’t hurt that my partner is from Cuba, so he’s had quite the influence dancing around the house or out and about in the evenings together.
Do you have a favourite quote that you live by?
I’m slipping in two…
“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” — T.S. Eliot
“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page” – Saint Augustine
And finally, what’s next?
2015 is a big year full of massive change…
I’ve just moved to Abu Dhabi, UAE and am already making connections here in both the photographic and yoga teaching circles. It feels like worlds away from Bali living (well it is) and it’s a slow start compared to Bali yet I’m getting to lay those initial, delicate roots here.
And perhaps the biggest and most exciting news is that we’re expecting a baby girl this October. I’ll be returning “home” to California for a few months to see family, friends and for the delivery. I’m incredibly grateful for the perfectly timed Prenatal Vinyasa Yoga course that I just completed with Jennifer More at Radiantly Alive in Bali last month. It’s allowed me to adjust my yoga practice and experience asana in a different light as well as share it with others.
Exciting times and changes ahead!