Going Against The Industry: A Conversation with Holyrad Studio
Interview & Photography by Daryl Oh, Lanee Bird, and Coco Layne
Holyrad Studio was born out of necessity two years ago after founder Daryl Oh was tired of trying to fit into an industry that was not built for her. From the ground up, she built a photo studio whose aim is to provide affordable access to artists.
A year into steering the business on her own, Daryl found that what she had created was much more than just a photo studio; it was a community of artists. Moving to a larger, more adaptable space with the help of her two partners and best friends, Lanee Bird and Coco Layne, Holyrad transformed into an intersectional production studio fit for the 21st century creative.
In anticipation of the studio's two year anniversary, filmmaker Saskia De Borchgrave released “Holyrad Studio: A Documentary”, to illustrate Daryl, Lanee, and Coco’s uphill battle against the mainstream industry. We had Holyrad’s three leading women talk about the studio’s beginnings, the obstacles they’ve encountered in creating a safe space for QPOC, and the obligations of maintaining a space countering the status quo.
DARYL: Ok so first starting point is how we know each other, which is kind of a complicated story.
COCO & LANEE: Not really…
D: I met Coco through a childhood friend that I hadn’t spoken to for 17 years and that had found me on the internet. Long story short, she introduced me to Coco at a cute little brunch at The Butcher’s Daughter, remember?
C: Mhmm. I remember Daryl was wearing... I remember walking in and... this is a very clear memory... I walked into The Butcher’s Daughter, this was on Bowery? And she’s sitting, perched on the bar counter, and she turns around and she’s wearing this beanie with some tulle gauze over her face and I was like who is this bitch... She’s so fancy!
D: That was my cute winter outfit. I remember that.
C: It was very cute. I remembered you and wanted to be your friend.
D: But it wasn’t until probably a year after that that we started like really chillin’.
L: I met Coco before I met Daryl, through our mutual New York mom named Christine Tran, who used to run this artist collective / event production team called Witches of Bushwick.
One of the first days that I ever went into the Witches office, I was sitting there with Christine and we were going through the Witches Tumblr and Coco walked into the office just to give Christine something... That was the first time I met her. And I remember staring, because she had blue hair… (laughs)
C: (laughs) I’ve never heard this before!
L: And I was just so enamored! Or like very fascinated by you. I thought you were very cute.
C: (squeals) Thank you….
L: And we introduced ourselves and I didn’t think that you would remember me, ‘cause again I was just the baby in New York who didn’t know anyone, and didn’t feel cool enough to hang out with anyone at Witches.
I was doing Witches things and she was doing Chromat things, and because Christine is married to the woman who runs Chromat. There was a lot of crossover there, so I would see Coco backstage for the Chromat runways where we would say hi and were super nice to each other but-
D: Oh, that’s where I met you!
L: Yeah! Which I actually don’t remember because I was working - sorry - I was working!
L: But I remember I went to go meet Coco at her school to talk about a project, and on the train ride back to Brooklyn we ran into Daryl on the platform.
D: Oh yeah!
L: And Daryl was like, “Oh my god, I’ve met you before!” And I was like “Oh cool! Nice to see you!” and Daryl walked away and I was like “Have I met that girl?”
D: Oh my god. (laughs)
L: And Coco was like “Yeah you met her at the Chromat backstage!” And I was like “Oh! Okay. What does she do again?” And Coco was like “Oh, she shot the Rahel thing. ” And I was like “Oh my god those photos are amazing…”
D: Oh you liked that?
L: And Coco was like “Yeah, she runs this cool studio” and I was like “Oh interesting, I really want to get more into photo, I wonder if Daryl needs an intern…”
D: I mean, to be honest, Lanee comes in and low-key is like “I’m going to be the intern” and then she changed my life. And she was like “Why are you dealing with this bullshit?" I was like, “I don’t know!”
L: I mean, I do that for everyone in my life.
D: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
D: She was like, “Why are you dealing with this?” and I was like “I don’t know”, ‘cause I was like, honestly? In that old space, I was just so excited if anybody even showed up or cared. So I was in that phase of my life where I would just... give the world. And trust people so much even if they just gave little interest. But that backfired so many times; I should have learned my lesson a long time ago, but I don’t know, that’s just one of my things. As soon as Lanee and I really started clicking, and working together, and shooting together, things just really took off. Kind of in a manic way.
D: Because... it escalated so quickly.
L: Yeah, "subtlety" is not a word that people would ever use to describe us.
D: No. I remember it was our one-year anniversary; Lanee was producing the entire thing by herself. And this is, I mean I’m not even going to tell you the personal shit that we were going through- but, let’s just imagine that we were all stuck in giant pieces of personal shit on top of coming home to a legal letter from our landlord threatening to, exploit us for more money if we had the one-year anniversary party. And the zine was a complete catastrophe; our graphic designer quit the night before we were supposed to publish.
