BEHIND THE LENS: MEET AIMEE SONG’S CREATIVE ASSISTANT SOPHIA LI
By Isabel Bina
1 · 20 · 2019
While some fashion influencers have Instagram boyfriends or husbands working behind the scenes, Aimee Song has 23-year old Sophia Li. A Los Angeles based photographer and content creator, Li received a B.A. in Communication Studies from UCLA and began interning for Song of Style after graduation. Since her first day shooting the daily life of Song, an influencer with upwards of 5 million followers across social channels, Li has become a main proponent of the site’s creative direction, overseeing the website graphics and capturing Aimee’s personal style.
With magazine editorials no longer governing the fashion industry, the individuals behind the lens of Instagram photos are reshaping the perception of brand identities and the consumption of their products. Nevertheless, the oversaturation of digital content calls to question whether or not authenticity can still be achieved. Expressing her responsibility as a creative to propel positive change, Sophia provided us with an insight on an influencer’s demanding line of work while also emphasizing the industry’s need to be more inclusive.
Have you always been drawn to fashion photography?
I started taking pictures of nature when I was 12, and when I was 16 I got into fashion. I reached out to a girl in my hometown of Hong Kong. We took photos and eventually a modeling agency contacted me saying, “Hey, we like your photos, would you be interested in doing test shoots of models for free? You guys would be building your portfolios together.” That was what I was doing before I moved to LA, and I originally moved here because I wanted to pursue photography and go to college at the same time. But, when I got into college I gave up on photography for a little bit, because LA seemed very intimidating at first. It was hard to find and connect with stylists, makeup artists, and models. Instead I started focusing on school — until I got a job with Aimee. Also, one of my really good friends, Tarik, who is a model, wanted to learn photography, so shooting with him and teaching him at the same time helped me get back into photography. Now I’m shooting a lot more, even outside of work.
What’s your preference: digital or film?
I shot digital for the longest time, but I always liked film. I picked it up a year or two ago: a 35mm, which is a more typical film camera, but I recently got into medium format which is next-level high quality. I never want to shoot digital ever again. I actually appreciate film photography, because now when I’m taking pictures I only have 36 photos, so I have to strategically plan outfits, locations, and poses. I’m not just pressing the shutter and hoping that something good will turn out. But, at work I shoot mostly digital because of the fast turn around.
How and when did you start working for Aimee Song?
Now that I think about it, she’s one of the few bloggers I actually follow. She had posted that she was looking for an intern so I applied, but never heard back. I had moved on, done other PR internships and had a job offer, but a year later she emailed me asking if I wanted to come in for an interview. I went and interned for her during my last two quarters at school. Later, she offered me a full-time job and that’s what I have been doing ever since. What she had told me — the reason why she never got back to me until a year later — was because at the time they didn’t have a position, but when something opened up she remembered my application letter, searched me in her inbox, and reached out. A good tip for when you’re writing to people is to compose a genuine and thoughtful letter. I appreciate it when someone finds out my name and how to properly spell it. Do research and be passionate — you’ll stand out.
What role do you believe photography plays in reframing the way we perceive size, shape, color, gender, ability, age and beyond?
The dynamic in fashion right now is hard because people recognize the historical lack of diversity and the need for representation— racial, gender, and body-positive images — but, are brands doing it genuinely? Sometimes I’ll see content from brands that I feel like are inauthentic, and I know “you put that model there because you need to fill your quota” so that is hard to see. It’s weird because the industry in general is shifting and no one really knows whats going on and or what to do. At the same time, that also means that younger photographers don’t have to follow the old norm anymore and they can establish new rules. So with that, I would say right now everyone is still trying to figure it out, but I’m hopeful. Fashion, if you think about it, is an aspiration industry, but now its shifting to a point where we want to be relatable and appeal to the mass; that’s a big shift from the cool crowd to “oh we’re just like you.”
What’s the biggest misunderstanding about influencers and their line of work? What does it take to make Song of Style succeed?
It’s not as glamorous as it seems — you only see the highlight reel. Traveling is amazing, but imagine traveling 300 days out of a year: you get exhausted at some point, but you still have to put on your best energy. In terms of the creative process, a picture seen on instagram will be looked at for three seconds, maybe more, but there’s a lot of planning behind the scenes. I’m communicating with her [Aimee’s] manager who communicates with the brands and then we make sure we deliver what the brand wants, and sometimes we have to reshoot (there’s a lot of back and forth). It’s not that I just take a picture with an iPhone, add a filter, and post it.
I feel like what’s interesting about taking pictures for an influencer is how I want to elevate the content while still appealing to the mass. Sometimes the more artistic or editorial pictures won’t perform as well on Instagram, but a very lifestyle picture of her in her living room would do much better. It’s just very interesting when you’re taking pictures for Instagram because you need to find a balance between being aspirational but still relatable. There are so many photos online. If I produce another pretty picture, it’ll be just that, another pretty picture online, but if you add personality then it makes it a completely different thing. People follow influencers not just because of their aesthetic or style, but now its a lot about their lifestyle: what they eat, where they work out, what they do on a daily basis.
Have you ever been in a situation where you aren’t credited for your work on instagram or online websites?
I personally don’t care so much. Yesterday I was scrolling on Vogue China’s website and there were photos of Aimee on there that I had taken, but no credit, which I don’t find offensive because at the end of the day I know I took the picture and that it’s my work. I’m just happy that someone is using and recognizing it. Especially when working for an influencer, my pictures get posted by other accounts every single day and I can’t just go off…What’s not okay is if someone steals it and says it’s theirs.
Where do you see yourself and your career down the line?
With the new Song of Style, I am taking more creative direction of the site, so I’m overlooking all the graphics, photos, and videos. Eventually I’d like to be an art or creative director. Currently my goal is to create less empty content and more of what will make an impact on people’s lives.So far, I haven’t gotten a lot of trouble from brands, so I guess I’m lucky that the people I’m working with are flexible and responsive. I did an editorial with HypeBae for their e-commerce clothing store, and I told them that I wanted to work with an Asian girl. We ended up working with Amber who’s a law student turned DJ that is now working in the creative field. I feel like that project was super interesting, and in the future I’d love to have more say in to featuring more people of color, body sizes, and authentic stories.