How Not Fitting In Can Work To Your Advantage

Whether rooted in reality or a glamorized rom-com, job stereotypes make it easy to assume the voices behind most runway reviews, PR pitches, and cover stories are female — and that might be true. But according to Sunny Shokrae, a 32-year-old photographer, the view from behind the lens tells a very different story. After making a career pivot, Shokrae broke into the world of fashion photography and was surprised to learn that the profession seemed to still favor men (and according to Fortune, more specifically when it comes to salary). As she explains, it’s not rare that she’s mistaken for the stylist or an assistant on set. And being part of the female minority is just one of the reasons the New York-based creative considers herself an outsider in an industry full of insiders. Shokrae is also an Iranian immigrant and West Coast transplant who chose a path less followed — one that didn’t guarantee financial security. After picking up a camera as a child — and practically never putting it down — she’s applied her unique view of the world to her photos to create honest, emotional, vibrant images. Going on three and a half years as a professional photographer, she tells us, she’s already created work for Elle, Marie Claire, Oyster,, numerous fashion campaigns, and, well, it’s no secret she’s a favorite of ours. Now, for our third edition of The Next Set, a series featuring game-changing artists with Kit and Ace’s game-changing technical fabrics, we take a closer look at Shokrae, her constantly expanding work, and why being on the outside looking in is often the very best vantage point.
Left: Kit and Ace top, Stella McCartney pants, and Sunny's own jewelry. Right: Kit and Ace top, Maiyet pants, & Other Stories shoes, Sunny's own jewelry.
Was it always your intention to go into photography?
“That’s a complicated question because the option of photography as a career didn’t seem real to me for a very long time — partly because I didn’t want to disappoint my family by not doing the practical thing and partly because I had no idea it could be such a lucrative career. Although, as a young kid, I was compulsively taking photographs because I just loved to do it. It wasn’t until someone else believed in me (i.e. the International Center of Photography program) that I felt confident enough to pursue it as career path.” Your educational background — before you studied at the ICP, that is — is in politics and sociology. Does that influence your current line of work?
“I’m so grateful for my undergrad liberal arts education because I had dedicated time to study things that interested me while I figured out who I was going to be as a person. I’m interested in the world, what’s happening in it, and the people around me and far away from me. When I first got into photography, I thought I maybe wanted to be a war photographer or a social documentarian — it’s still something I deeply respect.”
Kit and Ace shirt, Acne jacket and skirt, & Other Stories shoes, Sunny's own jewelry.
Fashion photography is highly competitive. How do you stand out?
“There are so many talented working photographers in the world right now, today more than ever because of access and technology. It really comes down to your point of view, your creative approach, and your network. It’s so hard to describe my own POV, but I feel good in photographing moments of stillness and flux, while demonstrating an ease and fluidity that's comforting and nostalgic, with vibrancy that's both modern and timeless. Moray Mair once wrote this about my work and I really liked it: ‘Perhaps it’s Shokrae’s upbringing as an Iranian in America, a Californian girl in New York, a perpetual outsider with one foot in each culture that gives her a sense of openness and understanding that we are all the same.’” Do you find that your multicultural background makes you an outsider?
“I think that being an outsider speaks more to the fact that as someone who immigrated, I appreciate what I have because I wasn’t born into it. I am always seeing things a little more clearly and celebrating the opportunity that I’ve been given in this very hard, cruel world.” How has this notion of being an outsider affected your career?
“One of the challenges I had was figuring out where I fit in within the world of photography. I think all photographers are black sheep in their own ways — that’s why we prefer to be behind the camera, creating images that say something about who we are indirectly. I like being a part of this world of outsiders; I feel right at home.”
Kit and Ace blanket and skirt, ATM turtleneck, Sunny's own jewelry.
Speaking of “fitting in,” you’ve said in past interviews that you tend to wear all black while working. Why is that?
“I don’t necessarily wear all black — I did at one point because it was easy to pick out and it didn’t say anything one way or the other. But now I’m enjoying wearing things with a personal touch, whether it’s a custom letterman patch, an enamel pin, something worn-in and soft...the key is to be comfortable but not sloppy, always put together.” Are there any specific challenges associated with dressing for your job?
“You’d think you could wear whatever you want, and you can for the most part. But there’s probably no bigger place of style judgment than working within the fashion industry. It hasn’t been a challenge necessarily, but it has been something to think about: What you wear as a female in a male-dominated industry (like every other industry) and how you are perceived. I’m all about breaking rules, but somehow in this situation I feel more comfortable dressing more masculine, minimal, simple.” How have you coped with being among the minority of women in this profession?
“Sex discrimination is a very real thing in our industry, like most others, and something as simple as how you put yourself together matters. I’ve walked onto a set a number of times to someone asking me if I’m the stylist or telling me they’re waiting for the photographer. There have been challenges, but at the end of the day I try not to think too much about what I’m wearing because there are far greater problems in the world.” Looking ahead, where do you hope to see your career taking you in the next 10 years? Or 20?
“The next 10 or 20 years...I’m not exactly sure what photography will look like at that point, so I have no clue. My dream project would be to spend a year in Iran with my camera, freely photographing whatever I want. I would also love to work with Saint Laurent or Céline, in any capacity, but more specifically on designing camera bags for those of us who are sick of boring, practical designs.”
Left: Kit and Ace shirt, Acne jacket and skirt, & Other Stories shoes, Sunny's own jewelry. Right: Kit and Ace top, Stella McCartney pants, Alexander Birman shoes, and Sunny's own jewelry.

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