Spotlight: Photog Examines Cultures By Looking at ... Laundry

By David Schonauer   Thursday August 16, 2012

Pro Photo Daily reader Sivan Askayo has advice for any inquisitive traveler looking for an intimate understanding of a foreign culture: Look at its laundry. “Laundry is one of those things that is so mundane, people overlook it,” says Askayo. “But when you really stop to focus on it, you realize you’re getting this view of something that is very private and personal.”

     A New York City-based photographer specializing in travel work, Askayo has been documenting far-flung laundry hanging on clotheslines for the past two years—from leggings in Lisbon to baby clothes in Buenos Aires and undergarments of various shapes, forms, and functions in Vietnam, Italy, Tokyo, Israel, and Alaska. The shirts, bras, towels, and socks she documents offer her glimpses into the unseen lives of unknown people and suggest stories that infuse her pictures with a dose of intrigue. In a small village in Spain, for instance, she learned that an important soccer match had just been played when she noticed that the town’s clotheslines were dripping with identical tee shirts bearing the name of the local team. In London she was surprised to see a tutu skirt hanging outside an apartment building. “It wasn’t a kid’s tutu skirt—it was an adult size,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Who would wear that?’”


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    The sense of snooping at intimate objects hanging in plain sight is exhilarating, notes Askayo. “When I shoot these images, I am standing under the laundry wires and waiting for the right moment, when a breeze passes by and brings life, energy, and rhythm to the clothes,” she writes on her blog. “The act of looking up is like the feeling of being under someone, unseen, a voyeur, a spy, like sitting under the boardwalk at the beach and watching people walk by, unaware.”

     Askayo’s laundry project, which began when she was passing some time in Jaffa, Israel, has been garnering attention from photography and travel blogs, from Marie Claire Italia and Design Sponge to Trend Hunter, aCurator, and Feature Shoot. When art-book publisher Phaidon praised the work on its blog, Askayo began to think she had stumbled onto a subject with great potential. It was a career breakthrough for the young photographer.

     Born in Israel, Askayo moved to New York ten years ago to work in advertising for an agency whose big client was General Motors. When the auto giant filed for bankruptcy in 2009, Askayo found herself without a job and with time on her hands. She decided indulge a passion for photography and began taking classes at the International Center of Photography. After few months, says Askayo, the time came “to get back to reality,” but by then she knew she wanted to become a professional photographer. “I just thought, I like to travel and I like to take pictures, so I’m going to do something that combines those two thing,” she says.


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     In 2010 she was visiting Israel and had plans to spend a Friday afternoon with a friend in Jaffa. When the friend didn’t show up, she struck out on her own, walking through the city’s alleyways looking for pictures. She happened to snap someone’s laundry hanging from a clothesline but thought nothing of it. Back in New York, she showed the photos to an instructor at ICP, who encouraged Askayo to pursue the work.

     In her images, garments and other laundry hanging in the breeze become almost abstract descriptions of place. “When I take a picture of laundry I always make sure to relate it to its location,” she notes. “I am also interested in the texture and colors of the buildings where the laundry is out to dry.”

     Some cities, Askayo notes, have a far more abundant array of laundry hanging overhead than others. New York, she says, is a big disappointment in that regard, with the exception of one borough, Queens. Paris, world center of fashion, is also a bust when it comes to photogenic laundry. “Someone told me there is a law against hanging out laundry in Paris,” Askayo says. In other places, clotheslines form a kind of social web tying people together: In Florence, Italy, Askayo noticed that wires stretching from one apartment to another are shared as neighbors hang their laundry together.

     Askayo plans to photograph laundry in a number of locations around the world before the project in completed. She has begun getting tips from people who are proud of the laundry in their cities. “I get emails all the time,” she says. “People tell me the laundry in Budapest is spectacular.”       

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