Sophia Chew (@shots_by_sophia) from Seattle, Washington has established her niche in fantasy photography and Photoshop art, recognized by UNICEF, Seattle Mag, and 50k adoring followers. In this conversation, she shares with us the books that have inspired her and the heavier parts of her growing platform
Samantha: Why don't you just start by telling me about yourself and your photography journey?
Sophia: My name is Sophia. I'm from the Seattle, Washington area, and I do a lot of photography and videography and just make a bunch of different types of projects. Most of my work revolves around my photography. I have digital composites of photos mixed with digital art nad photoshop, which is kind of my main focus, I guess? And a lot of that is inspired by books and movies and songs and just overall things that I'm really obsessed with. Obviously things like Six of Crows and the Grishaverse (laughs). But, yeah, I'll do videos and I'll do photos and I just really like talking about books and things that I like through those.
Samantha: What motivates you to keep taking photos and running your Instagram?
Sophia: I feel like a lot of it comes from just the way that I enjoy creating things. And I think the way I've laid out my account, whether that's funny videos or cinematic videos, it gives me a lot of freedom in what I want to put out. So let's say I'm feeling kind of down, so I want to put up a funny video to get other people talking about things that makes them laugh, then that'll be something good. That's also very motivating. Or if I'm feeling like super, super creative, maybe I'll film a video while I'm out taking pictures at the same time, so I can just kill two birds with one stone. Just the feedback from that is really positive, so that's motivating too.
Samantha: Yeah, I love that. And one of the things, I suppose you could call it an aesthetic, is there's such an ethereal, almost fantasy quality to all your photos. So how did you arrive at this aesthetic, and what does it mean to you?
Sophia: Good question. So I got Photoshop maybe a year ago. I got it summer of last year. Before, I'd edit my pictures normally, didn't really add anything to them. Just like, normal pictures. I didn't start doing Photoshop edits, where I'd add elements in, until maybe August? That was kind of when Harry Potter was at its peak during quarantine, I think, I did a lot of Harry Potter and Photoshop edits surrounding the Wizarding World. That built me sort of a pretty solid book foundation, in terms of where my audience lies, and from then on, it's just been everything from just random fantasy things that I see on Pinterest or just random things I saw on books and movies. And now we're kind of here!
I didn't really expect my editing style to turn into this Photoshop fantasy whimsical art thing but I'm really glad that it did. Because it gives me a lot of control over the things that I want to put out and the things that I read, because whenever I read a book or watch a movie, I'm like "I could do a photoshoot off of this... that would be really, really fun."
Samantha: Yeah, that's so cool. And I feel like I haven't seen this specific niche of taking books and exploring them through photography. So are there any figures from the photography side of things that you've drawn inspiration from, or have you just kind of developed this yourself?
Sophia: The first person that comes to mind is Alexandria's Lens. She has like 300,000 followers, something crazy like that. She takes pictures of her family and kids, which is super super sweet, but she does a lot of Harry Potter stuff, and she's like a creative photographer. She does the entire thing by herself; she's the photographer, she's the videographer, and she controls the social media, and she's a mother all at the same time. I think that's super inspiring (laughs).
She was the first person who I looked at and was like, "Hey, I don't see other people doing what she's doing? And I don't really see other people my age doing what she's doing." So I kind of took from that, I was like, "Hey, what if I just started putting out content like this? And maybe other people my age will get inspired to do similar things."
Samantha: I think so many people were inspired, because your account is honestly thriving, not just from follower count, but people in the comments are so active and wanting to engage with it. So when did it really hit you, like, "Oh my god, I'm a big deal now"?
Sophia: (laughs) Oh man. I don't know if it will ever set in? Because I feel like my growth has been pretty gradual. There have been times where my growth has been faster than other times? But this is kind of random, but when people start talking about you in the third person, in front of you? Like, "Oh my gosh, she did this," or "she managed to put this in there!" It's like they're not addressing me in first-person, which is kind of the thing you'd do if you knew someone personally. That's the way I comment on my friends' posts. I don't know. It's kind of weird, but that's the first thing that comes to mind.
Samantha: That is so cool! Unfortunately, I couldn't relate, because it's just me and like five friends who look at my posts, but that's literally so cool. So moving into I think around March 2020, you started to go into self-portraiture.
