In a behind-the-scenes video posted to social media, 9-year-old Zou Shengyu can be seen pointing her analog camera at “Aquaman” star Jason Momoa for a series of portraits. Seemingly unfazed by his bulky six-foot-four-inch physique, the young Chinese photographer gives clear instructions to the actor, asking him to pose in various positions.
“I was so nervous because I had to speak in English,” recalled Zou, who goes by her nickname and professional alias Shengsheng, in a phone interview. “He was quite big, so I asked him to make bigger movements and gestures.”
Across her four-year photography career, the Shanghai-based fourth-grader has captured shots of more than a dozen high-profile figures, including some of Asia’s biggest and most influential celebrities.
Her portraits of actor Tony Leung, tennis legend Li Na and rapper Lay Zhang, among others, have helped her amass more than 10 million likes and around 500,000 followers on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok. Her father, the photographer Zou Yupeng, also frequently posts about her work to his millions of followers.
It all started when she was given a point-and-shoot camera aged 4. Speaking to CNN alongside his daughter, Shengsheng’s father said he encouraged her to pursue street photography after noticing how she could strike up conversations wherever she went.
She began by walking up to strangers to ask if she could take their picture. Then one day, when she was 5 years old, Shengsheng said she noticed a beautiful young woman in a Shanghai clothing shop. Unbeknownst to the young photographer, she was about to capture a portrait of famed Taiwanese cellist-turned-actress, Ouyang Nana.
“She was so gentle and kind, and even kneeled so we were almost the same height,” Shengsheng recounted excitedly. “I didn’t know who she was at the time, but I knew I wanted to be like her in the future.”
The chance encounter went viral on Chinese social media. Soon, Shengsheng was receiving invitations from movie promoters, cellphone companies and shampoo brands asking her to photograph other A-listers.
“The more people I photograph in the streets, the more I get recognized, which leads to more opportunities to photograph celebrities,” she said.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, some social media users have questioned how a 9-year-old could secure photoshoots with some of Asia’s biggest stars. But Shengsheng’s father insists her clientele has “nothing to do with myself or my family.”
“While Shengsheng is just a 9-year-old kid whose technique is still has a long way to go, artists’ representatives love reaching out to us because through Shengsheng’s lens, (people) appear a bit different compared to regular shoots with professional photographers,” he said, adding: “In Shengsheng’s photos, you see (her subjects’) softer and gentler side, regardless of whether or not they are celebrities.”
Other online skeptics have also wondered whether she applies filters or heavy edits to her photos post-production. But while Shengsheng said her father helps with minor edits, such as removing strands of hair or adjusting the color tone, she maintained that she never uses filters.
Focused on the present
One of Shengsheng’s most memorable encounters occurred last year with Hong Kong movie legend Tony Leung, who was then promoting his new blockbuster “The Goldfinger.” The 9-year-old said that, at first, she thought Leung was quite aloof and quiet. But he eventually warmed up, she said, adding: “He was just very cute. He always put a smile on my face.”
Her favorite photo from that shoot shows Leung leaning against the wall, with a ray of sunlight across his face. Good composition is key to portrait photography, she said.
“When I see a circular or triangular shape, I try to use that as a frame for my subjects,” she added. “It’s also important to keep in mind what they are wearing — you can’t ask someone to bend over if they are wearing an evening gown.”
The young photographer also hopes to convey emotions through her images. “I want viewers to feel like they were there when the photos were taken,” she explained. “I hope that my work will touch others.”
Unlike many of her professional contemporaries, Shengsheng usually shoots using analog film cameras. She said she loves their simple design and how light they are compared to the digital single-lens reflex, or DSLR, cameras now used by most professional photographers.
“While film photos cannot be developed instantly, I prefer the warm and soft tones that film cameras produce,” she said. “Developing photos from a film camera is a very exciting process — just like opening a mystery box, you never quite know what you’re going to get.”
Shengsheng’s runaway career shows no signs of slowing: In the past year alone, she has taken over 15,000 photographs and hopes to photograph singer-songwriter Yuqi next. She wants to, one day, be a full-time portrait photographer — but for now, she is focusing on the present.
“We are not in the future yet,” she said when asked about her career plans. “My taste could have changed by then.”
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