The Old School Meets the New with Sophia Wilson

Sophia Wilson is part of the generation whose career was founded and fostered on Instagram. The photographer and designer's unique style has moved beyond the app and landed her on the pages of fashion magazines worldwide, but she still finds her home on the app.

Lily Bradfield

Sophia Wilson, 2019. Photo by Lumia Nocito.

Artist Sophia Wilson is bringing the technical beauty of film to Instagram one photo shoot at a time. Starting on the social media platform when she was just 12 years old, Wilson found her artistic voice early, a shoot for Nylon during NYFW in 2013 jump-starting her photography career. These days, she balances assignments for Vogue Italia with class time at NYU Tisch. Her analog photo work captures the world in a fantastical light—all intensely saturated colors and warm tones, the images are almost utopian in their composition. Wilson doesn’t limit herself to photography, though, with projects like her customization of Nike sneakers with hand-placed Swarovski crystals adding to the other-worldly feeling of her portfolio. We sat down with her to discuss being a young artist in the age of social media, teen fame and how she stays inspired through it all.

Campaign shot, Vans x Opening Ceremony. Photo by Sophia Wilson.

What are your artistic inspirations? When I was 12, Instagram had just become a thing, and I saw lots of other kids on the internet getting all these followers. They were around my age, just taking pictures of their friends, flowers and their neighborhoods and posting them and getting recognition for the work. I had the realization that I’m an artist so why not pick up photography and see if I can do the same?

I started emailing all of these different companies with my photos that I had taken of my friends, saying “I’m a professional fashion photographer, I would love to shoot your next campaign,” like, random BS. And then a designer responded to me, and Nylon was hosting her fashion week show. She said she would love for me to be the photographer, that it would be featured in Nylon. They didn’t know my age and when I showed up they were like what is going on? Literally a catfish.

Once I got a sense of the industry, I could never turn away from it. Seeing the exciting direction that fashion is going in terms of diversity and creativity fuels my personal creativity.

Are you still inspired by Instagram? For the most part it’s inspiring to me, because unless you have gone through a very specific artistic formal training at an art school, it’s very hard to figure out inspiration for whatever you want to do. But with Instagram, it’s so easy to find inspiration in random things.

Recently, I’ve been saving the most random stuff. Total crap. Like, if someone has a pink Prada shoe on and they step in a gross piece of gum, I’ll save that, because that’s inspiration for my photo work now. That’s how Instagram inspires me now, with stuff that I think people haven’t seen before and would normally take for granted, but that I think is really beautiful.

Sophia Wilson, Air Force 1 for Goldlink, 2019.

You’ve also used Instagram to promote other parts of your practice, like your custom Nikes. How do collaborations like that tie into your identity as a photographer/artist? Before I started making photography, I was always an artist. All my friends have known me as an artist since preschool. With Instagram, since it is meant to be a photo sharing platform, I got tied into photography for a while. But when I was studying for my last set of finals last year, I felt like I really needed to reach back into my creative roots. In the corner of my room there was a pair of fresh white Nikes, and I was like, what if I encrusted those in Swarovski crystals. Then people started DMing me to buy them. They were literally meant to be an art piece, just meant for fun. So I made an account for it (@airforcefuns), but I wasn’t taking it too seriously because this was meant to be for fun, just like everything I do. One day, the rapper Goldlink found me on the explore page, and had his team DM me and ask if I could be his shoe designer for his tour. Then he recommended me to other people, and it kept expanding.

Then Hypebeast and Hypebae reached out to me and wanted me to make content for them. Then Nike wanted to do a deal, and so for Nike Air Max Day they chose a few designers and sent them a pair of Nikes to customize, and then they wrote an article about the designers as an official Nike ad, and I designed a pair for that.

I want to have an art show this summer where I have a bunch of Nikes that I’ve customized, not necessarily all with crystals, but with weird, interesting stuff. Then, if people want to purchase them as art they can. I don’t love the idea of them necessarily being worn. I love fashion and I love art so I love mixing the two, but I don’t want people to see it as fast fashion. I need to figure out a way to present them as art, so I think a show would be a good route. I want to delve into more forms of art and fashion making.

Were you concerned about how people would perceive you as someone so young doing this work? I had a lot of my bigger campaigns when I was 14–15 years old, and when I was doing that I was so scared. I assumed automatically that I wasn’t going to be taken seriously, which wasn’t the case a lot of the time. I found that when I said my age when I reached out to people in the industry, I got a better response when they knew how young I was. Then they thought, this is a woman of color and she’s only 15, this makes for a great story, this proves to other young girls what they can do. At the end of the day, I think it’s pretty baller to be able to do all of this and say you’re doing it at such a young age, and if anyone is salty towards you, they’re just jealous. I don’t think it matters.

Photo Courtesy of Sophia Wilson.

How does identity factor into your work? I think it just influences my life in general. When you’re put in a position where you’re so young, you’re a woman of color, and you’re in an industry where that wasn’t always possible, I think you feel a lot more responsibility to not only be at the top of your game and prove what people like you are capable of, but also be on the other side of the camera, which is cool. It’s given me more of a reason to post pictures of myself on Instagram, because I’ve gotten DMs from lots of kids saying they’re girls of color, and that they never thought this was possible, but then they read an article about me in Vogueand that gave them hope. If I had never posted any pictures of myself people never would’ve know I was a woman of color or that I was so young. Even though my artwork would have still been there, your artwork can’t speak for every part of you as a whole. It’s important to know who made the artwork so that you can be inspired to do the same. I don’t know if you can look at my photos and say, “That was taken by an 18-year-old black woman!” but I think that just being that has inspired every aspect of my life.

How has your vision of photography changed since you started? I’m more open minded to other art forms. When I started out, I was just a different person—that’s the bottom line. I started off taking a lot of self-portraits when I was 12, and a lot of it was darker and deeper for no reason. Now, a lot of my work incorporates a lot of fun stuff, lightheartedness, vibrant hues, and movement, because I’m pretty happy-go-lucky. The casting has also changed—I used to shoot super skinny, tall models, and I realized that was not a healthy image to be projecting. Now, all of my photo work shows people who are average weight and height, varying body types, because that’s way healthier. At the end of the day, everything I do is for fun, even this photo work. This is my fun.