Sitting in Sophia Wilson’s apartment, you can feel a youthful touch on every corner; black-and-white checkered kitchen tops, lime green walls, a bright yellow and red dining table set, a purple fuzzy rug, and an orange couch. She’s sitting across from me, looking as attentive as a New York University student would, but there’s a glimmer in her eye, unlike the students I’ve come across.
The young star has already accomplished more than she could dream. She’s the first artist Instagram has worked with to launch NFTs on the app, has a brow-raising CV including Vogue, Google, the Grammys, The Met, and various fashion weeks over the last few years.
From the beginning, photography came naturally to the 21-year-old artist, making her the black sheep of her academic-oriented family. In her show, The Come Up on Freeform, you see the dynamics at play as she has a choice to make about going back to college or continuing to take agency over her own path. All the adults in her life are pushing for her to finish school, but from what we’ve seen on the show so far, Wilson has it all figured out.
“So many people do things every day that make them so sad, and they’re like, ‘I’m doing this because my mom wants me to do it or because so and so.’ What are you doing living if you’re not happy?” she says on the show. Of course, being on a TV show and receiving all the attention she has comes with some negativity to overcome. Since she’s been working at such a young age, there have been people that have underestimated her from the very conception of her burgeoning career, and she only has one thing to say to them—her story is hers to tell, and she definitely isn’t listening to the negativity. Since taking a break from school, it’s been easier to balance being on the show, and traveling for campaigns, editorials, and press tours. Now she has a team to help support her, but before then, she was a one-woman show paving her own path so, the difficult decision to leave NYU has benefited her so far. Her most difficult challenge thus far is now being in front of the camera rather than behind, “It’s really rewarding, and I’m very grateful for all the opportunities, of course, but it’s just been difficult being seen by so many people and sometimes picked apart on social media that has come along with my job,” she shares.
Her entire life, she’s felt a pull towards being an artist, it was her strongest passion growing up. She got her start hoarding magazines and studying campaigns to develop the very eye that now shoots for the clients she once looked to for inspiration. After months of begging her grandparents for a camera, that spark ignited a fire under her, and she became utterly obsessed with taking pictures. Once Instagram came into the scene at around 13 years old, she knew she had an opportunity to share her perspective with the world. “I saw there were other kids my age on this platform who were sharing their photography and getting recognition for it. Instagram is a democratizing platform in the way that it allows anybody to post their art, and you don’t really get judged for your age, because nobody knows what you look like. I thought, ‘I could do this, even though I’m so young, let me give it a shot.’ So, when Instagram came out, I really got inspired to just go full force and try to be a professional photographer.”
Inspired by the humor and lightness in 90s photography, Wilson takes those feelings she felt when she saw images of carefree subjects and immortalized them again in her own way. All she wants to represent in her photos is joy, especially when it comes to Black subjects. After realizing there aren’t many Black female photographers, she’s taken it upon herself to change that. Her process is one that maybe a few artists can relate to, she often visualizes her imagery in her dreams. “Most of my most successful pieces, I will wake up in the middle of the night after like seeing something in a dream or I’m half asleep, then I’ll have an idea. I’ll be like, ‘Oh my god, I have to execute this into a piece of art.’ So then I just jot it down in a notebook.” When the sleeping visionary awakens, she finds every resource imaginable to execute what she sees in her dreams.
With a list she compiled of about 300 editors, publications, and companies that she’d been wanting to work with she did what any successful entrepreneur would tell you—she cold pitched and maybe lied a little bit. “I sat down, and I mass emailed them one by one introducing myself saying ‘Hi, my name is Sophia Wilson, I’m a professional fashion photographer from New York City, here’s my portfolio, I’d love to shoot for you some time.’ I was not a professional photographer, I was a 13-year-old, and I did not know what I was doing, but that’s the beauty of art. There’s not an age limit on it.”
Naturally, people began to respond to her emails, and she was landing the gigs dreamed of. Some of the first responses were from the co-founders of Paper Magazine, Wilhelmina Models, and Ford Models. She walked into meetings with her parents, somehow wasn’t questioned and even became an in-house photographer for the agencies. Since most models were her age, she was a must-have for them.
At 16 years old, VFILES, at the time the crème de la crème of cool places to be, hired Wilson to be a social media intern. While she was in her math class, she was also posting on Instagram for them, and after class, she was headed downtown for shoots. “I went to a predominantly white school, so I literally had no friends. Everyone thought I was so lame. I would leave in the middle of the lunch period, take the subway downtown, go to Mercer Street, do a photo shoot with, like, Rick Ross or something and go back uptown to math classes as if nothing ever happened,” she reminisces with a smile of hindsight on her face.
As Wilson continues to rack up accolades as a sort of prodigy, she look towards the future with an enigmatic outlook. “Long Term goals and dreams, I just want to be, no, I’m going to be the first Black female artist household name,” she manifests, “… to the status of Andy Warhol or Basquiat or Yoko Ono to Haring, Annie Leibovitz. Growing up, there weren’t many Black female artist household names that I had to look up to.” She wants to be what she needed for other Black girls who are aspiring artists and need a point of reference that isn’t trauma porn but an outlook on Black joy and the resilience and utter beauty that is radiated from Black women.