Ashley Hsu is a brilliant 19-year-old actress, photographer, makeup artist, and stylist. Her photography seeks to tell stories and bring awareness to a variety of important social issues. She is originally from Hong Kong and studies at Marymount University as a theater major. You can find her on Instagram at @hsustler.
In your Instagram, you blend photography, fashion, and makeup. Which of the three is your preferred element?
I definitely think that they’re all kind of intertwined. Fashion without the photography portion, even though people can see you, you won’t be able to share it. With makeup it’s similar, where you wear it out, but then you take it off at the end of the day. So I feel like I’m probably most comfortable with photography because my style is constantly changing. I constantly mix up my fashion or the way I do makeup to go with whatever vibe I’m going with for the day. So, for example, I can’t be wearing bubble gum makeup and be wearing the darkest grungiest outfit. It just wouldn’t work. So, currently, I think my element is photography, however, i feel like all of them mix together to create what goes on my Instagram. You know what I’m saying?
What was your introduction to fashion and photography?
It started with portrait photography. I remember when I first asked for a camera I was going into the ninth grade and I was going to do a study abroad program with my school for a year and I told my parents, “mom, dad, I want a camera. I want to document my time here. I want to do all these cool things.” So, that’s when I got my first camera. I’ve been using the same camera since then. I started doing portrait photography around that time. I used to be more comfortable behind the camera just because I used to be super insecure. I didn’t think I looked good in photos and then I thought, other people look better, I want to make them look amazing. So, that’s kinda how it started. Then, when I went to NHSI, which is where I met Hannah, I met girls that really boosted my confidence a lot. Like, seriously, I’m not saying this because you’re the one interviewing me, but you guys really boosted my confidence. You can see from those photos onwards that I exuded more confidence and felt more confident in my own self and my style.
With fashion photography, in terms of other people, I’ve always been interested in it, angles and all of it. I guess cinematically since I’m also into theater and film, photography was a way for me to capture stills of that. To capture movement in a single image. And when I do it with myself, I create stories with it. And so, on my Instagram, I’ve been doing the self-acceptance series and I’m using it as a means of telling a story through portrait photography. And I think, that’s how I really got into it. Boosting my confidence and wanting to see myself in front of a camera because, one, I never really see anyone like me. Just in general. I’m more athletic I’m not super skinny. I don’t exude that traditional either Asian stereotype of models who are super skinny or fit Eurocentric beauty standards where everyone is blond, blue-eyed, very hour glassed, porcelain skin. And I’m like, I’m none of that so I wanted to try it out for myself. So, slowly, I was like, I don’t look that terrible, and I got my girls to hype me up. So that’s how I got started. Trying it out, having my friends hype me up, tell me I’m not terrible at it, and just keep on doing it and adding a story to it. Because that’s how you create a good image. There is always something behind the photograph.
What is it like to do it all yourself? What type of gear do you use to make it happen?
You can do anything with a phone or a camera. You don’t need fancy equipment. You look online and People take dope photos on their iPhone. However, I use a cannon 760 D – it’s a DSLR. Depending on the shot I want to go for, I either use my kit lens or my nifty fifty. So, for example, the kit lens lets you zoom in and out so you can do more. But the nifty fifty is much more focused and is great for a close-up. I think for anyone who wants to do portrait photography, a nifty fifty is a must. I think lenses are more important than the body of the camera. If you have a good lens, you can do a lot more with it. I have a ring light that I use for better lighting in certain scenarios. Then, I have a tripod that I use for wider shots. You don’t really need one as long as you have a stack of books. When I’m taking self-portraits, I think it’s much easier when I can see what I’m doing. My eyesight is terrible so I can’t really look at the viewfinder. So I actually have an app on my computer. Cannon has an external app where if you plug in your camera, you can see a live shoot view. I use it so I can see how I look before I take the photo. It takes like 300 photos to pick out that maybe 30 that I actually like. That’s definitely one of the most helpful things for me. Before I started using it, I would look at pictures and be like, that’s not how I feel like I looked. One of the things I’ve noticed is the more uncomfortable I am in a pose, the better the photo looks.
If you’re gonna invest, invest in camera lenses. Light is important. But you can use anything. I used my led light strips for a hazy vibe. So you can really try anything and get a cool result from it.
What issues are important to you and why?
First of all, I’m a huge advocate for mental health. I personally struggle with depression, anxiety, and PTSD. It stems from a long history of being bullied and insecurities. Since I’ve gotten the help and have started working through my issues, it’s something that I want to be able to address through my work. Since my influence isn’t really big right now, I use photography to bring awareness. Mental health, even though it’s talked about right now, I think that people don’t listen. They don’t understand because everyone goes through things differently. Everyone’s experiences are different and everyone has a different story. Through photography, I want to be able to capture at least my story to show that even if we’re not the same, I go through these issues. And actually, since I’ve done the photo series, there’s this one where I had a couple of friends text me, “I never realized why I thought this way, and having you say it makes a lot of sense and it clicked in me, so thank you.” And I was like wow. I did that. I was able to convey what I was going through a series of images and people understood. And that alone has its own power. I think, in a broader context, if I talk about my future, I want to pave a way for Asian actors in Hollywood and show them that we aren’t just the nerds, we aren’t just the students, we aren’t just the doctors. We can be femme fatales, we can be beautiful people, we can be any character our white counterparts can be. You see right now, with Hollywood, and Asian actors we’re getting there but it should not have taken this long to get where we are. Lots of people are afraid to be in the arts because it ‘brings dishonor to your family.’ It doesn’t. It really doesn’t. But, I think changing that narrative is super important. And being able to express that through photography. First of all, I shaved my head. That’s not a traditional beauty standard and I’m still fine. If I’m able to show that in an image, I think that’s important too. To show that going against the grain is not an issue and like, especially for Asians and Asian Americans who grew up in a strict family, you can live your life even if it doesn’t match what your parents set for you in the past. Another issue I want to address with photography is bullying prevention or anti-bullying initiatives. As I mentioned before, I used to be bullied and I think that has really shaped the person that I am and how I view things. I think the way I view things really affects my photography. I see the world through a different lens. I take things that I used to be bullied for and put them in my work. Even though I’m not the most confident person, which I’m working towards, it’s empowering to show that I don’t care about my previous insecurities. That’s the power I want to be able to show through photography. The anti-bullying thing has really pushed the way I do things. It’s not necessarily at the forefront of my pictures, but I photograph things that might seem weird to other people, maybe the cause of bullying for some people. But being able to proudly show those things off can take away the stigma.
All images courtesy of artist Ashley Hsu