Samantha: Why this change?
Sophia: I think quarantine forced me to start taking self-portraits. I didn't really know how to use my camera before quarantine, so that's when I actually started to learn the functions of it, and I actually started to spend time into learning how to use my camera. And because I live in Washington, that was the area where the first couple corona cases were, so our schools shut down pretty early. We didn't know when we were going to come back. So I put a lot of my creative energy and time into learning how to use my camera, and then I was like, "Wait, I can't actually take any photos of anyone because we're supposed to be social distancing" (laughs).
And then my siblings didn't want their picture taken, so I just had to shove myself onto the other side of the camera. Which was really weird, because I hated taking pictures of myself for the longest time. Like if you had told me two, three years ago that I would be like a self-portrait artist, I would've been like, "What the heck is she doing? That's so crazy." But quarantine definitely gave me that push to start taking pictures of myself. And from then on, it's just been me (laughs). I don't know how else to say it.
Samantha: What have you learned from that? Is it empowering? Or is it maybe intimidating, because I think there's so rarely room for Asian-American models.
Sophia: I feel like this gave me the opportunity to put someone who looks like me directly in the spotlight. And it gave someone like me complete control over how I would be perceived, or how other people would perceive me, because I have the power to bring up conversations about Asian representation. Whether the people out there want ot listen to it or not, if I want to do it, then I can. I guess that part is really empowering.
And also just finding out what it means to be comfortable in front of a camera. Because people are like, "I'm not photogenic," or "I'm camera-shy," or "I'm not confident." I feel like it's less of a problem if you're confident but more if you're comfortable in front of a camera. For the longest time, I would never say I'm confident in front of a camera, but more comfortable, since you have to learn your angles. I also don't really believe in photogenic people, it's more just learning how to pose yourself and learning what works for you. Because a pose on a certain model who has a different face shape, different body type than you might not work on someone who looks completely different. And I feel like that's what drives people away from taking pictures from themselves, which is really really sad.
So my advice, I guess, is to just do what works for you, and try not to take complete inspiration from one single person or one single photoshoot, because it's really the unique part that'll make you like the pictures.
Samantha: Yeah, and I think that reminds me of the Vogue shoot you did. Which already was so cool, just aesthetically, but I think it also speaks to the fact that, you know, anyone has potential to be on a Vogue cover. Another thing I wanted to ask you about was how your photos have this really gorgeous, feminine quality to them, but at the same time, so many of them have these quotes about defiance, taken from these really bold female characters--I think one of my favorites was "I do nothing sweetly, Your Highness." So tell me more about what this juxtaposition means to you and what you're trying to say with it.
Sophia: I used to read a lot of books when I was like ten years old, and I didn't really get back into it until now. And my views on what female empowerment and good representation could look like since I was ten have like drastically changed, because now I very much have a different outlook and different standards.
So the "I do nothing sweetly, Your Highness," that's a quote from Zoya from King of Scars or Rule of Wolves—it's one of The Grishaverse books. But I love taking quotes like that from the books and just implementing them into my pictures. Because not only is it like highlighting really badass female characters, but it's also showing that, hey, femininity isn't a weakness. Things won't be weaknesses if you embrace them, and if you sort of show these things that are important to you... I don't know, I kind of like to redefine what it means to have powerful female characters.
Samantha: Yeah, that's so amazing. I love what you said because I absolutely grew up with the idea also, you know, that badass women having to reject femininity and beauty to be strong. Now, what's next for you? I saw you finished AP exams, which I know is always like this awful thing that you have to spend that portion of your life dedicated to. But now you're not like constrained by what your portfolio requires of you, what do you want to explore more of?
