From air rifle gold medalist to Forbes 30 Under 30 fashion photographer, Zhang Jingna has travelled the world to pursue passion and creativity. Acknowledged by the likes of Vogue Japan, Harper’s Bazaar China, and even master director Guillermo del Toro, she shares her inspiration, journey, and things she loves.
26 August 2021 / By SGN
1. Tell us a bit about yourself – what brought you to the U.S.?
I’m a fashion and fine art photographer working in NYC and living in Seattle, Washington. As a young photographer, I had a great start in Singapore—fortunate enough to have shot for Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, and clients like Mercedes Benz, Pond’s, and Lancome when I was 21. So, in my early 20s, I started thinking about pushing myself and my work further.
My time on the national air rifle team in my teenage years allowed me to see the world more than the average student, and I became interested in new places and cultures. But our trips were usually spent at the shooting range or hotel, preparing for competitions. So, when I went into photography full time, I was curious to see more of the world by taking my time. I wanted to broaden my horizons, go to a major fashion capital, and see how fashion photography looked like on the world stage.
2. Where do you find inspiration, and how is it reflected in your creative process?
I was deeply inspired by Japanese anime Gundam Wing as a child, The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse in art school, and costume design after playing in a Japanese rock cover band in my early teens. I pursued fashion design by dropping out of secondary school and eventually began photographing my designs for assignments, and things took shape from there.
So, in terms of process and inspiration, there’s definitely an anime meets pre-raphaelites visual anchor in my mind, with particular attention paid to costuming, makeup, and hair research and design as vital parts.
3. Through your work, you have met many talented people. Who did you enjoy working with most, and why?
My early days working with Alli Sim at Harper’s Bazaar Singapore left a profound impact. It was the first time I met with an editor for concept meetings, discussed layouts, and made prop and location requests instead of doing everything independently. Our shoots taught me a lot about structure and finesse, and I learned how to pay attention to details in a granular way, something that wasn’t obvious but had a strong influence on the final result and quality of a picture.
In the U.S., I met fashion designer and stylist Phuong My. We were the same age and initially bonded over us being both school dropouts. Later, we became co-creative directors on campaigns for her brand and various covers we did together for Harper’s Bazaar Vietnam.
When I first moved to NYC, I was often told that my work was neither commercial enough nor fine art enough. So, I struggled a lot trying to reconcile with myself about the work that I needed to do versus what I wanted to do. Phuong My pushed me towards keeping my own voice, to keep shooting fashion in my own style. She helped make sure that I could keep working with teams that loved my work for what it was. And for that, I was always grateful.
Eventually, I was tired and decided to quit fashion. But Phuong My asked if I would do one last cover for Harper’s Bazaar Vietnam together with Coco Rocha as the model. Of course, I said yes. That shoot with Coco was a turning point for things. She gave everything I needed perfectly and more. On set, after giving me the shots I asked for, she would take huge gowns and move with them unassisted by assistants and stylists. The shapes created were very organic and different without added hands. With the changing weights and positions of fabrics, the images and compositions changed too. We never published those images that were so different in energy from the original concept. But still, those moments resulted in such an unexpected creative experience that for the first time in my life I changed my mind on something I’d already decided on—I allowed myself to leave the door to fashion ajar just a little longer. I gave myself a little more leeway and time to explore creating with new people again if another meaningful opportunity arose.
4. What are your hobbies?
I like reading manga, playing strategy games, and working on things I like. My interests have ranged from work-related things like self-publishing photo books to unrelated stuff like founding an esports team (Starcraft 2), and working on startup and open-source projects in product, UI and UX. I’ve also dabbled in common hobbies you might expect from a creative, like writing, directing, cooking, taking classes, and managing artist friends in video games and illustration.
5. How do you stay connected to Singapore?
Like everyone else—food!! I love making bak kut teh when I miss SG food because it’s so easy. After that, I go on YouTube and listen to Home like probably thousands of others. 😂 The obvious aside, I usually try to find Singaporean guilds in games I play and hang out on their Discord servers. It’s super nice to hear Singlish once in a while and get to know what people are interested in and up to these days when I’m so far away.
Catch Jingna at Creative X Fest! on Sep. 15 where she and Yiying Lu, San Francisco Arts Commissioner discuss their adventures and challenges as Asian creatives in the U.S. Register here.