I mean, it was one of the most productive summers I think of all of our lives. It was like 3 am, every single day, we were all working other jobs trying to pay our bills and keep the space open... I mean I don’t even know if I remember the specifics, all I know is looking back on that summer, it was the biggest lesson that I learned.
And then that November we packed up my little Hyundai Sonata and we drove cross-country to go bring Lanee to Standing Rock and go see the Mandan Nation.
L: Yeah, back story. I’m 1/4th Native American and the tribe that my family is from is about two and a half hours outside of the Standing Rock reservation. So when all of that went down this past winter, it hit me in a very personal way. And I remember reaching out to Daryl when that was going on, like “Would you be interested in driving me? Because I don’t have a license. I don’t know how to drive. And in a heartbeat, she was like “Absolutely. When do you want to leave?”
D: And Coco-
L: Just dropped everything. And Coco, the day before we were supposed to leave, just took all of her vacation days.
C: And went.
L: And left, despite her boss-
C: Being like “That’s not your real family….” Ugh!
D: Rude. People don’t get it, whatever.
D: So it’s November 20th, okay. And we are halfway through the drive. We’re in Chicago at, I want to say like 2 am? 3 am rolls around and we get the news that Trump just won the election. And Coco’s driving, I’m fucked up on Adderal in a manic state and all of a sudden - it was just one of those surreal moments where your life became this metaphor where we’re driving on this one lane highway with absolutely no light on the road and all you can see is five feet in front of us because my headlights were so shitty on my car.
Lanee is passed out from emotional exhaustion in the back, Coco is - I don’t even know if it was safe for Coco to drive at that point.
What we ended up doing was we drove into Chicago and went to The Bean and just cried and burned sage for half an hour and then went to a diner and Fox News was playing on the TVs and there are these people behind us talking about Melania Trump’s outfit and people in front of us talking about how exciting it was that Trump was elected.
C: White people.
D: Yeah, white people. But we were just so like, "What the fuck are we going to do?" And at that point I don’t even think I was thinking about Holyrad - it was such a moment of pause for the three of us, deciding really what it was we wanted to do. Because I think in those moments of existential crisis you’re either forced to just be like “Fuck it, nothing matters,” or be like “Alright, we need to completely make a drastic shift and figure out what it is we want to do.”
Coming back to the studio in December it was our last month and me personally at that point, formally, I was the only one running the space. I was paying for it… and mind you, Coco and Lanee were volunteering their time. The only thing they got out of the experience was just the good feeling of altruism and being able to have free access to the space. And I kind of sat with myself and was like I can’t keep doing this, and we can’t keep doing this solo, and can’t keep doing it when we’re sharing limited resources.
I was legit about to pack up everything, almost sold my car, moved to New Zealand, because I was so just over it. And then I was like what am I going to do? Live in a van, like my name is Chad and go surfing? So then I kind of woke up and was like alright, you know what, “if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it for real.”
I had just got my articles of organization, and formally became an LLC and sat down with my Auntie Ellen... and she was like, "What you’re trying to do is cover a crack in the Hoover Dam with a bandaid. And you know what - there are a couple of molecules of water that you’re saving, but at the end of the day that band aid will break and that’s all you’ll have, and you’ll be no good to anybody."
The thing you need to do is learn how to feed yourself first, and ethically do it in a way where you’re really pinpointing, laser focusing, what it is that you’re good at, and what it is that you know you’re passionate about to be able to grow.
The doorway to opportunity is real small and it’s especially small for people of color, and even smaller for femmes, and even smaller if you’re queer. So what you need to do is figure out how to feed yourself and basically either make enough money to buy enough shirts for a bunch of people or you need to get to your place where you have your head above the water enough and can actually start bringing growth to your community. I just realized, I’m going to one hundred percent dedicate myself to our production company and I’m going to ask Lanee and Coco to be my partners.
D: [Also] I honestly think we haven’t changed much about our general mission. I just think we’ve gotten better about being effective to that mission and I think that can only come from a lot of serious mistakes, and lots of really seriously traumatic experiences, and rough conversations, and real honesty.
C: And saying no.
D: And saying no, saying no a lot. Also being accused of actually not being good people.
L: Yeah, that makes us fight harder.
L: Why do we have the studio in the first place? What it is we’re trying to do and who are we trying to reach out to?
D: I mean the real reason why I started it two years ago was literally just because I needed it.
L: Needed what?
D: I just needed access to a space to be able to make money to shoot photography. That was the simplest thing. And through the past two years I think in a weird way we’ve come full circle and have come back to that really specific thing. Artists need space and beyond that on a macro level, specifically from our experiences as QPOC that we need safe space, safe affordable space. And we’re always continuing to grow and get better at defining what "safe" means. And defining what affordable means. It’s definitely not an easy thing to do and something that requires a lot of willingness to have your foot caught in your mouth and -
L: Checking your privilege. Constantly having to check our own privilege.
