Meet Photographer Sophia Wilson
The born-and-raised New Yorker on capturing formative moments, getting her start, and the role New York plays in it all—plus, the best spots on the LES.
Sophia Wilson is a photographer and visual artist who has been behind the camera since age 13. She’s shot campaigns for major brands like Nike, Instagram, and Google and worked with established publications including The New York Times, Vogue, and Vanity Fair.
The photographer, who was born and raised in New York City, is known for shooting analog only and develops all photos by hand in the color dark room, which allows for her signature look. Her vibrant and uplifting photography explores the themes of diversity, coming of age, and Black womanhood.
Currently, she has a worldwide Google campaign across buses and billboards. Most recently, she is starring in a TV series titled The Come Up about 6 Gen-Z artists making it in NYC, streaming on Hulu and Freeform.
What was it like growing up in New York?
The best thing in the world, it shaped me as a human being and definitely as an artist. If it wasn’t for growing up in New York, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am, in terms of my career and my art because you’re so independent at a really young age. You’re literally like eight years old taking the subway on your own, you know? So I feel like it instills a level of fearlessness in you. It showed me that literally, anything is possible. Also, just the opportunities here are right outside your front door. I was able to start a career when I was 13, which I definitely couldn’t have done or wouldn’t have had the courage to do anywhere else. The people are so inspiring here, too.
How has New York influenced you as a photographer?
In terms of my art, ironically enough, a lot of my photo work doesn’t take place in a super-city setting. For example, I did a shoot of these cheerleaders at a very traditional rural school in the Bronx and I feel like I missed out on that traditional growing-up experience… like having a backyard and being able to see nature and lakes and stuff. A lot of my work revolves around themes of coming of age and growing up in nature…. even though it’s still very city and chaotic. You can find these elements of what I missed out on growing up throughout my work.
When did you first pick up a camera and why?
I’ve always been an artist in my life. That’s always what I gravitate towards, even from preschool and in my earliest memories. But I never honed in on a medium until Instagram became a thing…. I remember being on the app store when I was 12 years old and I just saw it as the number one app even though nobody was really using it yet. So I downloaded it and I was like, whoa, this is so cool, a photo-sharing platform, maybe I should get into photography. So I started doing photo shoots using my iPhone when I was 12 and posting them. And then I saw other people on Instagram who were also my age with a following and fans for their photography because people didn’t know what they looked like or how old they were, so nobody was judging them based on their age. And I felt it was a really cool concept because nobody looks at you as just a kid anymore with Instagram. You post your art and you could be anybody. It’s very democratized. So from there, my grandparents got me my first camera when I was 13 for Christmas and the rest is history.
What do you like most about the photographic medium?
I love the film process. I love the handheld aspect and I love shooting on film because you have to be intentional about what you’re taking photos of, which is super important to me. Like with digital you could take a billion photos and you know, one of them might stick. But with film you only have a certain amount of photos on a roll, usually, you only have 12 or 36 photos, so you have to really think about it and plan out everything in advance before you take the photos, which I really enjoy.
Tell us more about your new show, The Come Up. What was your favorite part of doing it?
I think my favorite part of doing it was the friendships I made along the way. Though it sounds so typical, it’s true. I am really close with some of my castmates. I really love them as people, outside of the show and in the show.
What do you wish people would take away from it from the show?
At least from my part, I hope that people are inspired to follow their passions as cheesy as it sounds, to just take a leap of faith and follow your heart and I don’t know, try to find happiness and don’t listen to what other people’s expectations of you are. And hopefully, things will work out.
What role does New York play in the show?
New York has a huge role in the show. I mean the show obviously takes place in New York, but it’s more about the people in the community of New York and the things that people in New York are doing, which is so special. If you’re anywhere else in the world, it’s just not the same. You can’t find this level of commitment and passion, that’s so concentrated in such a small area of the city. It’s just a very, very New York City show.
If you could shoot anyone, who would it be and why?
Beyonce or Rihanna. I just love them both as people, everything they stand for, and obviously love their music so much and they’re both just gorgeous human beings. It’s hard because I relate with them both on different levels so much that I can’t decide between them.
What are your favorite spots in New York?
I love the Lower East Side. I mean that’s where I live. I love Chinatown town, and Union Square because that’s where I grew up. I love Scarr’s Pizza and Kiki’s. I love Jajaja. Forget Me Not, Seward Park. I love the LES skatepark. I love skating. Stores I love include Coming Soon, James Veloria, Lara Koleji, Procell, and Sandy Liang.
WORDS Sara Radin
PHOTOGRAPHY Sophia Wilson