Photographer Charis Cheung

Published: October 11, 2023

How Charis Cheung Became Gen Z’s Favorite Photographer

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Photographer Charis Cheung

In a city with no shortage of photographers, Charis Cheung is capturing moments and making a name for herself. At just 20, this Pepperdine undergrad is already a favorite among Gen Z, creating portraits that are fresh, evocative, and speak to her generation.

During her teen years, Charis began experimenting with photography, starting with casual photoshoots with her friends. What began with an iPad soon transitioned to her mother’s old digital camera, setting her on a path of continuous learning and growth. Drawing from the creative energy of her close-knit group and the inspiration from various photographers and her hometown, she cultivated a style that is a self-described blend of ethereal and edgy.

Evidently, Charis is more than a photographer. She immerses herself in all things creative, from modeling and styling to creative directing. “I just love anything creative,” she says, emphasizing the joy she finds in the entire process, not just the final product. Whether it’s finding the perfect outfit in a thrift store or brainstorming the next big concept, Charis is all about the journey.

Even with the spotlight from her viral TikToks, Charis remains grounded, valuing authenticity over influencer culture. She has a genuine spirit that sets her apart in a field often dominated by superficiality. It’s this commitment to realness that offers a refreshing perspective in the industry, making her a true breath of fresh air.

Ahead, Charis Cheung spoke with us about her aesthetic, navigating social media, her favorite photos, and what’s next on her bucket list, to name a few topics! Continue scrolling to read our conversation!

For anyone who’s not familiar with you or your work, can you tell us more about yourself?

Yeah, so I grew up in LA, born and raised, still here. I started photography around middle school or high school. I would practice with my friends because they always wanted me to take photos of them. Initially, I used my iPad to take photos because, at that time, I wasn’t really confident enough to be in front of the camera. It was really fun; I enjoyed the social aspect of it and spending time with my friends.

Eventually, I found my mom’s old digital camera and started using that. I began following photographers on Instagram for inspiration and started getting into creative directing, organizing whole photoshoots with outfits and makeup, and bringing in more creative concepts with props to keep things interesting.

I also started making TikToks, which surprisingly blew up, bringing a lot of business my way with people DMing me for shoots. That success translated to Instagram, helping me get more recognized, especially in the LA area. Despite there being many LA photographers, I found that there isn’t a huge community of established ones, so I am working on growing in that aspect.

Is there a particular aesthetic that you aspire to create in your work?

Yeah, so over the years, I’ve been trying to find my style, which I think is a common journey for photographers. I’ve experimented with many different styles because I admire many types of photographers. Now, people often describe my style as ethereal or glowy with beautiful, pretty lighting, or sometimes even edgy. Someone once mentioned it as an “edgy ethereal vibe,” which I think kind of captures it.

So how did you eventually become comfortable being in front of the lens as opposed to taking photos?

I was never super shy in front of the camera growing up because my family travels a lot. My mom would always bring a camera. I’ve always been in front of the camera, in a sense, and I’ve kind of liked it. In front of friends, I did get a little shy, especially in the elementary, middle school era.

Once I started taking photos of people, I understood the camera so much better. When I’m in front of the camera, I can imagine in my head what it looks like through the lens. So now I’m more confident because I know my angles and how I would look in front of the camera. I’m not super shy in general; being in front of the camera is not the hardest thing for me.

Two years ago, I was really pushing to start modeling because I thought it’d be fun. There are a lot of concepts that I have in my mind that I want to do, but sometimes I feel it’s hard to explain it to a model, to someone else. So sometimes I think, “Okay, I’ll just model and do it.” And then I’ll tell the photographer what I want.

I also think it’s fun to model. People definitely underestimate modeling because they think it’s such an easy job. It’s not easy. There’s a certain level of confidence that you need to have. You need to be comfortable in front of the camera, you need to be really patient. Being a model is not as easy as people think. It’s the same with being a content creator; people think it’s so easy. It’s hard; editing a video takes up so much time and it’s tedious.

I just love anything creative in general: photography, modeling, creative directing, and even styling. I have so much fun with that. I will go to thrift stores and get stuff for my models. I just love the creative process, whatever it is.

I know earlier, we spoke about how social media has helped you land gigs and bigger projects. Has it come with any downsides?

Not so far. Honestly, right now I’m so young that whatever gig I get, my standards are not extremely high, especially if it’s a bigger company. I would rather book the company than be picky about how much they’re paying me, especially if they’re bigger, because I’d rather put my name out there first. So, I haven’t been scammed working with companies, and I haven’t had many bad experiences with clients either. Everyone’s been super nice to me.

I just turned 20, and before that, I was 19, 18, 17; in those years, I feel people just wouldn’t be mean to me. I’m also really considerate of people’s time and their money, and how much they’re spending to do a photo shoot with me. Obviously, if something goes wrong, I’m going to accommodate them — I can make up for lost time. I guess my clients probably appreciate that more, which is why they’re not bullying me.

Speaking of photoshoots, do you have any favorites from this past year?

One of my dream photo shoots that I had in mind for the longest time was one with a girl on a mattress on the beach wearing angel wings. That was two years ago, but it had always been a dream shoot of mine. It was a big deal because it’s not easy to manage everything for such a setup. It turned out to be one of my favorites; the results were so much better than I anticipated. All the photos from that shoot are a good representation of my work. That’s exactly what I want my work to look like. It’s one of my favorites that I can think of, although I love all my shoots; it’s so hard to choose.

As a photographer, are you drawn to certain facial features or silhouettes?

Yeah, that’s actually a very interesting question. No one has asked me that before. I feel it’s something not many photographers talk about much. I’m actually quite picky about it. People often reach out saying, “I’m a model, would love to shoot with you,” generally for free. So, I became very selective.

When I first started, I would shoot influencers primarily, thinking it would give me exposure. But I realized that many of them didn’t have the look I envisioned, and they weren’t necessarily creative individuals; they were more often dancers or such. It was hard to convey my ideas fully to them.

Now I focus on unique features rather than just going for the general “pretty girl” or “Barbie” vibe. I appreciate someone who brings uniqueness, even if they don’t have much modeling experience. I also consider their style and the persona they portray on platforms like Instagram because it reflects their personality. Depending on their style, I visualize the kind of shoot I can plan with them — be it edgy, soft, or something vibrant with cool outfits and makeup.

I’m not extremely picky, as I always see potential, and it sometimes even depends on how they approach me. If they are enthusiastic and come up with a good concept for a shoot, it certainly makes them more likely to get a free photo shoot, since it means I don’t have to do all the brainstorming myself.

Finally, what do you want to achieve through photography over the next several years?

Growing up in an Asian household, doing art is not really a thing. It’s looked down upon, even in my family. It’s looked down upon, even in my family, me doing photography. When I first started off, my parents were kind of like, “Why are you doing this, you’re wasting your time.” They never really praised me for it until I started making money.

So I guess, in my mind, I’ve never looked at photography as a full-time career. That’s why I’m still in college. I’m doing both of it. And right now, I’m using photography as my side hustle. As a college student, this is basically my job, how I’m able to make side money, in a sense. But I’ve never been super against doing photography full-time if that’s where it takes me. And so far, it’s going really well. I can see growth.

But I don’t know if I… I don’t really know my full goals with photography. It’s kind of like, “Whatever happens, happens.” But I guess a dream would be working for Vogue, or working for a big company. I would love to be a creative director, that’s something that I love doing. And so if that could also be my full-time career, just creative directing and putting together a whole photo shoot, I would much rather do that full-time and then do the photography part-time.