Young Guns 21: Tess Ayano

By Alixandra Rutnik and Brett McKenzie on Nov 01, 2023

Get to know the phenomenal class of Young Guns 21

After 85 incredible finalists and intense deliberation, the Young Guns jury has narrowed it down to the 29 winners that make up the class of Young Guns 21. An astounding collection of animators, illustrators, film directors, typographers (a few Ascenders 2023 winners as well!), graphic designers, and photographers make up YG21.

Every year we interview the Young Guns winners to get to know them better as artists and people. And as always, we are welcoming another class of outstanding individuals into the highly coveted Young Guns community.

Now that you know the YG21 winners better, we hope you’ll join us in celebrating them in person at NYC’s Sony Hall on Wednesday, November 15, 2023, at 6:30 PM. See you in two weeks and get ready to party!

Tess Ayano
Photographer & Director


New York, NY


Tokyo, Japan


When did you first learn about Young Guns?

I heard about Young Guns through Caleb Bennett (YG10), an art director I worked with and Young Guns 10 winner, who nominated me. I recognized many names of past winners, so it feels like a rite of passage for many in the creative industry.

How did you end up in the creative field anyways?

I originally moved to NYC to pursue a career as a saxophonist, but while I was working at a high-end Japanese restaurant in the West Village, I met many famous fashion photographers who were regulars and realized photography could be a career. I've had a camera for as long as I remember but never imagined I could call it my job. I decided to leave college after two years and went to Japan for a month and a half to create my first body of work. Those images still hold a very special place in my portfolio, and as I continued to build and show my work, I was very lucky to have met nurturing mentors and friends who opened a lot of doors for me.

Congrats on the W! Why did you decide to enter this year?

This is my first time entering the Young Guns competition. I'm thankful for my nominator, who introduced me to Young Guns, and this is going to sound so silly, but my lucky number has always been "21" so it felt right to apply. I always follow my instincts.

You only get to submit six projects that embody you and your talent. The best of the very best. So, how did you decide which pieces were good enough to make the cut?

I wanted to showcase projects that best represent my current stage in my career as a photographer and director, and how I hope to continue balancing my career. I approach all areas of my work in a similar fashion, so I've been lucky to have a wide range of personal, editorial, and commercial work that all feels authentic and close to my heart. The projects also range from my earlier work to my most recent, and I made sure to include projects that reflected my roots and my time spent photographing Japan, where I call home.

What was your reaction when you discovered that you won?

I tend to keep my expectations low, because who likes disappointment? But I applied in the midst of a very intense, but exciting project I was working on in Japan this summer, so I didn't even have the time to set any expectations. It really was a pleasant surprise, and I'm so honored to have been included this year. My mother was visiting me in New York when I received the news, so I was able to share the moment with her in person.

In what ways does your hometown inspire your creativity as an artist? What about your current city?

My formative years in Tokyo definitely shaped who I am as a person and an artist. My creative sensibility is often inspired by the transitory nature of life that is deeply rooted in Japanese culture and philosophy, and I find impermanence beautifully melancholic. Photographs and films let me notice and revisit those moments and stories that pass through our lives, and I often think fondly back to the time I've spent with all the people I've photographed.

"My creative sensibility is often inspired by the transitory nature of life that is deeply rooted in Japanese culture and philosophy, and I find impermanence beautifully melancholic."

Living in New York for the past 10 years has helped me to become more comfortable in my own skin. I moved to the US in my mid-teens when I barely spoke any English, which became a big insecurity of mine. Moving to a city where so many are transplants from around the world felt familiar to me, and being surrounded by so many creative people opened my mind to how and what I wanted to spend my life doing.

If you could create a new Young Guns tradition, what would you want it to be and why?

Have a "Younger Guns" competition to encourage teenagers to be in the arts, and each Young Guns winner would be assigned a mentee and create a mentorship program. I was helped by so many mentors along the way so I'd love to eventually find a way to pay it forward.

Name a creative and professional dream project that you have yet to fulfill — maybe Young Guns will propel you in that direction!

I have a very long list of people I'd love to photograph and meet, but the person who's always been at the top is Sofia Coppola. I've met her many times at the restaurant I used to work at, and she was always so lovely, so I'd love to meet again and photograph her. I love her strong sense of style and craft of creating her own unique dreamlike world through cinema.

This is YG21, but what do you imagine you’ll be up to when YG31 rolls around in 2033?

I honestly hope and imagine a life that is close to what I'm living now. Traveling, working with collaborators who've become dear friends, living in a big city in an apartment with big windows and a cat, listening to Billie Holiday... But in ten years perhaps I've started to direct more films alongside being a photographer (which I envision for the rest of my life) and maybe I've even published a few photo books. Oh, and I also would love to have learned how to horseback ride by then.

Will we see you at the YG21 party in NYC in November?




Come party with us and celebrate all the Young Guns 21 winners on Wednesday, November 15 at Sony Hall! See you at 6:30 PM in NYC!

Get tickets! It's party time!

The class of Young Guns 21



Fire + Fragility: Zuzanna Rogatty's YG21 Cube Design
Young Guns 21: Max Amato
Young Guns 21: Justin Au
Young Guns 21: Caroline Bagley







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