This Award-Winning Photographer and Filmmaker Is Using His Platform to Drive Change

[Global Citizen] This Award-Winning Photographer and Filmmaker Is Using His Platform to Drive Change

As a child, nothing pointed to Justin Wu becoming an award-winning photographer and film director. 

"I'm not a very good sketcher or a drawer, and although I wanted to always pursue the arts, I never really had the means to," he recalls.

Initially enrolled as a biology student at the University of Toronto, Wu parted ways with the rigorous academic demands of a science degree to pursue a career that ended up taking him to Paris — where he worked for Vogue, Elle, and GQ, to name a few.

Since then, it's all been an upwards trajectory, with his work eventually leading back to his native city of Toronto, which acts as both a refuge and a source of inspiration for him. With more than a decade of photo experience behind him, working alongside celebrities such as Susan Sarandon to Joaquin Phoenix, the artist's vision evolved to filmmaking, earning him a directorial debut on Netflix's sitcom Kim's Convenience.

These days, Wu is putting effort into using art as a tool for social change. Supporting various United Nations' campaigns on topics ranging from human rights to climate change, it was only natural that he would end up supporting Global Citizen's mission to end extreme poverty as a Champion of Change.

Global Citizen recently caught up with  Wu to learn more about his work, how he got into photography, and to get his take on the connection between art and activism.

Global Citizen: You went from studying biology to becoming a photographer. How did you go from there to where you are now?

Justin Wu: As a child, I had always been intrigued by art, and the reason is that I grew up with severe identity issues. I was born and raised in Toronto to parents who fled China to go to Hong Kong when they were children, and, subsequently, left to seek a better world and a better opportunity. I was raised with Eastern values at home while being nurtured in the Western community with Western values, so I had a hard time trying to understand my place in society, and found that I couldn't communicate very well. I was very much an introvert. Through art, which requires a lot of interpretation and imagination, I could find my place. 

Photography was a coincidental thing that happened when I was heading to university. My dad thought it’d be a fast art because the theory is that you just point to the camera, you click the camera, and you're done. Little did my dad realize (and little did I realize) photography ended up being the medium of my choice because I found that there is a power to it that many of the other media that I dabbled in — sketching, drawing, sculpting — could not give me: that is, the sense of reality that must be captured. It's a real moment in time, with real people, in a real place … That became my first foray into photography. It began as a means to express myself, and, subsequently, it became a passion after I was gifted my dad's film camera.

So you started on film before transitioning to other mediums?

Yeah, that was really how I began. I experiment in so many different parts of the arts. I even tried dabbling in music, composing music, you know, performing music. But it didn't click with me as much as photography did at the time. And again, I think it was the sense of capturing a moment in time, in reality, that was a powerful tool for me to express myself. 

Speaking of capturing moments, what is the one that stands out to you the most — your favourite story or project?

When I was in pre-med, art, even photography, was never a viable career at the time. My parents didn't support it, and I didn't even think it was possible, so it was always a passion project.

But … in 2006, I believe, I went to Kingston, Jamaica, joining an organization called Missionaries for the Poor. This is a religious organization. I am not religious, but they do a lot of missionary work and collaborations with organizations like Doctors Without Borders. At the time, Kingston was deemed the most dangerous city on the planet. Even with the government warnings telling us not to go, I decided to go anyway because I wanted to see the world for what it was … I was there to primarily support through our skills in the medical field, assisting Doctors Without Borders, and offering psychological relief for Haitians living with HIV and AIDS who did not have  — and would not have — the proper medical care … While I was there, I also brought my camera and decided to document a lot of that experience — not only document what I saw, but also capture these powerful stories of people that are truly suffering and victims of circumstance.

I would try to show those images and tell their stories to my friends, colleagues, to the public, spotlight a plight that they have [so we could] all together empathize with the situation and come up with solutions. This was just one of many different examples where I firmly knew the power of photography and telling these much-needed stories. That was one of the most impactful projects I embarked on that was voluntary and very meaningful. 

Another piece that I worked on was my own short story. I didn't realize how cathartic [it would be] to be able to tell my story in my way — that is, me coming out to my parents and some of the trials and tribulations that occurred as a result. I wrote the story along with a friend of mine, Alessandra, who scripted [it]. I directed it in French with French actors in France, and it jumpstarted my career. There was a certain authenticity to it because it was the story I wanted to tell of my upbringing, and that was a really important message at the time because I don't recall exactly when marriage equality was starting to form … It was really at that critical juncture. Even though it's my personal story, contextually changed to French culture, people were able to relate to it, respond to it, and be moved by it because they could feel that same pressure, that same situation themselves. That further … reminded me that a lot of struggles are unique to ourselves, but also universal to the world.

