Sophia Li finds inspiration in her family, health, and the gritty realities of everyday life. Here’s how she uses photography to render those things beautiful.
Sophia Li isn’t interested in playing pretend. The Boston-based photographer is drawn to the messy and sometimes mundane realities of everyday life, like the collections that accumulate in the garbage transfer stations of Massachusetts, the bare trees in the forests near her home, and the leftovers and scraps her family produced during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Through her detailed and keen work, she makes the ephemeral seem beautiful, thus promoting her ultimate goal, which is to make the viewer slow down and notice the details.
“I’m most passionate about the intersection between food, lifestyle, and just holistic living,” Sophia tells Shutterstock. “How mundane moments are actually representative of different cultures and little facets of our environment.”
Li’s path to photography was fast and somewhat unconventional. She graduated from Duke University in 2021, where she majored in neuroscience. As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, she felt compelled to study the sciences, but she never found it fulfilling. Plus, she had an interest in photography that never stopped whispering in her ear.
Towards the end of college, Li began reaching out to any photographer who would Zoom with her. “I got to assist commercial editorial photographers in the area, and that’s really how I got my footing,” she explains.
Just two years later, all of that outreach and hard work has paid off.
Li is now a grant recipient for Shutterstock’s Create Fund, which provides historically excluded artists with financial and professional support with the goal of creating a more inclusive and diverse library of contributor content. Her work for Shutterstock includes photos of family life, food, and nature, all through the lens of hyper-realism.
Here’s how Sophia discovered her passion for intentional living and photography.
Shutterstock: Let’s start at the beginning of your journey. How did you get into photography?
Sophia Li: My dad had a camera when I was a kid, and I just played around with it, but it was never something that I considered seriously as a career. I always assumed I was going to go into science, so I studied neuroscience in college. I guess it’s kind of a common belief among immigrant households that you have to go into a career in STEM, like science, technology, engineering, or math. But it never clicked for me.
Along with not connecting to neuroscience, I struggled with a lot of chronic health issues from digestive hormones, and I just realized I was really not happy and not enjoying the path I was on.
So, while I was still in school, I applied for this program through Fujifilm, called Students of Storytelling. Basically they provided a grant, resources, and mentorship. This was in 2020, so it was all remote, but it was the first time I was really like, “Wow, people actually do photography as a career and this is really cool and it’s something I could see myself doing.”
So, I started doing photography as a passion project, taking photos for myself and submitting them to school publications or blogs on the side. I still got my degree in neuroscience because, at that point, I had already completed it.
But, after graduating, I kind of just went crazy cold emailing and cold calling every photographer I knew in the area and asking them if I could assist. Since then, I’ve been assisting as much as I can and trying to build my own portfolio and work while learning more skills and tools.
SSTK: What inspired your work for The Create Fund?
Li: Growing up, I had all of these digestive and hormone issues, and my healing and health journey was a combination of slowing down, being in nature, and organic farming and sustainable food.
With photography, I tend to gravitate to more rustic, quiet imagery that has a lot of organic or pastoral elements in it, sometimes countryside, but always serene and quiet. Most of the images I created for Shutterstock are a reflection of those themes of small town living, DIY home construction, and travel.
SSTK: The goal of The Create Fund is to support up-and-coming artists and diversify Shutterstock’s library or content. Can you describe the type of work you’ve created with the support of The Create Fund and what you hope it will achieve?
Li: As a consumer, you’re constantly blasted by marketing and advertising, and I feel like a lot of the imagery I see is highly polished and curated, and I don’t resonate or connect with it. Down to the food or placement of plants, it just seems very, very sterile in how artificial it is.
And when there were Chinese American or Asian people in advertising? I never saw people in my community acting or looking like they were often portrayed.
In the process of creating these images, I leaned heavily on my local community, including family and friends, so most of the people in my photos are Asian Americans—mostly Chinese American.
It was definitely a learning curve because most people don’t know how to naturally pose or what to do in front of the camera. They’re just not used to having people take their photographs while just going through their daily lives.
But, if we’re trying to diversify and bring more accurate representation into advertising and media, I thought it was important to do that in a way that’s actually real.
SSTK: How do you define success?
Li: Hustle culture is extremely prevalent, especially in the creative industry, and I’m very anti-hustle culture. I think that’s a big part of my journey. Because I studied neuroscience before photography, I’ve had this idea that I was behind and that I wasted all that time doing something that’s not related.
But, everyone’s on their own path and there’s not actually this made up grand timeline that everyone has to follow. There’s enough time to do everything I want to do, and I am exactly where I need to be right now.
SSTK: Where do you hope to see your work?
Li: In terms of major career goals, I’d love to shoot a cookbook that really plays off culture and lifestyle and travel. That’d be really cool. And, there are a ton of culture travel magazines that I would love to shoot for someday, as well.
But, ultimately, I just really hope that my images are able to make viewers truly pause and examine their surroundings, and live more intentionally and spend more time with seemingly boring, everyday moments.
License this cover image via sophialiphotography.