Meet the feisty photographer teaching America how to pose
For Suh, 28, it was a transformative experience that went well beyond that one outfit. “If I haven’t felt this way – what you feel, this divine feminine – how can I teach? [my clients]?” His ability to show his subjects how to position their bodies in a way that makes them comfortable in front of the camera, he discovered, he discovered, “isn’t just about saying, ‘I see it, I get it.’ It feels real.” This revelation aligned with what he sees as his calling: uplifting the everyday human through portraiture.
The posing tutorial was also the basis for Suh’s first viral video on TikTok. When he started posting videos in late 2019, he had his own studio and was slowly building his client base. But with his bubbly, exclamation point-fueled videos about poses, angles, and confidence in front of the camera, Suh has garnered a sizable following. His TikTok followers at press time: 4.3 million. His work and videos are based on his unwavering belief that you are camera ready just the way you are. “To me, everyone is inherently beautiful,” he tells me via Zoom from a dimly lit corner of his studio. “Just the fact that they’re there is beautiful.” All it takes to look amazing in photos is that he’s practiced a bit of posing and photography and — and he knows that’s the hard part – genuine confidence in your own innate beauty as defined on your terms and no one else’s.
Suh’s work, which includes teaching a five-week photogenic course, draws an audience as our collective obsession with how we look in photographs hits an all-time high. The rise of camera phones and social media has made it feel like a societal imperative to be photogenic, combined with an increased awareness of whether we are. Many of us collect half a dozen “candid” pictures for dating apps, post photos with and for our social circles on Instagram, and need a professional headshot for LinkedIn or the company page. “Most of the time, if you don’t have a social media presence, do you even exist in the world?” says Teri Hofford, body image educator and photographer. “That’s how it feels for a lot of people. Being seen and visible is almost a necessity.”
At the same time, our cultural norms regarding beauty are arguably beginning to expand. Suh’s approach to photography leverages the latest wave of body positivity and self-love movements. From Suh’s point of view, this expectation of being “photogenic” only overwhelms us when we are committed to culturally attractive, mostly Eurocentric ideals of beauty. His students come to his How to Be Photogenic class, he says, “feeling that something is missing and they want to learn how to be photogenic so they can be a part of society. But what they learn at the end of the day is: they do it for themselves first.”
When Hofford (who follows Suh online but doesn’t know him personally) ponders why Suh’s work is resonating, she thinks part of it is the right man meeting the right cultural moment. “He’s not afraid to be his authentic self online, and I think that’s what people really want,” she says. “He seems quite open and approachable.”
Hofford also finds that Suh’s posing tutorials in dresses are “invitingly funny.” “Often men make fun of women by posing [in certain ways],” she says. “But the way David does it is just to create the vision so people can see what it would look like on someone wearing a dress.” She continues, “He makes more fun of the gender dichotomy or how you have to pose as a guy. He does a really good job of being understanding and, dare I say, feminist.”
Suh, who grew up in South Korea and Hong Kong, started taking portraits of his friends in high school, where he felt the ultimate reward was having someone make his shot their profile picture. He went to the University of California at Davis thinking he would transfer from college to a regular nine-to-five. “I have very stereotypical Korean parents,” he says, who “always wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer. I never was. I was always the kid who casually chased what I liked.” Studying photography outside of class, he found he was hungry to learn more. “I would keep searching and searching.”
In 2013 he received his first photo assignment: 50 dollars. He took a gap year from college two years later hoping his portrait photography business would quickly become self-sustaining. But his income only covered rent every two months, so Suh returned to college. He graduated in 2017 with a degree in design – and still dedicated himself to portrait photography.
Suh’s artistic philosophy comes from personal experience: in 2018 he came out of a five-year relationship he had been in throughout his studies. “We did everything together,” he says, so he didn’t really have his own friends or even his own identity. When the relationship ended, “it was like, Who am I right now? And I just had to start doing things for myself. It was very scary at first, of course, but it was also very refreshing.” He had what he calls an “epiphany”: “I was really uninitiated to expressing myself.” Outside the box of “boyfriend,” Suh could “fashion explore for myself and buy clothes for myself. A little snowball started.”
He takes that mindset to his clients, telling them, “You build who you are, and because you feel more secure in your identity, that’s attractive to me.” And that, in turn, “applies to being attractive in film. If you can express that… you can express yourself however you want.”
Since 2021 he is was in Los Angeles and his solo shoots now range from $4,850 to $12,000. “His entire personality and confidence has changed from the time I met him to now,” says Tina Leu, a DC photographer who met Suh in a photography workshop in 2017. “The way he dressed, his body type, just the whole essence of his has evolved into this powerhouse Yes, really loves who he is. He didn’t really know who he was at the time, I think.” In searching for himself, she says, “it’s almost like there was nothing to look up to, so he created himself.”
When Suh joined TikTok, he knew he would take a more dynamic approach than “Joe Schmo Photography” — as he described the practice of posting nothing but your own best work. “How’s that going to be social? You wouldn’t just meet someone in a bar and pull out your portfolio and say, “Hey, look at this. Can you like that?’ “For Suh, “it’s always about the conversation. How do I help this other person?” He posts a combination of useful guidance and sincere affirmations. You can see him respond to a disabled trans man asking for advice on how to pose with his walker; showing a woman how to take single photos (leading to a passionate disparagement of the way society dictates that women not take up space); offers a posing guide that pits a “Shy Couple” against a “Power Couple”. He ends his practical yet playful lessons with a duck quack sound effect.
He speaks quietly and reservedly over Zoom, and he says the vibe during his photoshoots is less “actual hype” and more “meditative yoga.” Suh estimates that “99.5 percent” of his potential clients find him through social media. (He’s also on Instagram, where he has 1 million followers.) He lists the reasons those followers target him: “I realize you create a safe space for your customers [and] actually listen. … They realize that beauty isn’t binary and that posing isn’t binary.” To his continued amazement, “they tend to bring that trust to me that they already have in me, even though I’ve never spoken to them personally.”
With his reputation as the Lizzo of portrait photography, Suh worries that he can’t possibly meet the expectations of everyone who comes to his studio. “My biggest fear is that someone will see me online and save up to book a shoot with me because they think I’m the only person in the world who can fix it… [and] then [they come] for me and I’m not in a position to do that for them.” And one person might point out that Suh’s promise of empowerment through photography is asterisked: He doesn’t go as far as to tell us that we’re on Photos don’t have to look good just to tell us we can.
For Amanda King, Suh more than lived up to her hopes. King lost her father in 2018 and has spent much of the pandemic at home in Illinois trying to process her grief. She struggles, she says, to feel “worthy” of doing anything just for her own happiness, which is one of the reasons she kept track of a list of 30 things to do before she turned 30. One of their things was a solo photoshoot and Suh’s TikTok videos signaled to her that they had similar values. “Everything that happened that led to this moment, everything that made me, I have something to embody that,” she says. “And I think that’s David’s thing too: you need to celebrate yourself now. You are worth doing now.”
Reviewing the images at the end of the shoot, King said, “I definitely cried in his office.” Suh said, “Look at that! you are art! It’s worth standing against a wall for. It’s not a question. It is,'” she recalls. “It was a really beautiful realization: It is Art. This is me, it looks beautiful, it looks amazing and it’s something to be proud of.”