C: All the time.
D: Because even as marginalized people - everyone has their own thing that is to their own advantage.
C: At the YJC (Yellow Jackets Collective) they always honor the indigenous ground that they’re taking up space in. And one thing they said is if you’re going to talk about how you’re a marginalized person, you have to also own your privilege the same way, and be open, and talk about it all the time.
D: Because you can’t do one without the other.
C: Yeah, you can’t “skirt” your privilege.
L: Oo I like that. “Skirt” your privilege.
D: It’s also really important to acknowledge the shoulders we stand on. A lot of the language we’re even using in this conversation is something that comes directly from brown and black civil rights movements that was also something that YJC really brought to my attention. And it was never something that I really thought I needed to acknowledge.
C: Do you guys know that black women coined the term “Women of Color.”
D: Yeah, and “intersectional.” But yeah to answer the question like why did we start it, that’s for me. But I mean for you guys, in your vertical at Holyrad, what is it that you feel like you’re giving [to] other people.
L: I’d say community. I think there’s something really amazing about having a space where we can throw events for our friends to come to, or we can give over the space to someone else where their friends come into our space and we get to meet those people. And just making those in person connections with these different type of artists or creatives in New York and Brooklyn.
D: But physically meet them. Not just like -
L: “I’m going to follow you on Instagram and DM you and tell you that I think you’re cute.” It’s like actually sitting down with a person and inviting them into our home that we spend a lot of energy putting into and making that -
C: Real, genuine connection.
I think for me Holyrad really has been - personally a lot of the reasons why I’m here is that you guys are actually my family. I think being with you both, I’ve learned a lot of things. I’ve learned how a healthy family functions...
D: Yeah, it’s a very healing energy here. It’s something that the three of us - when we join forces - it’s like when the Captain Planet kids put their rings on…
L: Or like Power Rangers, or like Power Puff Girls, The Avengers…
C: Totally Spies!...
D: Totally Spies!, that’s a good one! I don’t know. We’re our own thing. You said this in the documentary, but the metaphysical aspect of the space and the concept of what that is. Making sure that there’s a clean energy and healing energy that people can come into. I mean I think if we were to average out our answers, I think it comes down to our ideal space, as a concept, as a practice.
L: How do you think our space is different from other production studios in the city?
D: Oh god, I mean where do I get started? We’re not owned by white people, by white men...
L: That alone makes us standout.
D: But that really, really needs to be said. Because whenever you peel back "The Wizard of Oz" curtain, it’s always a white dude. Like Galore Magazine, which is supposed to be a femme positive, sex positive magazine is run by two white dudes. And when I used to work at XXL Magazine, I found out the head editor was a thirty-two year old pregnant white straight woman.
There’s also the conceptual differences - that we’re ethically thinking about bringing revenue into our members... really dedicated to bringing jobs and money into the space, specifically to our members. But the difference is we don’t take any commission from the jobs that we send them - we’re not the agency model. I really think that us responding to all the real life experiences and struggles that we have had being women on set, being the only person of color, being the youngest. Like you walk in, you do all the lighting, you do all the work, and it’s their name, and it’s their check. I think the biggest difference is that we actually own the space, full on. There’s nobody behind the curtain, you get what you see.
L: Yeah, what is that line… "our existence is a form of resistance." Just the fact that we’re successful in paying our rent and thriving, and will continue to grow. That alone says so much because there are so many people out there in the world that want to see us fail because of who we are are, the way we identify, and the way we live our lives.
D: It is definitely a form of resistance. I think an extreme activist point of view might argue that that’s not enough. And I hear that perspective, I really do.
L: But it’s a start.
D: It’s a start and I think that I’m in the interest of taking what I can fucking get. You know what I’m saying? If I’ve got to work with somebody that might be problematic, maybe an old white dude, [that] I don’t necessarily want to spend my day with... But if at the end of the day, I'm cutting a few thousand dollar checks to my community, I don’t care what anybody has to say about me “working with the devil” or “not being enough of an activist” because - it’s the lesser of two evils...
D: [And] I think another reason for why we’re different is that we’re not - like everyone is like “Oh, so are you like Milk Studios?” No… “So are you like, a residency program?” And we’re like no… and they’re like “Are you an agency program?” And we’re like no! And the reason why we can’t compare ourselves to anybody else is because we haven’t been able to find any other place that does what we do. And that might come off arrogant [but] it’s not. It’s literally because I could not find it - and you guys wouldn’t be here if you could find it somewhere else.
C: Yeah, you would’ve brought us over there. We literally had to build this, because it did not exist before.