Meet the effervescent photographer who is teaching America how to pose
For Suh, 28, it was a transformative experience that went far beyond this one outfit. “If I haven’t felt this way — what they feel, this divine feminine — how can I teach [my clients]?” His ability to show his subjects how to arrange their bodies so they feel at ease on camera, he discovered, “is not about just saying: ‘I see it, I understand it.’ It’s truly feeling it.” This revelation clicked with what he considers to be his calling: to elevate the everyday person through portraits.
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 clientele. But with his effervescent, exclamation-point-energy videos on posing, angles and on-camera confidence, Suh has won a considerable following. His TikTok follower count at press time: 4.3 million. His work and videos are built on his unshakable belief that you are camera-ready exactly as you are. “For me, everyone is inherently beautiful,” he tells me over Zoom from a low-lit nook in his studio. “Just the fact that they exist is beautiful.” All you need to look fantastic in photos, he insists, is some posing and picture-taking practice, plus — and he knows this is the hard part — genuine faith in your own innate beauty, as defined on your terms and no one else’s.
Suh’s work, which includes teaching a five-week course on “how to be photogenic,” is attracting an audience just as our collective obsession with how we look in photos is reaching an all-time high. The rise of camera phones and social media have created what feels like a societal imperative to be photogenic, combined with a heightened awareness of whether we are. Many of us are gathering a half-dozen “candid” pictures for dating apps, posting photos with and for our social circles on Instagram, needing a professional headshot for LinkedIn or the company page. “If you don’t have a social media presence, for the most part, it’s like, do you even exist in the world?” says Teri Hofford, a body image educator and photographer. “That’s what it feels like to a lot of people. Being seen and visible is almost a necessity.”
At the same time, our cultural norms around beauty are arguably beginning to widen. Suh’s approach to photography taps into the latest wave of body positivity and self-love movements. As Suh sees it, this expectation that we be “photogenic” crushes us only if we are beholden to what is culturally deemed attractive, usually Eurocentric ideals of beauty. In his “how to be photogenic” class, his students, he says, come in “feeling like they’re lacking, and they want to learn to be photogenic so they can be part of society. But what they learn at the end of the day is: They’re doing it for themselves first.”
When Hofford (who follows Suh online but doesn’t know him personally) thinks about why Suh’s work is catching on right now, 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 pretty open and accessible.”
Hofford also thinks Suh’s posing tutorials in dresses are “invitingly funny.” “A lot of times, men make fun of women by posing [in certain ways],” she says. “But the way that David does it is just to create the vision so people can see what it would look like on somebody that’s wearing a dress.” She continues, “He more so makes fun of the gender binary or how you have to pose if you’re a dude. He does a really good job of being understanding and, dare I say, feminist about it.”
Suh, who grew up in South Korea and Hong Kong, started taking portraits of his friends in high school, where the ultimate reward, in his view, was someone making his shot their profile picture. He headed to the University of California at Davis and figured he’d go from college to a standard nine-to-five. “I have very stereotypical Korean parents,” he says, who “always wanted me to become a doctor or a lawyer. I was never that. I was always that kid chasing after what I liked on the side.” When he studied photography outside of class, he found that he was hungry to learn more. “I would keep searching and searching.”
In 2013, he earned his first photography commission: 50 bucks. He took a gap year from college two years later, hoping his portrait photography business would quickly be self-sustaining. But his income only covered the rent every other month, so Suh returned to college. He graduated in 2017 with a degree in design — and still committed to portrait photography.
Suh’s artistic philosophy comes from his own experience: In 2018, he got out of a five-year relationship he’d been in throughout college. “We did everything together,” he says, so he didn’t really have any friends of his own, or even his own identity. When the relationship ended, “It was like: Who am I right now? And I really just had to start doing things for myself. It was obviously very daunting at first, but it was also really refreshing.” He had what he calls an “epiphany”: “I was really uninitiated with expressing myself.” Outside of the box of “boyfriend,” Suh was able to “explore fashion for myself, buying clothes for myself. It started a little snowball.”
He brings that mind-set to his clients, telling them, “You build who you are, and because you feel more secure in your identity, to me, that is what is attractive.” And that, in turn, “applies to being attractive on film. When you get to express that … you get to represent yourself the way you want to.”
Since 2021, he’s been 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 D.C.-based photographer who bonded with Suh in a photography workshop in 2017. “The way he dressed, his body type, just the entire essence of him has evolved into this powerhouse who really loves who he is. Back then, he didn’t really know who he was, I think.” In searching for himself, she says, “it’s almost like there was nothing for him to look up to, so he made himself.”
When Suh joined TikTok, he knew he’d take a more dynamic approach than “Joe Schmo Photography” — as he described the practice of posting nothing but your best work. “How does that become social? You wouldn’t just meet someone at a bar and take out your portfolio and say, ‘Hey, look at this. Can you like this?’ ” For Suh, “it’s always about the conversation. How am I helping this other person?” He posts a combination of useful how-tos and earnest affirmations. You can find him responding to a disabled trans man seeking guidance on how to pose with his walker; showing a woman how to take solo pictures (which built to an impassioned takedown of the way society tells women not to take up space); offering a posing guide that contrasts a “Shy Couple” with a “Power Couple.” He ends his practical-yet-playful lessons with a duck quack sound effect.
Over Zoom, he is soft-spoken and reserved, and he says the vibe during his photo shoots is less “really hype” and more “meditative yoga.” Suh estimates that “99.5 percent” of his prospective clients find him through social media. (He’s also on Instagram, where he has 1 million followers.) He lists the reasons those followers give for reaching out to him: “I realize that you create a safe space for your clients [and] actually listen. … You realize that beauty isn’t binary and that posing isn’t binary.” To his continued amazement, “they tend to bring up this trust that they feel with me already, even though I’ve never talked to them in person.”
With his reputation as, basically, the Lizzo of portrait photography, Suh worries he cannot possibly live up to the expectations of everyone who comes to his studio. “My biggest fear is someone seeing me online and saving up to book a shoot with me because, in their mind, I’m the one person in the world who can fix them … [and] then [they come] to me and I’m not able to do that for them.” And a person could point out that Suh’s promise of empowerment-through-photography comes with an asterisk: He does not go so far as to tell us that we don’t need to look good in photos, only to tell us that we can.
For Amanda King, Suh more than fulfilled her hopes. King lost her dad in 2018 and spent much of the pandemic at home in Illinois, processing her grief. She’s struggled, she says, with feeling “worthy” of doing something just for her own happiness, which is part of why she pursued a list of 30 things to do before she turned 30. One of her items was a solo photo shoot, and Suh’s TikTok videos signaled to her that they had similar values. “Everything that’s happened that led up to this moment, all that’s made me, I have something to personify that,” she says. “And I think that’s David’s thing, too: You need to celebrate you now. You’re worthy of doing this now.”
As they went over the images at the end of the shoot, King says, “I definitely cried in his office.” Suh was “like, ‘Look at this! You are art! This is worthy of being on a wall. It’s not a question. It is,’ ” she remembers. “It was a really nice realization: It is art. That’s me, it looks beautiful, it looks amazing, and it’s something to be proud of.”