“I’m talking from the library — I just got out of calculus,” photographer Shirley Yu told me when we spoke over the phone earlier this month. The 19-year-old Beijing native who spent her formative years growing up in Edison, New Jersey, is currently a sophomore at Rutgers University, with tentative plans to study I.T. But in every spare moment she can find outside of academia and her full-time job as her college paper's associate photo editor, Yu is a driven photographer who’s already shot fashion editorials and portraits that have been published in magazines like Cosmopolitan Australia, Bullett, and Fiasco. The Cut spoke to the young photographer about her after-college plans, the pursuit of finding her own “style,” and the process of matching her own values to that of her family’s. Read the Q&A below and click through the slideshow to see some of her recent editorial work.
Are you studying photography in college?
No, I’m not, unfortunately. I go about it in a different way. I took a few photography classes in high school, and I always felt that I didn’t like being assigned and graded on my work. I always wanted to learn by assisting and interning and really just doing it by myself. This summer, I had two unpaid internships, one at Interview and Jack Studios, which is a high-end photography studio. I had a talk with my parents about it, and I don’t really want the loans and I know art school right now is particularly expensive. I was kind of afraid that I would work at Urban Outfitters until I’m 30 [laughs] — or at least, before I got a career in photography.
What are you studying right now?
Well, I’m undecided. I maybe will go into I.T. so I can ease into photography through digital tech-ing for a top photographer because I know they don’t always hire female assistants. And I.T. is a good way to learn about servers, routers, networks, and a lot of things about the digital hardware on photography sets. School is a really big value to my family — education, in general, as we’re first generation immigrants. Even though I love photography, I feel like I have a duty to finish school and find the best major that would help me with what I do without having to study photography, per se. I have a duty to my family, and I think I would be a really good role model to my future children if I finished with a bachelor’s degree as well.
You said your parents really value education. Do they support your dream to become a photographer?
My mom tells me that I really have to try my best and be the best. If I pursue something in the creative field, I have to guarantee myself a spot in that world. If a new photo set is not good, she’ll tell me, because she wants me to improve. If I want to pursue it, I have to be really serious about it. Some millennials may have a goal to do something but won’t actually do it. Or they think that everything’s going to be handed on a silver spoon. My parents don’t want me to think that way at all and just to work for it, as long as it doesn’t inhibit my grades, so I have a good foundation upon graduation. In general, they give me support as long as I keep the standards high for myself. As long as I keep my standards high, they’ll support me emotionally, financially, until I can kind of hold myself over when I’m out of school.
How do you balance school and photography? It seems like a pretty big task if you're serious about both.
I don’t sleep sometimes. I’ve run before on very little sleep [laughs.] I’ve recently been sleeping more, and I’ve been able to balance it all just because having a good set of priorities and delegating time to each thing. I wish I was a better student, but I think I have a good balance, because I still churn out work that I'm proud of. I do everything and make time for friends. Sometimes I feel like I resent the fact that I spend too much time in class or at the job, but somebody has to pay. The only thing I really spend my money on is photography — only because I don’t have any other expensive vices. No drugs, I haven't gone to a fraternity party because of schoolwork, and I’d rather just stay home and play around with cats.
What age were you when you first became serious about photography?
I started creating my portfolio when I was 15, which was four years ago. I started producing photo series, independent editorials for maybe two years now. My short-term goal is to take my editorial work to a higher level. I come out to New York roughly one or two times a week and shoot roughly two to three times a month at best. I live in [Edison], but [my] spirit and soul are in Manhattan.
What would you say is your style?
It’s been weird, finding my style. The market right now is saturated with imagery, especially in New York. Patrick Demarchelier once said: "Style comes naturally. When I work, I don’t think about my style, just about the pictures I am taking.” People label me by my style, and I don’t like to limit myself when I’m laying out my portfolio. Guy Aroche had the same style for ten years, and then he changed it. He forgot his old style. I think I’d like my style to be a lighthearted spin on fashion portraiture. I follow themes, and I like to play around with colors and movement.
So would you say you're still figuring it out?
I definitely think so. I haven’t figured it out. I know what I like — I like to be creative, go outside, but is that a style? I think I'll just figure it out as I go along. It's about the impression you want to leave people — but I think the best thing for me having to graduate is that I get two more years to shoot projects to understand who I am as a person and where my style really lies.