“For so many years in my life, I was always told by everyone I knew—friends, family, school councillors, teachers, employers—that my pursuit to be an artist was futile or a waste of time,” says Justin Wu. “However, that only fuelled my fire and desire to prove them wrong and to express my truth.”
Scarborough-born international celebrity fashion photographer, Justin Wu, successfully made the jump into film with his directorial debut on the Canadian hit television series, Kim’s Convenience and is poised to make his mark on the industry, one scene at a time. This self-taught photographer flexed his creative muscle for the first time in his freshman year of college; with the help of an art major living on his floor, Wu took his first steps towards a career in the arts and has never looked back.
Wu finds his inspiration through storytelling. He is constantly interested in what is going on in the world and what stories are on the news; according to Wu, there is no better way to better understand humanity than to watch, read and listen to other’s speak their truth.
“My creative process tends to start with developing a compelling character—real or fictional. To me, it’s the requisite ingredient to grab the attention of the audience,” says Wu. “Then, I like to build a world around that character and as best as possible, make it feel authentic.”
His advice when working with personalities on set: do your research and find an angle that hasn’t been seen by the individual. Wu believes that like most people, celebrities enjoy a challenge and doing something different every once and a while.
As a photographer, Wu has worked with many A-List celebrities. His favourites include the living legend, Joaquin Phoenix and funny-man, Rainn Wilson. Wu says his life is one perpetual “pinch-me” moment after another, his latest being walking onto set of Kim’s Convenience and calling action for the first time. And I have to say… not bad for a directorial debut.
says Wu. “In the back of my mind that passion was always there. I grew up in a small suburb of Toronto and I loved watching films. However, Hollywood always felt impossibly far away. So the moment I felt it was remotely possible, I did everything I could to educate myself, train, and make that dream come true.”
Aside from his photography and film work, Wu can also be found in a New York classroom where he guest lectures regularly in photography classes. It was on the set of Kim’s Convenience directing Andrea Bang—who plays Janet on the show—how to teach photography for a scene when he had his full circle moment, never having had the opportunity to take art classes in school himself. Teaching is an opportunity this self-taught photographer never passes up; educating, enriching and inspiring the new generation of artists is a big part of Wu’s legacy, and something he will continue to do in the future.
When I asked Wu about his dream job, he responded quickly and confidently: to direct an episode or feature film within the Star Trek Universe. He recalls having first discovered the franchise as a child after his late father suffered a catastrophic car accident, leaving him confined to hospital for the better part of a year. Wu would visit his father every day after school and tuning into the latest Star Trek episode became an evening ritual for the two.
“Not only was it a show that was way ahead of its time, but one that inspired me and so many great thinkers,” Wu said. “[Star Trek] painted a picture of what humanity could achieve and how anything was possible. It pioneered social change and it sparked my imaginations. It was one of the reasons why I wanted to be a part of film and television.”
Two years ago, Wu expanded his resume yet again to include working with the United Nations. Alongside his goodwill partner, Todd Krim, Wu has had the opportunity to develop awareness campaigns for almost all branches of the UN from the Environment Programme to Human Rights. Working with these global organizations has helped to shape Wu’s holistic view of the world; he believes we are all interconnected and have a shared responsibility to help one another.
It was during the 2020 COVID-19 crisis when Wu found his next project. As we all felt the effects of the pandemic around the world, Wu was heartbroken to discover that the people most affected were refugees. Being connected with the United Nation refugee agency, the UNHCR, Wu was made aware that the international refugee crisis had reached a historic peak—prior to 2020—with over 80-million people displaced and counting.
As borders and doors continued closing throughout the early stages of the pandemic, Wu began interviewing several prominent refugees to help him understand their plight. It was then that he met Biko Beauttah, a leading Black Transgender refugee in Canada.
“In telling her harrowing journey and highlighting the challenges refugees face and I hope to make people empathize and recognize the humanitarian crisis that is ongoing,” says Wu.
He tells Beauttah’s story in his first feature documentary, which he hopes to premier at TIFF this summer.
Looking to the future, Wu is intent on continuing his work in television and film, in the hopes that his work on a serialized TV show and a feature documentary will continue to open doors for him professionally. No matter what genre or medium Wu is working in, he always strives to challenge himself, educate others and amplify diverse voices.
Wu relocated from LA back to Toronto just prior to the global pandemic hitting in 2020 for two reasons: the first being his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer and he felt he had to come home to support his family; and the second being that Toronto has developed rapidly in the last five years into a thriving creative hub. Even after the passing of his father, Wu felt an overwhelming desire to contribute to Toronto’s creative voice on the world stage.
Wu believes it is an exciting time to be a creative in Canada. U.S. productions are offering more and more opportunities, employing thousands of Canadians and giving many the opportunity to break into Hollywood without the hassle of moving there. Wu believes that even though Toronto is often used as a dupe for U.S. cities, ultimately the exposure is worth it. As more productions come to film in the city, the more they will discover the beauty and rich diversity that Toronto has to offer.
“Soon, Toronto will have its moment and it will be seen for what it is – a multicultural, diverse, progressive, beautiful, and colourful artistic epicentre,” says Wu.
When it is safe to do so, Wu can be found wandering the King West area with his fellow Toronto screenwriters, directors and actors, or exploring the other neighbourhoods on his bike. In his spare time, Wu enjoys wine and cheese nights with his friends, long bike rides on the beach, and caring for the several varieties of coral, fish, urchin, and crustaceans he keeps in his home. Wu loves to cook, his favourite dish to make being a toss up between: a risotto con funghi with black truffle and a duck confit with prunes and roasted cauliflower. His favourite restaurants in the city: Aloette for dine-in (whenever possible) and Pai for takeout.
If not riding between sets, Wu tells us that you can catch him riding across the city, if not inter-city, as he also aspires to soon take on a Toronto to Hamilton ride.
When it comes to fashion, Wu’s signature style is minimal and practical athleisure, paired with his quintessential black cap and black framed glasses. Making a point to us that his favourite Canadian designer is Jason Wu—although, despite the same last name, they have no relation.
“Part of why I love his work is also because of his character and his story.” Wu adds, “his climb to prominence is well deserved and I greatly appreciate how he reinvents himself with every collection.”
Which is why, I simply could not have passed on the opportunity to style him personally, for this feature. I immediately told him that if I were to take this on, I needed free-reign with styling direction. He agreed, and the rest…well as you can see here, we made magic happen. Drawing from his passion for marinelife and cycling by introducing his bike as well as the nautical prints…yet also a diverse range of looks. Showcasing that he can look good, no matter what style he takes on. The world, is his oyster. 😉
Photography, Style Direction and Producer: STEVEN BRANCO; Creative Direction and Talent: JUSTIN WU; Fashion Assistant: SHANON SIDHU; Production Coordinator and Contributor: MERRILL FLYNN; Production Assistance and BTS Photography: PATRICK CONCEPCION, CAITLIN NAZAL and NICK LAURETANI; Location: MERZETTI STUDIO, shot on a Canon R5 just, just before Lockdown 3.0 (with strict social distancing and screening measures in place) in Toronto. A special thank you to the NORDSTROM CANADA team for wardrobe assistance.