When Los Angeles-based photographer and TikTok creator David Suh snapped a photo in high school of his older sister, little did he know that her unexpected response would shape how he takes pictures today.
While the budding photographer was eager to try out the latest techniques he had learned on YouTube, the photo he shared with his sister turned out to be an image of someone she didn’t recognize, let alone want to see.
“I was like, ‘Oh, look at all these new techniques I learned off of YouTube’ didn’t mean anything if the person I was creating for was hurt by what I’ve created,” the 28-year-old owner of David Suh Photography, who has 4.4 million followers on TikTok and was recently included on the platform’s API Visionary Voices list, tells In The Know by Yahoo. “So ever since then, it was really about how do I now create something beautiful for the other person?”
For Suh, that means bringing curiosity and empathy to his studio process and creating a “safe space” for the person in front of the camera.
“How do I help them see who they want to see?” he says.
That mantra has served not only Suh’s L.A. clientele but also a wide swath of people all over the world who want to see reflections of their best selves. In fact, since Suh launched his TikTok feed in 2019, he has become a go-to resource on how to properly pose — whether with your arms, hands, lips or even your “booty.”
“One of the most asked questions I get is how to pose your arms and hands,” Suh says in a TikTok post from last October that’s logged nearly 12 million views. “It all depends on how comfortable you feel and how expressive you want to be.”
In the video, Suh explains in a friendly, approachable way how to master a skill that is arguably a pain point for many in his audience. But Suh doesn’t just explain, he uses his entire body to gracefully show where to place body parts that can sometimes have their own ideas about where to appear in photos.
His generous attitude about such an anxiety-inducing process has become something of a brand signature.
“I never thought [posing tips] could be something useful for people all around the world until I started sharing that, and people were saying, ‘Wow, David, why do you move like that? Why do you move so fluidly? How do you bring that out of your clients?’” Suh shares. “And I said, ‘Oh, you’re interested? You’re interested in that? I’ll teach you a couple of things.’ And ever since then, it’s taken off. And I think it’s also making that impact on those people [that has] helped me find a deeper meaning in what I do.”
A complicated cultural identity
That fluidity, whether it’s moving between poses or moving between cultures, has become second nature for Suh. While the photographer grew up in Seoul and Hong Kong, he moved to California in 2013 to attend University of California at Davis. That wasn’t his first foray into American life, however. The TikTok creator was in fact born in New Jersey but “peaced out after a year,” he says.
Although he spent most of his life after that in Korea and Hong Kong, attending American-style international schools, Suh admits that his cultural identity is something he’s still “figuring out.”
“It’s been quite the journey in terms of that identity,” he says, adding that he feels torn between considering himself strictly Korean or Korean American.
That said, Suh adds that he has built a strong community in America in general but in Los Angeles in particular. That’s where he built his dream studio, complete with six employees on his payroll. “I think there’s lots of things for me to celebrate here and also celebrate about being a Korean that grew up in Korea and Hong Kong.”
In fact, for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Suh posted a TikTok video specifically for the AAPI community.
In the post, he empowers his community to “take up space” rather than blend in, to be “bold and loud” and to be proud of a shared Asian culture.
“We deserve to be seen and every bit worthy of occupying space,” he says.
‘Everyone wants to be seen and heard’
Feeling seen is a theme that runs through Suh’s work, and he stresses that he doesn’t want to impose his own beauty standards on his subjects (something that has stuck with him after that photo shoot with his sister).
“Something I get a lot is, ‘David, I’m a plus-size woman. How do I pose?'” Suh says. “What does that mean? What does it mean to you to be a plus-size woman? Because if I just give you a handful of poses right now, that’s me projecting my definition of what plus-size is. It’s me making that assumption for you on what plus-size women want and don’t want, when it should be different for every single person.”
That goes for all of his clients and followers, who have their own ideas about how they want to look. That’s why Suh can spend up to six hours for a single shoot.
“Because not everyone wants to look taller,” he says. “Not everyone wants to look skinnier. Not every woman wants to look sexy in a way whatever magazine would portray them as, right?”
And in a world of endless filters, which can sometimes cause disappointment once they’re removed, Suh wants to create the opposite experience. That is, he wants to empower his clients and followers to articulate their own beauty and give them that safe space to do so.
“Oprah said it best. She said, ‘At the end of the day, everyone wants to be seen and heard,'” Suh says. “And if we want to be seen and heard, we have to learn to speak. And before we even speak, we have to feel like there’s a place for our voice that belongs.”
For Suh, the photography studio is one such place.
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