Posing videos jumpstart photographer alum to TikTok fame
David Suh ’17 went viral on TikTok in 2020 for all the right reasons. In his videos, the professional photographer shares tips and tricks on how to feel confident in front of a camera and, most importantly, that “you don’t need anything more than yourself to be beautiful.”
“Through my work, I hope that people will gain an expanded mind and view of themselves and understand that they’re enough,” Suh said, who graduated with a degree in design. “We are enough to be celebrated for our identity and beauty.”
Suh is striking a chord. He has more than 4.4 million followers and 115.9 million likes on TikTok, where he posts almost daily. He physically demonstrates and often dresses up to show people of all shapes and sizes dynamic poses to elevate confidence. Whether his client is in a wheelchair, in heels, with a partner, on a couch, in a pool or holding props, Suh helps them highlight what they believe is their best feature.
While the alum always had an eye for art, Suh said one major takeaway from his education at UC Davis was learning the difference between art and design thinking: “The first thing I ever learned in design was that art doesn’t need any justification or purpose. You express whatever you want to express. Design, on the other hand, needs a purpose; it needs to solve some sort of problem,” he said.
Suh approaches photography with a design mindset.
“I'm creating something for someone else to love; I'm designing a photo for someone,” he said.
Since Suh moved to Los Angeles in 2021, David Suh Photography has grown significantly. Solo shoots range from $4,850 to $12,000 and he books out six months ahead. However, he gives more credit to his work ethic than to his location.
“You don't become a successful photographer just because you're in L.A. or just because you're in New York,” Suh said. “If you understand your worth, understand how to communicate well, and empathize and help people, you should be able to succeed wherever you are.”
Appreciating freedom in America
Suh grew up in South Korea and Hong Kong, so arriving in the U.S. to attend UC Davis came with culture shock.
“My first impression of UC Davis was that it's absolutely enormous and really beautiful,” Suh said. “As a Korean who was trying to figure out where I fit in American society, it was a very interesting experience and there was a lot to get used to.”
As Suh adjusted to his new life, he wanted to start his photography business sooner rather than later. He decided to take a break after sophomore year—and after showing his “traditionally strict parents” a PowerPoint presentation to sell them on the idea.
“Something I had access to when I came to America that I didn’t have before was my personal freedom to take control of my life,” Suh said. “I advertised my photography at the MU (Memorial Union) and started taking grad photos.”
It was this year at UC Davis when Suh said he learned the most.
“I wanted to soak in everything I could learn like a sponge,” he said.
Suh quickly realized he wanted to provide more than just a service: He wanted people to celebrate their beauty and identity through portraits.
“The concept of taking professional photos to celebrate yourself without any real reason didn’t really exist at the time,” Suh said. “People just thought, ‘I need photos for graduation, headshots to get employed, or for their engagement and wedding celebrations.’”
Suh gained invaluable entrepreneurial skills and said being at UC Davis helped him pinpoint his goal to help people love themselves through photography.
After he graduated, Suh opened his first official studio at his residential townhouse in Davis. In 2018, he moved to a commercial studio in Sacramento and then two major events occurred: the pandemic and going viral.
“When my TikTok blew up during quarantine, it took my success to another level and I decided to move to L.A. to experience living in an area saturated with art,” Suh said.
He hired his first full-time employee and contracted with a manager, a fellow UC Davis graduate.
Suh’s working relationship with Megan Frantz ’11, talent manager at Whalar who represents David alongside Rick Bhatia, is built on trust. A fan of Suh’s work, Frantz has been following his photography journey since he only had 2,000 followers on Instagram.
“Sometimes having representation in management can feel transactional,” Suh said. “But when Megan reached out to me, it felt genuine and there’s always a great feeling about having a shared experience with a fellow Aggie.”
Now Suh manages three full-time and two part-time employees, and collaborates with sponsors, brands and advertising agencies. Suh believes he experienced success as a photographer because his work comes from his heart.
“What is fulfilling to me is when my client says the photo I’ve taken for them is the most beautiful photo of themselves they’ve ever seen,” Suh said. “It may not be up to my standards in terms of skill, but as long as they love it, I’ve accomplished my job.”
Suh said with his newfound prosperity, it only makes sense to help up-and-coming photographers.
“I want to help talented photographers get the exposure they need to serve more clients in a positive way,” Suh said, extending a general invitation to other UC Davis students.
“I’m super passionate about empowering people to achieve what they want in life and would love to have open and transparent conversations about this with fellow Aggies.”