The Daily Iowan

Student Spotlight: Freshman Samm Yu pushes for social change in the photography industry

As lack of representation, limited accessibility and unrealistic beauty standards plague the photography industry, University of Iowa freshman Samm Yu looks to make modeling available to all.

Samm+Yu+poses+for+a+portrait+on+Friday%2C+Dec.+3%2C+2021.+%28Raquele+Decker%2FThe+Daily+Iowan%29

Raquele Decker

Samm Yu poses for a portrait on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. (Raquele Decker/The Daily Iowan)

Jami Martin-Trainor, Arts Reporter


University of Iowa student Samm Yu has seen issues plaguing the photography industry and set out to solve them.

The first-year noted that a distinct lack of representation, limited accessibility, and unrealistic beauty standards are barriers to making photography attainable for many communities.

Yu is working to change that reality. Starting her freshman year of high school, she was inspired to pursue photography because of her dad. After a few years of practicing taking shots on his camera, Yu got one of her own and opened a photography business.

Booking shoots in the Des Moines and Central Iowa area, Yu expanded her network and opportunities.

“Photography has gotten me into a lot of spaces where I never would have been before. Through my photography and social media, I grew my platform and I was able to take photos of Bernie Sanders and AOC,” Yu said. “Normally a very young, 18-year-old Asian-American person would not be in the press pit of events like that, but I had connections through so many different communities that knew me for my photography.”

Access to exclusive events is not Yu’s only motivation, however. She focuses largely on representation, as she believes access to photography is limited for students of color and students living in poverty.

To combat those deficits in accessibility, she looks to create an environment in which photography can be available to everyone. She said she mostly focuses on taking pictures of people of color and younger people.

“I noticed that, in my community and in the industry, there were not affordable photos that were specifically for students of color or students living in poverty,” Yu said. “Noticing that gap, I’ve tried to fill that role.”

RELATED: Student Spotlight: Senior Jared “Bobi” Knox related his photography to other artistic avenues

Due to the nature of her goals, Yu centers people in her work. Her favorite subject to photograph is people, specifically in pairs. The genuine emotion and vulnerability that two people show when they are comfortable together is something that Yu finds great for photos, she said.

With people as subjects, it is important to make clients feel as if they are in a safe environment, Yu said. Whether that be through communication, pricing, or perspective, she said she actively makes sure her clients feel good about themselves and the photos she’s taken of them.

“I’ve been told a lot that I am the first photographer to make people feel comfortable,” she said. “I’ve worked with grown women that have had their senior photos taken and couples’ photos, birthday photos, and normally it’s like middle-aged men that charge way too much and don’t make them feel comfortable.”

RELATED: Student Spotlight: Master’s student co-curates culinary archives exhibit

Des Moines student Mary Kitundu, who has modeled for Yu on several occasions, said her time with Yu has been much better than her experiences with other photographers. A variety of factors play into that outcome, but the primary reason is Yu’s communication, Kitundu said.

“Because we’re almost the same age, it’s like being there with a friend. She’s so relatable, she’s very nice and she understands if you’re feeling a bit shy,” Kitundu said. “Our conversations that we have while we’re taking the photos are great and she can get a smile out of anyone.”

As well as creating a more inclusive environment in the photography industry, Yu seeks to combat negative beauty standards. Her photography Instagram biography says, “Making Regular Folks Into Real Life Models.” This rationale stems from a comment Yu’s mentor made on her work, saying that what makes it so compelling is the fact that the models can look like themselves.

Yu does not offer retouching services, meaning she refuses to edit out blemishes and scars and will not lighten skin. She said she feels that her models all have the capability to retouch on their own, so it is not her place to do so.

Des Moines barista Marelynn Navarro, one of Yu’s models, said photographing with Yu is more comfortable because she knows how to make her clients feel safe.

“Samm is an absolute artistic and creative being,” Navarro said. “Anytime you’re taking a photo and you’re feeling nervous about yourself, a helpful compliment is so nice.”

Facebook Comments

About the Contributor
Raquele Decker, Photojournalist/Videographer

(she/her/hers)
Email: [email protected]

Raquele Decker is a Photographer and Videographer at The Daily Iowan. She is a junior at the University...

Navigate Left
  • Phoebe Bridgers performs during the fourth day of the Hinterland music festival in Saint Charles, Iowa on Sunday, Aug. 8, 2022.

    Arts

    Photos: Hinterland music festival – day four

  • Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats Luke Mossman performs during the third day of the Hinterland music festival in Saint Charles, Iowa on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022.

    Arts

    Photos: Hinterland music festival – day three

  • Glass Animals Dave Bayley sings during the second day of the Hinterland music festival in Saint Charles, Iowa on Friday, Aug. 5, 2022.

    Arts

    Photos: Hinterland music festival – day two

  • Billy Strings approaches the edge of the stage during the first day of the Hinterland music festival in Saint Charles, Iowa on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2022.

    Arts

    Photos: Hinterland music festival – day one

  • University of Iowa MFA candidate Ann Kreitman and creator of the podcast “I’m Writing to You Today” poses a portrait on the IMU Footbridge in Iowa City on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. The podcast takes listeners on a small journey through Iowa City, including on the footbridge, while detailing LGBTQ history.

    Arts

    UI MFA candidate Ann Kreitman expands the medium of theater

  • The Nile Kinnick statue is seen outside of Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022.

    Arts

    Nile Kinnick’s legacy explored in new documentary

  • The Iowa City Public Library is seen on Sunday, March 20, 2022.

    Arts

    Teens learn about their right to intellectual freedom at Iowa City Public Library

  • Alyx Rush performs at the Bravo Stage during the final day of the 80/35 music festival in downtown Des Moines on Saturday, July 9, 2022.

    Arts

    Iowa City musician Alyx Rush provides peek into career as pop artist

  • Beyonce, Lemonade (April 23, 2016): An HBO movie with the same name premiered along with Beyonc s Lemonade album, her sixth. Hits include Hold Up. USP ENTERTAINMENT: 59TH ANNUAL GRAMMY AWARDS E ENT USA CA

    Arts

    Beyonce’s new album ‘Renaissance’ celebrates life

  • The Big Grove Brewery & Taproom in Iowa City is seen on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.

    Arts

    Big Grove to host benefit concert with CommUnity Crisis Services and Food Bank

Navigate Right