Your work is proof that documenting and telling stories are essential parts to creating change. What are some other ways that art can help shape a better world?

Communication comes in different formats. We have verbal communication, where we speak to each other; we have the power of videos, which are an auditory and visual medium; we have radio programs that are strictly audio; and fictional programs, which are fictitious, but still have to be grounded in some kind of truth … I think that the draw of art is that we are all using these different forms of communication to educate, share perspectives, and challenge thoughts. 

It's very easy for us, especially in today's world, to fall into our social bubble, circle, our silo of thought, so people around us gravitate towards a similar mindset. I think many people look at art as a place to be uncomfortable and to have their thoughts challenged.

People often ask me, "Is it not repetitive for you to do this and this? Why are you talking about this topic using photography when someone else has already done a novel?" The way I see it is that it's really down to reaching audiences in different ways. Some people love to read, some people love to go to galleries. Some people love to scroll... As for the creator, it's the same thing, in that certain individuals are very gifted in music and can compose beautiful orchestral pieces or ballads, jazz, pop, and rap; they're able to convey what they feel in that medium, their own way. On both sides — the creative side as well as the receiving side — it's all to serve the same [goal]: to speak your truth, challenge people's thoughts, and, hopefully, learn something as a result.

You’ve spent close to a decade in France and around the globe. Can you tell me more about how that’s shaped your understanding of the world, but also your work as a photographer and filmmaker more generally?

I'm a general Francophile — I love the culture, the language, and the people. Being a photographer and then later a filmmaker and film director, I've always been a student of humanity. I've always loved to dabble in different cultures and not just France. The beauty of my work has allowed me to travel to so many different parts of the world and meet some beautiful people, and that, to me, is the real joy of it all: to be able to absorb and learn from different people, but also interact with them. 

Prior to the pandemic, I went to Cambodia and I was very curious to experience and learn about [its] history — the good and the bad. To me, it's really important because it colours my perspective, adds richness to a part of the world that I was not fully educated on growing up, and gives me a much more rounded perspective on the world. 

My experience in France is just an example of how, if given an opportunity — I know it comes from a place of privilege to be able to travel so much — you will become a much more rounded, sympathetic, empathetic individual who can understand that things in the world are not necessarily black and white. We all have such different morals and values, and there is no one right or wrong way. It's all about perspective and context. I think that's the lesson [I] learned from being able to live in France for so long.

What upcoming projects are you currently excited about?

There are a few that I'm very excited to share. 

Although I began as a photographer, it was film and TV that sparked [my] imagination for me growing up. Film and TV allowed me to observe and connect with so many different cultures. Movies like City of God gave me a very unique perspective on what it's like to live in the favelas in Brazil during a time when there was a lot of strife. How would I have known and experienced any of that?

Now, many years later, I have been able to evolve from photography to filmmaking. Next spring, I will be excitedly directing my first feature film. The film I did in France is a short film; today, I'm happy to announce that my first feature film has been planned to shoot for a streamer early next year. It's a universal story, and I can't share too many other details, but I'm pouring my heart and soul into it because I know that there's a positive message that comes from it. It's going to be POC-led and it will show another perspective on a social topic and issue that's very near and dear to me. 

Another is joining Champions for Change. That's one of the big highlights of this year: to be able to join Global Citizen … [Earlier this year], we created a very successful awareness campaign about how we can tackle climate change on an individual level [with the UN]. That inspired me to find other organizations like the UN, where I'm able to help in that same fashion. When the opportunity came, and I was graciously approached to become a Champion of Change, I was very excited because I believe that the importance of being a champion is understanding our role in society.

I am privileged to have built all this access, platform, and voice. I feel that I now share the responsibility of finding new ways to use my voice, platform, the skills I have developed for more than a decade for social good, and things I believe in — living in a free and equitable society. Inequality is something that I certainly faced growing up; discrimination was something I’ve personally dealt with and faced — and sometimes still face to this day. Identifying the issues that matter to me and supporting an organization that also believes in the same values is extremely important. The goal is to use what I have to inspire the next generation so they can be leaders and continue to shepherd change, spotlight the issues, and find solutions to these problems that need to be fixed.

On the film and TV side, I want to continue sharing stories that are otherwise not told, leaving a positive impact through the stories that showrunners provide me.

Do you think of art as a form of activism?

I think [art and activism] are not mutually exclusive. I don't believe that art is a form of activism; I think art can be a form of activism. A novel or a book can be self-referential and speak your truth, but also invoke change. That's one of the various functions that art can do as well.