At one point, the best place for newbie photographers to showcase their work stopped being a website. We can’t trace that point to a specific day, or month even, but Instagram’s rise from foodie feed to showcase for top-notch photography has created careers out of thin air.
The app now boasts more than 400 million users. With the recent inevitable changes to algorithms (you do you, Facebook), getting noticed is harder. And for the photographers who’ve arrived, the platform demands a careful calibration between exposure and exclusivity, especially when it comes to partnering with brands.
Since the app’s debut in 2010, Instagram has gone from a place to post pictures of your lunch to a social platform connecting you to wedding party pics, selfies, belfies and never-ending streams of sunsets. With hundreds of millions of monthly users worldwide, it was only a matter of time before the power of this global audience was monetized.
From the #vanlife of Foster Huntington to the stunning landscapes of Alex Strohl and Burke, a new generation of adventure photographers is finding ways to do just that. Equal parts shooters and brand builders, they document their aspirational lifestyles to audiences in the hundreds of thousands and brands eager to partner with them.
Alex Strohl: 1.3M followers
A European photographer based in Montana, Strohl was a graphic design student in Quebec City when Instagram first came out in October of 2010. He downloaded the app on day one and hasn’t stopped using it since. He was one of the first accounts added to the “Suggested” user list, which commanded a large following early on.
His photos, sort of a modern take on Ansel Adams, reflect his obsession with seasons, and he only works with a select few large clients, including Land Rover and Canon. “I see [Instagram] as a free billboard on the highway of my work,” he says. “But I’d rather work at a local burger joint making fries than sell out my Instagram feed. Being fresh allows you to command a higher rate.”
As for the future of the platform in a digital landscape shifting by the minute, Strohl is optimistic: “People who say it’s peaking are just early adopters getting tired. In other countries people don’t even have it yet.”
Chris Brinlee Jr.: 27K followers
A former nationally ranked collegiate cheerleader and Navy ROTC, Brinlee filled his post-college athletic void with backpacking and soon discovered mountaineering.
The cubicle walls eventually closed in on him at his advertising job in L.A. and he set out to capture the experience of being in the mountains through photography. He found himself documenting a lot of his own globetrotting adventures and aligning himself with sponsors like Cotopaxi, which support humanitarian and relief efforts.
“The use of social media is really important because it allows direct engagement with the followers and people who care about these types of stories,” he says. “It allows a personal connection.” Brinlee posts at least once a day and makes heavy use of the hashtag and sponsor shoutouts. “If getting more people to buy their products is going to elevate the globe, then I’m more than happy to lend my voice to that.”
Chelsea Yamase: 198k followers
As Travis Burke’s van-sharing travel companion, Yamase is often the model in his photos, as well as her own. But with a background in graphic design and print journalism, she’s like a new-media Swiss Army knife.
“I found that I was able to harness and do a whole wide range of things when I diversified the skill set I have to offer,” she says. So when a brand wants to do a product shot for their social channels, they can use Yamase as a model in the shots, an influencer with her large following, a producer hiring photographers and organizing photo shoots, and as a blogger about the experience as part of the whole package.
She keeps it authentic by aligning herself with brands with a message and product she cares about. “Society tends to define us by what we do, not necessarily our passions,” she says. “I happen to do a bunch of things I’m really passionate about and somehow get paid to do them.