Starting to Click

USD alumnus and photographer Justin Chung


It’s a career with a trajectory that resembles a comet streaking through the sky, but that arc makes perfect sense when you see Justin Chung’s photographs, which are both objectively gorgeous and bathed in a warm patina of authenticity.

While his clients now include big hitters like Apple, Levi’s, J. Crew and Esquire, Chung’s entry into that rarified air was almost accidental.

“I was about to jump into medical school,” he recalls. He was back in his hometown of San Francisco after earning a master’s in public health. He’d had a growing interest in photography, even writing his master’s thesis about how the medium could work as a tool to help with public health. So he continued to pick up his camera.

“I was deciding whether it would be medical school or taking photos. And I photographed every day for fashion agencies, for model agencies, to see if it would work out.”

And then?

Photographer Justin Chung '08 (BA) on the job.

Photographer Justin Chung ’08 (BA) on the job.

“It just started to click. Inquiries started to come in organically, and photography opportunities led themselves from one to the next. Although I’m self-taught, I’m lucky that I was able to have so many opportunities to just keep shooting and learning from each project, each story.”

That’s how Chung — who earned a bachelor’s degree in communication studies from USD in 2008 — and then-girlfriend Emily (Clarke) Chung ’08 (BA), decided to move to New York in 2011, shifting course dramatically, leaving Justin’s med school plan behind.

“He moved to New York City to try to make it as a fashion and brand photographer,” recalls Associate Professor Esteban del Río ’95 (BA), ’96 (MEd). “Him and thousands and thousands and thousands of others, right? And he made it — quickly. He’s now a very prominent fashion and brand photographer. His work is much sought after.”

While it’s a remarkable story, in some ways del Río sees it as inevitable.

“If you look at his work across all kinds of projects, it’s amazing in terms of its continuity and authenticity,” he says.

The friendship between the two — del Río was Chung’s undergraduate adviser — had no small part in the way Chung’s journey has unfolded.

“In any student/professor or advisory relationship, you’re talking about things like, ‘What courses do you need for your major?’” explains del Río. “But what’s typical for me in office hours is to end up in deeper conversions about vocation and music and art and photography and all the things that I love. And that’s how it was for Justin and I. When he first became interested in photography, I had small children, and I told him how I was really enjoying taking pictures of my daughter.”

Chung has a similar recollection of how that nascent spark grew into a flame. “My interest in photography was growing over the years, starting from talks in college with del Río.” The two remained friends after graduation, particularly after Chung wound up attending graduate school at del Río’s alma mater, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

“It was almost as though I was in his footsteps on the East Coast, just pursuing a different degree,” says Chung.

“I was over the moon,” recalls del Río. “They were moving to Northampton, and I was excited because I missed my little New England town. All along, he was starting to take pictures. I was following him on Flickr and there was a particular kind of emotion to see his photographs and a really beautiful reliance on natural light. He was clearly skilled.”

After Chung and Emily, who is now his wife, moved to New York, his career continued to take off. “In late 2012, I started being commissioned by J. Crew to do lifestyle profiles on various artists and creatives and showcase the fashion element through them. I became really fond of those kind of stories, which allowed me to connect with other creatives.”

In 2013, he went to Japan for one of those profiles and wound up extending his trip to photograph other artists.

“There was one subject, Tokuhiko Kise, who has a furniture brand with a staff of 40-50 craftsmen. And I was able to build this beautiful photo essay of my trip to his compound,” Chung recalls. “But when I came back to the states, I didn’t know what to do with it.”

But del Río had continued to follow Chung on social media and got in touch. “He messaged me, and said, ‘I can’t believe you’re shooting for J. Crew, this is incredible.’” The two got on the phone and Chung mentioned an idea he was interested in.

USD Professor Esteban del Rio in his natural element.

USD Associate Professor Esteban del Río ’95 (BA), ’96 (MEd) in his natural element, as featured in Faculty Department — Vol. 2.

“When we talked about how much this documentary essay meant to me, he said it made him think that, in a way, I was still learning from these people. As if the world was my school and I was enlisting my own faculty, a faculty of thought.”

It was an ultimate aha moment for the photographer.

Chung’s coffee table book, Faculty Department, was self-published in 2014 with a small run of 3,000 copies.

“It was published just about a year and a half after we’d talked about it,” del Río recalls. In a quirky twist of fate, Chung was returning from a press check for the book from the printer in Iceland and had a job in Los Angeles afterward.

“I flew to L.A. with the press sheet with me, in hand, and it turned out that del Río was at a conference there and was staying in the same hotel I was. It was exciting because he was the first person to see what the pages actually looked like,” Chung says. “He was able to see the whole thing come full circle from the concept to the printing to the finished product.”

