Xi Sinsong is a fascinating fashion photographer. She uses the same lighting, camera and computer tools as anyone else might and yet her work is clearly special. Her photographs, while technically exceptional, aren’t about technique. What makes her story most interesting is that it’s one from which all commercial photographers can learn—not because this 23-year-old photography student produces work that’s mature and refined in a way many photographers twice her age would envy, nor that she’s simply a naturally gifted artist—clearly—but because her tremendous body of work is largely the product of diligence, drive and good, old-fashioned hard work.
Born in China, Sinsong was immersed in the visual arts from a young age. She never quite knew whether she’d be a painter or a sculptor—elements of both are evident in her photography—but she knew she was destined for a career in the visual arts. Trained in traditional calligraphy and painting, it was actually her lack of formal photography education that drew her to the medium in the first place. In photography, she was a blank slate.
"I like to define myself as a visual artist more than just a photographer," Sinsong says. "Photography, as any other thing, it’s just a medium, a carrier for your ideas. The reason why I chose photography instead of painting is because as a kid I didn’t really go through a lot of formal training. Photography was more open to me. I feel like I had more room to grow and to achieve more in that area, so I went that way. But at the same time, I still kept my interest in all these other things.
I like stuff that’s minimal, she says. I was just talking with an instructor the other day and he told me that my photography was very silent and still.
"I like stuff that’s minimal," she says. "I was just talking with an instructor the other day, and he told me that my photography was very silent and still. Tracing back where that comes from, I guess it has a lot to do with where my aesthetic comes from, where I grew up. I think a lot of the formal aspects of it come from my background, being raised in China and being taught traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting. It’s a lot about space, negative and positive space, and the subtlety of things."
Sinsong left China to come to New York and study at the School of Visual Arts, where she’s currently completing her senior year. Her portfolio isn’t full of student projects, though. Instead, these are assignments she produces with a team of young collaborators—models, makeup artists and stylists—who are equally interested in crafting a unique vision of fashion. They have a head start on their careers, of course, because these photographs have already appeared in worldwide fashion publications, including most notably the Vietnamese edition of Elle.
"I was just talking to someone who’s been working in the fashion industry for a long time," she says, "about what goes into forming an image. She told me it was maybe 40 percent the photographer, plus the model, the styling, the set design. Having people who are willing to take the risk with you, it makes it even easier to take the step and do something new."