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Photographer Yu Tsai on supporting Asian American creatives: 'Why aren't there more?'

The celebrity fashion photographer is working to uplift young Asian creatives and amplify the voices of Asian Americans.
Yu Tsai
Tsai has been a professional photographer for over 15 years.TODAY illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the AAPI movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the entire month of May.

Yu Tsai has been championing diversity since the early days of his career as a celebrity fashion photographer.

The Taiwan-born photographer and creative director, who immigrated to the U.S. when he was 12, has shot countless Hollywood figures over the years, from Jamie Lee Curtis and Jennifer Aniston to Bruce Willis and Richard Gere. His muses also include Chrissy Teigen, Kate Upton and Ashley Graham, stars he refers to as his "wonder women." For over 15 years, he has championed women in his work but when he was first starting out, he wondered if he could even showcase diversity when it wasn’t even an industry norm.

After all, Tsai wasn't a photographer from the get-go. He's tried out many different careers and has been a wildlife biologist, creative director, photographer, TV personality and is now a host for a food documentary series and podcast. Because he had these doubts and felt the industry was a monolith, it took years for Tsai to see himself not just as a photographer, but as an Asian one, who could flex his creativity however he wanted. He credits journalist Lisa Ling for giving him the strength to lean into his identity as a gay, Asian man and achieve international success.

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Yu Tsai built a career photographing celebrities but has also been a wildlife biologist, creative director and TV personality. He now also hosts a podcast and YouTube show and founded a vegan hot sauce company.Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images

In a chat with Ling on his “Let’s Talk with Yu Tsai” podcast last year, Tsai realized the power he had as an image-maker in a fashion photography world dominated by the same few faces and styles. The conversation inspired him to use his platform to feature more Asian Americans in front of the lens and as guests on his podcast.

"I talked to Margaret Cho, I talked to Michelle Kwan, people who have really paved the road for the Asian community," he told TODAY. "Because of those people, I started doing the work. I started understanding how and why I need to let people know that I am a gay photographer, that I do champion for my community, and ask myself how do I bring my Asian friends into the conversations? If it’s through fashion and makeup, so be it!"

He has also been able to shoot two historic Sports Illustrated Swimsuit covers featuring models of Asian heritage this year, including Yumi Nu, the first Asian curve model to grace the cover and Leyna Bloom, the first Black and Asian transgender woman to be featured on the cover.

Tsai says he is a different person today than he was a year ago and he has a better understanding of how his career continues to impact the fashion industry.

"We know that the Asian community has been marginalized in so many ways and we know within our own communities that we have a problem. We can talk about the oppression, but within our own community, we have so much work to do," he explained. "We have to recognize that we’re not a monolith, but within that, we have to celebrate each other's differences.

"To sit here and talk to you and to say that I’m the only few Asian photographers who made it on an international level and in America? It’s crazy! I’m honored to be able to say that and recognize it and lean into it because I know it can inspire others, but it’s crazy. Why aren’t there more?”

For Tsai, what sells and what is considered sexy is not what he wants in front of or behind the camera: it's more Asian representation.

He’s partnering for the first time with Harper’s Bazaar Singapore to get more people of color involved on the creative side. Tsai will be mentoring young, up-and-coming creatives from various cultural, ethnic and racial backgrounds to work in the fashion industry. He hopes the initiative will open up more seats at the proverbial table for the next generation and combat systemic racism within the industry.

"For any of the stories that allow me to shepherd and mentor young BIPOC women, especially photographers, I am happy to give my stage — literally, my studio stage — my tools, and my team, and mentor them to be in the magazine," he said, referring to an acronym for Black, Indigenous and people of color. "Because here’s the problem I see and people don’t want to admit it, but I’ll be honest about it: we are celebrating people of color in publications, but it cannot be performative.”

The fight for representation is a marathon, not a sprint, and even Tsai admits to having moments where it’s hard to stay in that lane.

“One day, I shut down and I couldn’t sit in my podcast chair for two weeks. I was so defeated and thinking that I’m not having a win,” he recalled.

But despite the challenges, Tsai sees a light at the end of the tunnel for the Asian and Asian American community. It’s his hope that there will be more callouts and accountability for brands and companies to recognize that they’re responsible for the dialogue that they’re creating.

“I get a (message) that says, ‘I heard you, I see what you’re doing,’ and it just ignites a flame and the ember grows and (it's enough) for me to say, ‘OK, let’s get back in that chair because someone’s listening.’”