Interview: Shirley Yu

By Natalie Leonard

Photographed by Quinn Shephard


I first met Shirley Yu in the lobby of Interview Magazine's SoHo offices. At the time we were both 19 years old. We were both freshly finished with of our first year of college. But more noteworthy, we were both impatiently itching to carve out a spot for ourselves in the industry. Coincidentally this was the same summer that The Carrie Diaries, the 1980's prequel to Sex and the City, premiered on the CW channel and Carrie Bradshaw started interning at Interview Magazine. So as you can probably imagine I thought I had made it. 

But flashback to my first day, the first task our boss asked of us was simply who knew of Sebastian Kim and more excitingly who wanted to go to his Navy Yard studio to deliver image proofs from the last shoot? Shirley was in the cab on her way there before I could even Google who Sebastian Kim was. Interning 101 (always pretend you know the answer even if you don't) and I was schooled. She scared the shit out of me. Her confidence and her knowledge for the industry were undeniable and radiated from her every time she opened her mouth. She knew what she wanted, she knew how to get it, and she wasn't stopping for anyone. I spent the next few months grilling Shirley with questions about her experiences over after work trips to Dominique Ansel's bakery (this was also the summer of the Cronut) and I had never felt more creative or inspired in my life than that summer. She motivated me, even if she never knew it. At the end of that summer I launched POND. 

Tragically, as all summers do, it came to an end. Fall semester classes started up again and Shirley was interviewed by New York Magazine's The Cut. Since, Shirley has been far more successful than the average 20 something and she's not braking anytime soon. Matter of fact she's about to pick up speed with only a little over a year of college left.

Until then, Shirley talked to me about how she manages being both a full time college student and having a professional photography career. She was the 2014 Debut winner of PDN’s The Look fashion photography competition and her work has been featured in Cosmopolitan Australia, Refinery29, Bullett, Out of Order and Fiasco (just to name a few). As well as features by Aritzia Mag and Intern Magazine.

Read my interview with Shirley below. 

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NATALIE LEONARD: When did you first become serious about photography and realize that you could make this a career?
SHIRLEY YU: I was between sixteen and seventeen. At that age, I started interning in the industry, assisting established fashion photographers and reaching out to independent magazines with my portfolio.

NATALIE: You're currently enrolled at Rutgers University, what are you studying at school right now?
SHIRLEY: I’m studying computer science, digital photography and multimedia is all about technology (hardware, software, compression, file formats, everything) so it’s interesting! I think having a nice practical bachelors degree gives me a fallback plan for my creative career. However, I’m thinking about getting a masters degree in photography as well!

NATALIE: That's impressive. How do you balance being both a full-time student and having such a successful professional photography career?
SHIRLEY: I’m doing my best. I’m taking very hard courses, like data structures for computer science, and calculus for math and physics majors. Luckily my parents are willing to help me, they’re programmers who are willing to explain things to me, and I have an excellent tutor for calculus to keep my on-pointe. Because I don’t have a lot of time, I keep my retouching very minimal or have a retoucher on board for most of my shoots. Also, I shoot pretty infrequently (about 3 times a month) and meticulously plan each shoot.

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NATALIE: I remember when we were both interning at Interview a few summers ago, you were constantly researching other professional photographers to reach out to, in an industry that is so competitive but very touch and feel, what advice can you give other young creatives about being proactive without being annoying?
SHIRLEY: When you’re preparing your resume and an email to reach out to creatives that you admire, don’t make it about what these people can do for you, but more, what you can do for them? Have a lot of skills! The industry is competitive, so be competitive. Be patient. If they don’t respond to your first email, wait 3 months, learn something new and send a “hi again! I reached out a while back about wanting to assist you, I acquired some new skills in X and Y, so here’s my updated resume!” email.

NATALIE: Through my personal experience I have come to know that professional connections, networking and things like internships and volunteer work is a huge factor when trying to make it in the industry, would you agree? 
SHIRLEY: I would so agree! My internship at Interview gave me such a real perspective on photo shoot production. Also, my internship at Jack Studios gave me a great foundation of knowledge on photo equipment. It’s so helpful to have real world experience. 

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NATALIE: Fashion photography has always been a male dominated field, has that ever been a roadblock for you?
SHIRLEY: Most of the top photographers started out assisting to learn the ropes. I assist, and I think it’s really helpful/important. But I think it’s harder for women to get hired as a photo assistant. It’s not impossible, but hard to get some male photographers to believe that you’re capable.

NATALIE: As the first semester of your Junior year starts to come to an end, graduation must feel like its right around the corner, what are you looking forward to the most after college?
SHIRLEY: Moving to NYC! 

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NATALIE: Who do you look to for inspiration? 
SHIRLEY: Right now I’m inspired by photographers Erik Madigan Heck, Kai Z Feng, Sebastian Kim and Charlie Engman, because I’m a huge fan of how they use color and shape to convey moods and feelings. Other than photographers, I’m inspired by fashion houses and their aesthetics, like Kenzo, Commes Des Garcons, and Margiela. 

NATALIE: Do you have a dream muse?
SHIRLEY: Yes, it’s Dane Dehaan.

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NATALIE: Do you listen to music when you shoot? What are you currently listening to on repeat?
SHIRLEY: I let my subjects pick their own music but love the EPs/Albums: “Channel Orange” by Frank Ocean, “Pure Heroine” by Lorde, “Paradise”+”Born to Die” by Lana Del Rey, and “Pink Sweat” by Bebe Panthere. Also, I love the song “Easy” by Mothxr, Penn Badgley’s band.

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NATALIE: What’s your favorite dessert place in New York? (you had to know this one was coming hahah)
SHIRLEY: Dominique Ansel in SoHo!

NATALIE: As I mentioned before the fashion world is a very competitive industry, this month’s theme at POND is Secrets, what secrets could you share with others about success and remaining true to who you are and what your work represents in an environment so demanding?
SHIRLEY: My secret is, for a very long time, I didn’t do any work that I liked. I thought it was inconsistent, unfocused, messy etc. Then I realized, it’s because that’s how I felt. I was creating work that looked unsure and unfinished because I was. I started doing work that I liked when I developed some clarity, maturity and a good sense of self. I think I was eighteen or nineteen when I established what I liked/disliked in life, and what my values were as a person. I live and create with those things in mind. Prioritize your friends, your work and your goals above all else. Don’t compare yourself to others, keep your ego in check, and constantly improve. 

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You can find Shirley here:
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