Taiwanese-born photographer Yu Tsai has been a mainstay of the SI Swimsuit Issue, having first collaborated with the franchise at a 2009 shoot in Cappadocia, Turkey. Working hand in hand with editor in chief MJ Day – his work has appeared in 11 Swimsuit Issues – he has helped to champion the brand’s progressive mission, working to expand notions of what is deemed beautiful.
“You know, this brand evolved so much when MJ Day took the helm as editor in chief,” says Yu Tsai. “It really was a big movement for the conversation about what inclusion means, and not just in front of the camera. We went from sexy, and let's just say it, and really being a men-focused magazine to celebrating women and all different colors and shades and capturing them in a way that inspires other women. To be able to be a conduit for that is an incredible honor because we don't see that in any fashion magazine.”
Perhaps the work strikes a harmonious chord with Yu Tsai because of his upbringing. His personal journey has shaped his perspective as a photographer. “In the very beginning, I was developing my work and my point of view.” Yu Tsai explains. “Perhaps because I'm gay, I've never objectified women when I photograph them. I’ve wanted to celebrate them. I'm an immigrant and because I'm a minority in this business, I wanted to make sure that anybody who is marginalized is celebrated. You know, I grew up being bullied. I grew up in Terre Haute, Ind., being the only Asian person there. I've been called every name you can think of under the sun and when I wake up every day, I have to look at my skin color and I have to celebrate that. So I know women, when they wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, they have to celebrate that, but it's not easy and some days I go through that, too. ‘I wish I'm not this color. I wish I'm not Asian. I wish my eyes weren’t slanted. I wish I didn't have an accent.’ I use that experience of my own with them.”
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Yu Tsai has learned to turn his own self-doubt into his greatest strength as a photographer by helping models turn towards their insecurities and transform.
Says Yu Tsai, “A lot of people have asked me, ‘How do you become a photographer for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit?’ My answer to them is that it's about your daily belief and your activity. How do you help to celebrate women? What do you do so that women can walk away and celebrate themselves?”
Yu Tsai is continuing to sharpen his craft by helping to bring out other people’s unique individual stories. It’s something that led to his involvement in SI Swimsuit’s Swim Search program, which he has exclusively served as the photographer since its inception in 2018.
“It's different these days. It's more about how I can bring out your beauty and how I can magnify and amplify you so that your messaging is out there,” he says. “I’ve been through so many castings. I’ve sat in a casting chair many times, simply looking at models and saying, ‘Well, you're going to fit that dress beautifully, or you’re going to fit that suit now.’ But this is so different, this is about me getting to know you as a person – modeling is secondary. You know why? Because if I know you, what you represent, what you want to magnify and share out there, I can do my job as a model trainer. Let my job be as a teacher and help you find your angle, help you find your very best that day.
“That's what [Swim] Search is. It's about finding people who truly have a voice and have an understanding of how to help each other. It's about community. When you shoot, for these magazines, other titles, a lot of it is about what product they’re selling. But not for Sports Illustrated. With Swim Search, it is about projecting your self image to inspire others. Tell me another publication that does that. Tell me another opportunity where I get to do that.”
“An assistant I worked with a long time ago, a Black assistant, called me up and said to me, ‘You know, what you do is important. Every time you click and see a person of color in front of you, realize how many young black girls and young boys wish to be you. You need to know you’re in a position they wish they could be.’” he says. “That moment changed my life. I would have never thought of that my race as an immigrant, as Asian, as gay makes a difference, but it does. That's really important. So I am grateful for the franchise giving me the opportunity to grow and keep learning.”