“We had breakfast and he showed me the proofs,” del Río recalls. “I was looking at the way that the images were coming together and I thought his photos matched who he is as a person. The book is beautiful. There are a lot of great photographers, but Justin shows up as authentically himself, authentically curious, authentically engaged. The relationships he’s able to develop have delivered a career where that’s appreciated.”

Faculty Department — Vol. 2 was released in October 2019. And, again, Chung’s relationship with del Río played a part.

“For this next one, I really wanted it to be more personal,to share stories that kind of leaned toward my own personal curiosities,” Chung explains. “The first book showcased various professional career choices and explained a little bit about the subject’s personal journey. Whereas this book, I think, takes you more into my own personal journey that explores certain ways of living. This book has a lot more of the connections and people that are in my own personal circle.”

USD Professor Esteban del Rio

Portrait of USD Associate Professor Esteban del Río ’95 (BA), ’96 (MEd) as featured in Faculty Department — Vol. 2.

Up front and center — in fact, featured in the opening pages — is Esteban del Río. “I wanted to spotlight him as a professor but it’s also about how he balances his professional lifestyle with his personal lifestyle.”

“When he told me last year that he was going to publish a second edition and that he wanted to include me, I was floored,” says del Río. “I knew what this project means to him, and I knew what it meant for the kind of people he was profiling. I was delighted to continue the conversation with Justin in a way that was more public.”

On the day of the photo shoot, there was quite a bit of excitement in the del Río household.

“I’ve never really sat for a photo session,” del Río admits. “I’m not used to being in front of the camera.” Naturally, his daughters, Lucia, age 14, and Ida, age 9, wanted to know what it was going to be like to have a professional photographer in the house. Their dad told them just to go about their lives like a normal day.

“They were going to come over at 6 a.m. on a school day. So the kids were up at 5 a.m., they were dressed, and Lucia is reading at my desk. Ida is sitting and looking at a book on the sofa quietly.” He laughs. “This is not how mornings normally are!”

Chung put the girls at ease and found ways to get them to behave as they naturally would. “What we got was a priceless day-in-the-life morning at our house. My wife, Alicia, wanted me to ask him if he’d do a portrait of us because we’ve never had one done, for a Christmas card. And I said, ‘Oh, Alicia, Justin’s going to come in as an artist, and shoot these beautiful pictures of our family going about their business in the morning. That’s going to be gold for us in the future! Why do you want some kind of cheesy family portrait? Let’s go to Olan Mills for that.’

“But she asked him, and you know what? They came out beautifully. And now our parents have those pictures in their houses.”

They say an artist’s vision matures over time,” reflects del Río. “I think, especially with Faculty Department — Vol. 2, there’s a way he can deepen his own practice. Not just with the industry where he’s getting a lot of his work, but also as an artist, as a storyteller.”

The pair’s relationship has deepened over the years. Both are still evolving, growing and talking about where their life journeys might take them.

“My conversations with Justin have helped me remind myself that there are no guarantees about my future and how I might continue to share my gifts and talents in the world,” del Río muses. “Conversations with Justin and some of his friends have me wondering, ‘How else can I, as a writer, find an audience outside of the academic journals I get published in?’”

Detail photo from Justin Chung's second book, Faculty Department — Vol. 2.

Detail photo from Justin Chung’s second book, Faculty Department — Vol. 2.

Chung remains self-reflective as he goes about his day-to-day work. “I just did a project for a fashion brand, and the art director said that because I’m not so technical and didn’t go to school for this, it actually plays in my favor, because the photos have their own unique look that’s not taught. It’s something that I’ve created in my own way, with my own process. He was intrigued and excited to work this way, because we were just capturing moments that we wouldn’t normally expect.”

As for del Río, he continues to marvel at Chung’s evolution. “It’s really kind of both rare and beautiful when the world of work and vocation accepts and wants and seeks authenticity. Too often, work asks us to be something besides what we really want to be. Justin has been able to follow his vision and desire to tell stories, and in my view, Faculty Department. allows him to really say, ‘Here are the stories that I want to tell. Here are the people who I find inspiration from.’”

With Faculty Department — Vol. 2, Chung’s appreciation for the way creative people — chefs, sculptors, tailors, designers, editors, professors, curators, architects — live and work emanates on every page. The book (“23 stories / 372 pages / 578 photos”) is a thing of beauty, celebrating individuals from all over the world and the ways that they’ve thoughtfully built their careers while striving to live their best life.

Clearly, del Río is rightfully proud of Chung, not just as a former student but as a friend. “We need more authentic voices in the world,” he says. “What I see most in his work — and what I hope to see more of — is hope. When he talks about inspiration and inspiring people, this is hope to create a better world. That’s how I read it, and that’s what I want to be a part of with him.” — Julene Snyder

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