Sophia: Honestly, it's kind of been—I don't want to say a dead period—but it's been pretty calm, or pretty flat. Nothing crazy has happened in the last few weeks. I feel like the biggest step forward for me is branching into different kinds of content because (laughs) TikToks are only so long, and I can't fit that much into them? Especially since Instagram only lets me post 30 second long videos, which really sucks, because (laughs) people say I talk really fast sometimes in my videos, which is completely true. I see where they're coming from. I want to start making YouTube videos where I can really go in-depth in the topics I want to talk about, rather than fitting it all in 30 seconds. And I just overall want to keep reading books and exploring the fantasy genre. I'm getting a lot of new clothes and props pretty soon so that should be pretty exciting. But other than that, it's going to be pretty chill, nothing out of the ordinary. You can expect the same things (laugh)
Samantha: One anomaly in your feed is the photo taken at a Black Lives Matter rally, and I think it really epitomizes how powerful photography can be in expressing a message. But of course this doesn't just have to apply to photojournalism. So do you ever want to get political with your works or make some kind of statement with them? Or are you trying to do that already?
Sophia: Yes. But maybe not in the way that's super popular or super straightforward. Because it's gotten to the point where everything I do is going to be political. Every time I post something, it's going to show some sort of side about me, or every time I don't post about a certain thing, it also shows a certain side of me. Which is super, super scary, but at the same time it's really frustrating. If you scroll through some of my posts, you'll see I hint at Asian-American representation in some of my captions, or I'll hint about how I dislike this one thing that an author did, or how I'll stray away from things that sort of move this agenda or hurtful stereotype. Bringing up those conversations about things that are important to me, but in a super casual manner, is how I want to continue to move my account.
So it's really difficult to get people who maybe don't have those kinds of difficult conversations about race or stereotype, it's difficult to get those people engaged in conversations about those things. But when you bring it up casually, in a way that's easy to understand surface-area, especially through art and stuff like that, I feel like that's the way I want to approach it.
Samantha: Is there a specific photo or a statement you made that means a lot to you?
Sophia: It was probably the first photoshoot that I did inspired by Shadow and Bone--it's the one that's my profile picture right now--that one was super important to me. It was like one of the first times I actually went in depth about how a book or a certain character affected me, personally. Because I think with my Harry Potter stuff, I was a little bit scared to stray into those conversations, knowing what the fandom was like and knowing how people would maybe receive it. But as soon as I started talking about Shadow and Bone, people immediately latched onto it, and the author actually commented, which is like a huge win for me.
Samantha: That's so cool, wow.
Sophia: Yeah, it kind of showed me, hey, people are willing to listen to your conversations about these kinds of things. And it was about how racially ambiguous characters in the book could be casted as someone who was in the Asian-passing person. Because in the Shadow and Bone books, the main character Alina is racially ambiguous, or they don't really talk about her race that much. But in the show they cast her as Jessie Mei Li, who's an Asian-passing person. So that was so inspiring, and totally a win, because I wish that there were more people like that when I was growing and up and when I was watching movies about these badass female protagonists.
Samantha: I love that, and I think that's such a recurrent theme when you put yourself in album covers and certain stories. The fact that, yes, it literally could be an Asian-American person, and I love that. And then the last question relates to probably my favorite quote you used in your photo, which is "If you couldn't beat the odds, you changed the game." So can you tell me what this means to you?
Sophia: That's a quote from the cover of Six of Crows, or maybe Crooked Kingdom? I forget which one it is. But I love that quote to death. I would never get a tattoo in my life, but if I did, it would be that probably (laughs). I sort of see this quote as, like, being faced with obstacles that maybe other people aren't faced with and being able to use them as leverage or learning from them. Because in the books, it's all about these literal kids who are my age battling all kinds of things, whether that's trauma or prejudice or whatever. They're just able to overcome them and they find comfort in the connections they have with other people who've experienced similar things. So I really resonated with that quote because of that "found family," that comfort in connecting through the specific obstacles you face.
Samantha: Is there a specific moment of that which you remember in your own life?
Sophia: I think the first time I felt something like that was the beginning of quarantine. Maybe not the beginning, but a little bit into quarantine, definitely toward the start. That was the first time where other Asian-Americans or Asian people my age were talking about their experiences with racism. Of course I'd heard about hate crimes or prejudice or bullying due to race, but people were really outspoken about it in the same ways they were when people started talking about the coronavirus. I was never really able to have those conversations with people my age until I got to social media, until I was like, "Hey, there are a lot of people who have gone through really, really similar things." And I can find these connections and I can make relationships with people and we can have these conversations about the way people are perceiving us because of our race. That was something new, but it was so helpful and definitely a big part of how I want to move forward with my social media now.