Computer Scientist, Photographer or Both?

Computer Scientist, Photographer or Both?

Shirley Yu shot the cover of ‘Time’ magazine while preparing to graduate

Shirley Yu
“I think my style is childlike in a way," said Shirley Yu. "It’s an extension of who I feel I am when I’m the most happy.” 
Photo: Courtesy Shirley Yu

'I never went to art school, so I didn’t have faculty to give me connections. If I wanted to learn about the photo industry I’d have to take internships, assist photographers, shoot and practice a lot.'
 
– Shirley Yu, graduate

Shirley Yu analyzed the data and did the math.

Studying computer science at Rutgers made logical sense.

Both her parents are employed in the field, which is projected to grow 12 percent in the next decade – faster than the average for all occupations – according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And since women are woefully underrepresented in the computer sciences, odds are competitive job offers will pour in.

But if Yu’s calculations are correct, she’ll exit the industry shortly after entering it – to pursue a career in photography.

“The unique thing about my brain is half of it is very creative, but I’m also a very analytical and technical person,” said Yu. “I always have two sides telling me what my plan should be, and how I should go about things.”

Though she has no formal training in the visual arts, the Edison resident has worked as a professional photographer throughout her undergraduate years in New Brunswick. Yu’s images have racked up half a dozen awards and appeared in multiple publications and websites, including The Cut, People and TeenVogue.com.  And on March 7, her bird’s-eye shot of passengers traveling in driverless convertible was commissioned for the cover of Time.

“I’m booked this spring with paying gigs. After the Time cover, it was crazy,’” she said. 

Balancing her studies and her passion hasn’t been easy. Missteps were made. Like when she chipped in $350 a month for shared studio space in Queens, N.Y., right when her course load began ramping up - keeping her from traveling into the city for shoots three times a month as she'd planned. 

March 7, 2016 Time magazine cover
Yu's bird’s-eye shot of passengers traveling in driverless convertible nabbed the March 7, 2016 cover of "Time."
Photo: Courtesy Shirley Yu
“That was six months of ‘Wow, I’m going to waste a lot of money if I don’t use my studio,’ said the 21-year-old, had to retake a few classes after stretching herself too thin. “I thought I had no limits. That was my biggest mistake.”

But the juggling act has been worth it. When she wasn’t plugging away at her rigorous course work, Yu was elbowing her way into the competitive world of photography. First she forged symbiotic relationships with modeling agencies: Free portraits for new models; free portfolio-boosting experiences for her. She parlayed that into internships at Interview magazine, refinery29.com and Jack Studios. By her junior year, she’d snagged a coveted paying position as social media photo editor at New York Magazine’s The Cut, which covered Yu’s double life in a 2013 article.

“I never went to art school, so I didn’t have faculty to give me connections. If I wanted to learn about the photo industry I’d have to take internships, assist photographers, shoot and practice a lot,” she said.

Yu’s computer science professor Alex Borgida said that while he is in awe of his student’s artistic abilities, her  success into two seemingly different arenas doesn’t come as a surprise.

“Developing new computer algorithms, as well as user interfaces and computer games requires great creativity. Lots have been said about the parallels of creative scientists and artists, and their overlap,” said Borgida. “Shirley is analytic about the way she poses the subject, or how the light falls. And she is creative about how she approaches new programming problems.”

Joan Flower Crown
Yu's approach to fashion photos is lighthearted, colorful and often androgynous.
Photo: Courtesy Shirley Yu
Yu plans to continue straddling both worlds for at least a year or so after graduation, perhaps working at digital media company or publishing house to fund a city apartment and her artistic pursuits. When the photography assignments are consistent and she’s confident her work is superior – and only then – she’ll make the leap to photography.

“I never felt it was a responsible thing for me to drop everything, move to New York and see how it goes,” she said. “I don’t want to have to Airbnb my apartment every time the rent comes due.”

That’s Yu’s rational, measured side talking. The side that plays it safe to honor her parents for all they sacrificed to ensure her success: moving from Beijing to Brooklyn when she was 5 and regrouping after suffering a Great Recession sucker punch.

“It’s not that they tell me I shouldn’t pursue photography, but they do like to remind me: ‘You need an emergency fund. You need an IRA,’ ” said Yu. “I shot the cover of Time magazine and it was still not registering that this is a safe career choice.”