(CNN) – In a behind-the-scenes video posted on social media, 9-year-old Zou Shengyu is seen pointing her analog camera at “Aquaman” star Jason Momoa for a series of celebrity portraits. Seemingly unimpressed by his massive 1.90 meter body, the young Chinese photographer gives the actor clear instructions and asks him to pose in various poses.
“I was very nervous because I had to speak English,” Zou, known by her professional name Shengsheng, recalled in a telephone interview. “He was quite tall, so I asked him to make bigger movements and gestures.”
Over the course of her four-year career as a photographer, the Shanghai-based fourth-year student has photographed more than a dozen high-profile personalities, including some of Asia's biggest and most influential celebrities.
His portraits of, among others, actor Tony Leung, tennis legend Li Na and rapper Lay Zhang have helped him gain more than 10 million likes and around 500,000 followers on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. Her father, photographer Zou Yupeng, also frequently posts about his work to his millions of followers.
It all started when he got a compact camera at the age of 4. Speaking to CNN with his daughter, Shengsheng's father said he encouraged her to take up street photography after realizing she could create a conversation wherever she went.
He began approaching strangers and asking if he could photograph them. One day when he was five years old, Shengsheng said he noticed a beautiful young woman in a clothing store in Shanghai. Unbeknownst to the young photographer, she was in the process of photographing the famous Taiwanese cellist and actress Ouyang Nana.
“He was so kind and gentle that he even knelt down so that we were almost at the same height,” says Shengsheng excitedly. “I didn’t know who she was back then, but I knew I wanted to be like her in the future.”
The unexpected meeting went viral on Chinese social media. Shengsheng soon received invitations from film promoters, mobile phone companies and shampoo brands to photograph other celebrities.
“The more people I photograph on the street, the more I get recognized, which gives me more opportunities to photograph celebrities,” he says.
Unsurprisingly, some social media users have been wondering how a 9-year-old girl can get photoshoots with some of Asia's biggest stars. But Shengsheng's father insists his clientele “has nothing to do with me or my family.”
“Even though Shengsheng is only a 9-year-old girl whose technique still has a long way to go, artist representatives like to contact us because (people) look a little different through Shengsheng's lens than when shot by professional photographers,” he says , adding, “In Shengsheng's photos, you can see the softer, gentler side of the subjects, whether they are famous or not.”
Other skeptics online also questioned whether Shengsheng uses filters or edits his photos afterwards. Shengsheng says his father helps him with small touch-ups, such as removing strands of hair or adjusting the color tone, but he never uses filters.
Focuses on the present
One of Shengsheng's most memorable encounters was last year with Hong Kong film legend Tony Leung, who was promoting his new blockbuster “The Goldfinger.” The 9-year-old girl said Leung seemed quite distant and quiet at first. But in the end he warmed up: “He was very sweet. He always made me smile.”
His favorite photo from this session shows Leung leaning against the wall with a ray of sunlight shining on his face. Good composition is key in portrait photography, he says.
“When I see a circular or triangular shape, I try to use it as a frame for my subjects,” he adds. “It's also important to think about what they're wearing: you can't ask someone to bend over when they're wearing an evening dress.”
The young photographer also wants to convey emotions with her pictures. “I want the viewer to feel like they were there when the photos were taken,” he explains. “I hope my work touches others.”
Unlike many of his professional contemporaries, Shengsheng frequently uses analog film cameras. He says he loves their simple design and how lightweight they are compared to the digital SLRs, or DSLRs, that most professional photographers use today.
“Although film photos cannot be developed instantly, I prefer the warm, soft tones that film cameras produce,” he says. “Developing photos with an analog camera is a very exciting process: it's like opening a mysterious box, you never know exactly what you're going to get.”
Shengsheng's dizzying career shows no signs of slowing down: he took more than 15,000 photos last year alone and hopes to photograph singer-songwriter Yuqi. He would like to become a full-time portrait painter one day, but for now he is concentrating on the present.
“We’re not in the future yet,” he answers when asked about his professional plans. “My tastes might have changed by then.”