Tue, Dec 02, 2014 - Page 12 News List

Turning flash into cash

Some Instagram users are making a career of their hobby, as brands pay handsomely to appear on their feeds

By Hannah Ellis-Petersen  /  The Guardian

A woman poses with a frame of Instagram. For some savvy users, Instagram photography is a way to earn a six-figure salary.

Photo: EPA

Seen through the filter of Instagram, the world is a beautiful place: high-contrast blue skies, sepia-tinted sunsets, exquisite plates of food and raindrops sliding down windows in perfect formation. It may be a manipulated perspective on life, but 200 million people across the world now use the photo app, sharing 60 million pictures a day. Yet for some users, Instagram is generating more than appreciative likes and comments as they document their lives, travels and eating habits on their smartphones.

From Nike to the Namibian tourist board, brands and organizations are turning to the most followed users in the pursuit of a broader and younger audience — and are paying handsomely for their services.

Cue the rise of the Instagram professionals, users who began using the app for fun but are now earning six-figure salaries and being flown around the world to take photos to share with their thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of followers.

One of the most sought after is New Yorker Liz Eswein, 25, who joined Instagram just after it launched in 2010 and began posting pictures of her home city under the account @NewYorkCity as a hobby. She now has more than 1.2 million followers and has been dubbed the “den mother of Instagram.”

For each job with a brand, Eswein demands US$1 per like under each sponsored picture on Instagram, on top of a separate fee based on the number of images she takes. Recent sponsored photos have attracted more than 23,000 likes each. Two scenic pictures taken of the Andes during an all-expenses paid trip generated 19,386 and 20,462 likes.

“Instagram has taken me around the world,” said Eswein. “I recently came back from Chile for a project we are working on. I worked with the tourism board for Namibia. I recently went to Shanghai and before that Dubai and Turkey, all for clients. There aren’t words to describe how amazing an experience it’s been, to travel the world and be paid to go to all of these places to take pictures, which is something I love.”


Eswein joined forces with Laundry Service, a New York social media agency, to set up an arm of the business to connect her and her network of 1,000 influential Instagram users with some of the world’s top brands.

Jason Stein, the agency’s founder, said commercial demand for these photographers in the past year had been “crazy —it’s completely out of control.”

He added: “Content on Instagram has higher engagement than any other platform in the history of the internet and it’s free. Companies have realized that one photo on the Instagram account of someone with over 100,000 followers is reaching more people directly than any traditional ad campaign.”

The stats may explain why Amazon, fashion brand Michael Kors and others have been recruiting Instagram photographers through Stein’s agency: 90 percent of users of the app are under 35; more than half of them use it daily; 1,000 comments are posted every second; and 1.6 billion likes given every day.

Stein said Instagram photography had become a day job from which “some people are making over six figures” a year.

“It’s become a career. It’s taking what a traditional brand or ad photographer used to be and kind of pumping it with steroids because you own and control all distribution now too.”

He added: “I’d say that these days social media celebrities carry more influence than normal celebrities because people can relate to them. You are following the story of their lives through their photos, it becomes almost a traditional storytelling narrative, and that’s what people gravitate towards — it’s very similar to the YouTube vloggers and their massive followings.”

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