As a child, nothing pointed to Justin Wu becoming an award-winning photographer and film director.
"Although I wanted to always pursue the arts, I never really had the support to," he recalls.
Justin graduated with a major in biology at Queen’s University then completed an Honours in Business Administration at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario. Throughout his school days, Wu discovered photography and poured his heart and soul into it. In his final year, he completed an exchange program in Paris where he finally found his calling and he was discovered. He later worked for Vogue, Elle, and GQ, to name a few across the world.
Since then, it's all been an upwards trajectory. From photography, Justin quickly transitioned into filmmaking. His first short film won him an Emerging Director Award at an Academy Qualifying Film Festival and he later graduated from Ryan Murphy’s Half Initiative in Los Angeles. Wu eventually returned to his native city of Toronto to be closer to family. With more than a decade of photo and film experience behind him, working with celebrities such as Susan Sarandon to Joaquin Phoenix, he made his television directorial debut on CBC x Netflix's hit sitcom Kim's Convenience. Today, he is now directing blocks of scripted narrative episodes for various studios including the BBC and he is preparing for his first feature film next year.
Throughout his career, Wu has used his art as a tool for social change. He co-founded and supported 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 demand equity as a Champion of Change.
Global Citizen recently caught up with Wu to learn more about his work, how he got into photography and film, 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 was always intrigued by art. When I grew up I dealt with severe identity issues and I found that art helped. 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 opportunity in Canada. I was raised with Eastern values at home while being nurtured in the West at school, and I had a hard time trying to understand my place in society. Through art and stories from around the world, I discovered myself and my personal values.
Photography was a coincidental thing that happened when I was heading to university. My dad gifted me his old film camera and thought it’d be a fast art because the theory is that you just point the camera, you click, and you're done. Little did my dad realize (and little did I realize) photography ended up being the medium of my choice. I found that there is a unique 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 within an image. 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.
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 university, 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.
In 2006, as a pre-med student, I went to Kingston, Jamaica, to support an organization called Missionaries for the Poor which collaborates with Doctors Without Borders. At the time, Kingston was among the most dangerous cities on the planet. My friends and I wished to get hands-on experience with frontline medicine and open our eyes to the plight of extreme poverty and violence. We assisted Doctors Without Borders in any way we could. In one rotation, we offered psychological relief for individuals living with HIV and AIDS who did not have — and would not have — the proper medical care. While I was there, I brought my camera and I decided to document that experience. My aim was to capture these powerful stories of individuals who are truly suffering and victims of circumstance so that people at home would empathize with their situation.
By spotlighting and educating the public, I feel we can all take action to, as best possible, try to aid and come up with solutions. This was just one of many different examples where I firmly understood the power of storytelling and the value of sharing these much-needed stories. That was one of the most impactful projects I embarked on that was voluntary, deeply meaningful, and life-changing.
Another piece that was particularly meaningful to me was telling my story via a short film I directed. It was about dealing with coming out to my parents and some of the trials and tribulations that occurred as a result. Even though it's my personal story, I was encouraged by how people around the world were able to relate to it, respond to it, and be moved by it because they could feel that same pressure and that same situation themselves. That further reminded me that many of our personal struggles unique to ourselves can also be shared universally and the power of storytelling.
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. The power of art is that it can be a universal form of entertainment, but also an educational tool. It's an alternative medium to news where people can experience truths from a different perspective - be it through music, writing, or a visual art like photography or film. It’s an alternative means to communicate, to learn, to have their thoughts challenged, and to engage in thoughtful discussion.
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?
Being a photographer and then later a film director, I've always been a student of humanity and I’ve always been curious.
To speak someone’s truth authentically I’ve always believed that you have to take time to get to know and understand their way of thinking, their culture, and their life. It’s given me a more rounded perspective on the world and ultimately, it’s made me a much more sympathetic, empathetic, and enriched individual.
We all have such different morals and values and it’s important to take into account perspective, history, and context. If we can understand that, I believe we can come up with meaningful solutions to solve the world’s problems.
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’m excited to be directing my first feature film. 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. In 2019, I co-founded an award-winning awareness campaign about how we can tackle climate change on an individual level for the United Nations. 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.