When Malaysia-born, US-based photographer Ryan Liu, 24, went to further his studies in the United States, little did he realise that he would have the opportunity to chase his other dream after he graduated.
After finishing two years of a four-year American Degree Programme (in Business) at Taylor’s University in 2012, the Petaling Jaya boy continued with his degree in Arizona State University (ASU) in the United States in 2013 and 2014. He was granted a partial scholarship by ASU to pursue Business Communication.
Liu remembers that while he was still in high school in Malaysia, his classmates often asked him to take pictures of them. That sparked his interest in photography when he was 17.
He also remembers the very first camera he handled. “It was a Canon 450D that my parents bought for the family to use during family vacations.”
Since then, he has found photography quite magical. “It felt like I could create art without actually ‘creating’ it. Compared to most conventional art forms, photography was a much easier way for me to express my creativity since I have zero talent in using a pen or paint brush. … I never had any formal education in photography but was always attending photography workshops,” he adds.
Eventually, he also began to accept small photography assignments around his city to pay for his next gear purchases.
However, even though Liu’s parents gave him their support, they were reluctant to accept his decision to pursue a major in photography in university. “They always said that photography could only be an avocation, and not a vocation, especially in Malaysia. So I took their advice and went ahead to pursue a major in Business,” says Liu.
At Arizona State University, he had the chance to work as a photographer for the campus’s newspaper The State Press. His first eye-opening experience in the photography industry came when he interned at a local fashion magazine company – The Daily Front Row – for three months.
“I was assigned one day to help out on set as a production assistant for the magazine’s cover shoot, and it was 18-year-old Gigi Hadid who had been invited to be on the cover! I wasn’t particularly amused by her presence but instead what I found engrossing was the experience of shooting for a magazine. The lighting, the collaborations among the stylist, make-up artist, prop stylists, set builders, and photographer were nothing I had seen before.”
In December 2014, after he had obtained his Business degree, he relocated to New York City, where he had interned during his summer break (May to July) the same year.
“The staff photographer – now a great friend and mentor – Giorgio Niro asked if I wanted to move to NYC after graduation, to be his first assistant, as a freelancer.”
Starting out in the Big Apple was tough. “I knew getting into the industry wasn’t easy as I lacked the technical skills. I was aware of what I needed to do to improve, so I reached out to as many photographers as I could – to be their assistant. That’s the best way to learn the nuts and bolts of the industry,” he says.
That was a move that really paid off. His works can be seen in publications and websites such as Allure magazine, Billboard, Buzzfeed, HuffPost, Modern Luxury and Refinery29. Also, he is currently working with clients such as Conde Nast Traveler, Architectural Digest, Downtown Magazine, Coach, Eater, and Billabong.
Liu was recently picked as a winner in the annual American Photography (AP34) competition – Chosen category. It is one of the most prestigious awards in the field of photography in the United States.
“It’s an online-submission competition. They’ve only announced the winners online but there will be a celebration event in late November when winners are invited to attend and connect,” Liu explains.
“My parents became more open about me pursuing a career in the arts when I moved to NYC. With my limited resources, they offered to help me financially but I kindly declined it. I have great friends – especially Jonathan Galan, another Malaysian, who works in NYC as a director of photography in motion – who helped me tremendously in my career when I was starting out. They volunteered their time and resources without asking for any remuneration,” says Liu.
He then adds, “It is hard, being only 24 and relying 100% on freelance assignments. It is always terrifying when the phone stops ringing and e-mails aren’t coming in for weeks. But, in the end, being able to do something I love and still make a living – there’s really nothing better than that.”