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.


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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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