Samm Yu got her first camera on her 16th birthday, her dad’s old Canon model. Three years later, Yu has turned a passion for photography into full-fledged portrait photography business.
“I took photos of my friends, and then it started to become like a service I could provide for others, especially for my community,” Yu said.
Last December, as she was completing her first semester at the University of Iowa, Yu and her photographic work were featured in the Daily Iowan. This summer, she began to attract wider attention as a finalist in Bubbl’r’s Boost Your Future contest. The online competition highlights the work of young athletes, artists and musicians, and features a $20,000 cash prize for the winner.
Yu is a self-described introvert. An only child, she was born in China but adopted by an Iowa couple when she was eight months old. Growing up, English was the only language spoken in her home and she learned very little about Chinese culture.
In middle school, she began feeling that something was “really, really wrong” — like she didn’t fit into the dominant culture. She also felt disconnected from other Chinese immigrants in the Des Moines area.
“That kind of connection to culture didn’t always exist when I really, really wanted it, and really, really needed,” she said. “I had a lot of fears about high school, and kind of how I was going to be perceived, how I was going to be othered.”
In high school, Yu found photography helped her talk to people and make friends. She also decided to immerse herself in Chinese culture by learning the language, using her Chinese name and attending cultural events.
The connection she developed to the community helped give Yu the vocabulary to understand her feelings. Yu decided she wanted to give back to BIPOC communities in Des Moines thorough her photography.
“For a long time, it was about representation, and I still kind of feel that way,” she said about her work. “Right now, it’s kind of the goal with my work to show that communities of color exist here. That they are thriving, that they are beautiful, that they’re alive.”
When people hear “Iowa,” they don’t necessarily imagine a vibrant and diverse community, she said. But with her Canon Rebel T6i, Yu is “capturing people as they are,” and showing the inner glow within these communities.
Yu views her work through an activist lens. At Roosevelt High School, Yu was part of a group of students who pushed for Des Moines Public Schools to remove the police officers who patrolled the district’s school as school resource officers (SROs). This district-wide effort, led by two East High students, resulted in the school board terminating the SRO program.
Yu was active in other protests in high school, and sees her photography as an extension of that. Portraiture became another avenue for community involvement. She plans to hold a free headshot event this winter, so people can have a professional portrait to use for interviews and job searches.
Earlier this summer, Yu entered the Bubbl’r Boost Your Future contest. Its prize money is intended to help contenders “boost their future” to pay for college, start a business and “follow their passion, etc.”
Yu, now a sophomore majoring in psychology, said she entered the contest on a whim when she saw one of the judges is champion gymnast Suni Lee, best known for representing the U.S. at the 2020 Olympics. Lee won the gold medal in the women’s artist all-around finals and the bronze medal for the uneven parallel bars. She also competed in season 30 of Dancing with the Stars.
“I’m like a big stan of hers. She’s just so amazing,” Yu said. “That was, like, the only reason I entered, because I love her.”
Lee, along with fellow judges Chelsea Cutler and Quinn XCII, chose Yu as one of the contest’s 15 finalists. Whoever receives the most votes online from the public will win.
The 15 finalists and their submission videos are available on the contest’s website. To vote, you must register with the site. Registered users can vote once per day. Voting ends on Sept. 2. The first place winner gets $20,000, second place $10,000, third place $5,000 and fourth through 15th place each get $500. Yu thinks she has a strong chance, even though other finalists have large online followings.
“I have so much community support. I walk around campus, and people tell me that they’re voting every day, which I really appreciate,” she said.
If she wins, Yu said she plans to buy two new lenses and lighting equipment. The remaining money she’ll use to cover the costs of providing photographic services for those who can’t afford it.
But whether or not she wins one of the top prizes, Yu said she’ll continue documenting life in Des Moines and Iowa City, and showing that communities of color are “alive and real” in Iowa.