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The Report

Six Instagramers Who Have Made It Big

From eating a banana on top of a skyscraper to climbing the Swiss Alps – how these guys are making a living out of social media

  • Mr Daniel Lau raises the Instagram stakes in Hong Kong

For the majority of its 400 million monthly active users, Instagram represents little more than a pleasant, sepia-tinted diversion from the mundane realities of day-to-day life. There are those, however, who take it rather more seriously than that. With nearly four million followers between them, these six instagramers can rightly claim to be among Instagram’s elite. And while most of them still consider it a hobby, the line between idle pastime and – for want of a better word – job has certainly begun to blur. We spoke to them to find out why they were drawn to this social-media platform, what they get out of it and how being “social media famous” has helped them to shape their careers.

Arizona-born Mr Jason Peterson first picked up a camera at the age of 15. He was “deep into the American hardcore scene” at the time – the punk rock scene, that is – and turned to photography as a way of documenting it. Now in his forties, he lives in Chicago, where he is the chief creative officer of advertising agency Havas. The Windy City isn’t just his adopted hometown, though: it also serves as the subject of his hugely popular Instagram account, “follow me into the dark”.

Mr Peterson’s work can be described as a study of the relationship between city and citizen. Hidden within his stark, black-and-white cityscapes are intimate human stories that are given an added dimension by Instagram, as in the case with one picture that he took of a subway train at Chicago Union Station. “After I posted it, someone left a comment and said, ‘Hey, that’s my father-in-law’. He ended up emailing me and I gave him a signed print. Social media is social.”

The success of his account – which currently has more than 700,000 followers and accrues approximately 2,000 more every day – has helped him in his day job, too. “All of my clients want to be in social media,” he says. “They listen to me because I understand it better than anyone. We’ve won lots of new accounts directly because of it.”

Brazilian-born Mr Max Poglia is the founder of Poglia, a Brooklyn-based lifestyle brand that creates what he calls a “picnic-themed traveller’s pack”: loom-woven blankets to lay out on the grass, handcrafted knives to cut food and tough leather bags to carry everything in. “I was motivated to create it when I moved from Milan to New York City, where I lived by Central Park,” he explains.

In the early days, “Instagram was a platform. An open window that allowed me to showcase what I was making or doing. I’d use my account to show friends the progress I was making.” Over the years, what started out as a hobby gradually turned into a business. He sold his first products over Instagram, only later offering them to a select handful of stores in New York City, and the network of customers, stores and potential collaborators that he has developed has been instrumental in growing the brand. “We created a base that became our community. It forces and inspires us to be creative all the time,” he says. “Poglia was undoubtedly born on Instagram.”

Mr Jimmy Chin is a professional mountaineer, photographer and film-maker whose lofty achievements include being among the first Americans to ski Mount Everest from the summit. The story of his second attempt to ascend the vertiginous Shark’s Fin on Mount Meru in the Himalayas – the first ended in failure – was told in Meru, which won Audience Prize: US Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015.

Mr Chin’s career as a photographer predates the arrival of Instagram by a couple of decades. “I think that having an established career and a body of work certainly helped build my following,” he says, referring to the 1.2 million-strong fanbase that he has built up during the past five years. And while he doesn’t believe that Instagram has boosted his career per se, he admits that there are some benefits to being on it. “I’m the editor in chief of my own platform,” he says. “I get to curate my own work.”

A self-taught photographer, Mr Chin believes that getting the right picture is less a question of technical brilliance and more one of choosing the right subject. “Shoot what you love,” he suggests. “Your perspective is your own; there’s no one else with the same view of the world. When you combine your unique perspective with something that you’re passionate about, it’ll show.”

Mr Daniel Krieger is from Brookfield, Connecticut, and resides in New York City, where he works as a professional food, restaurant and portrait photographer. “It used to keep me up at night, worrying about what I was going to do with myself when I grew up,” he says. He dreamt of becoming a comedian, but didn’t consider himself funny enough. Art, too, was off the table: “I didn’t think that I had enough natural talent to pursue that.” With the encouragement of his family and his partner, Ms Jordana Rothman, he eventually picked up a camera and launched into a photography career. Flickr was his photo sharing service of choice to begin with, but he soon became aware of the benefits of being “big on Instagram”.

“I had a few friends in the New York photography world –people such as Sam Horine and Alice Gao – who embraced Instagram early on and I was blown away by the feedback and exposure they were receiving,” he says. “Occasionally an image of mine would hit the main page on Flickr, which would open you up to a bigger audience, and opportunities might come about through that. But this felt different. When I saw Sam travel to India with Instagram on an early ‘influencer trip’, I knew I wanted in.” He thinks of his Instagram feed as a online portfolio, and through it has received inquiries for “various interesting projects.”

Mr Daniel Lau is a 24-year-old photographer and urban explorer based in Hong Kong. “I started exploration to show people another side of the city,” he says. He and a small group of friends began visiting “forgotten places”: construction sites, abandoned buildings, subway tunnels and other parts of the city presumably not discoverable by typing “Hong Kong” into Google Images. It wasn’t until a friend suggested scaling one of the city’s famously towering skyscrapers that a casual pastime turned into something a little more serious. “On the ground, you feel tense. People are rushing everywhere, and the noise, air pollution and traffic of the city is just suffocating. Once you’re above it all, you feel so quiet. All you can hear is the wind, and when you look back down the city seems in slow motion. To me, it’s like a state of meditation.”

Along with two friends, Messrs Dex Ng and Lawrence Tsui, Mr Lau coined the term “exthetics” – a combination of “extreme” and “aesthetics” – to describe his work. He first used the hashtag #exthetics on 10 April 2014, at which point he had around 200 followers. Less than two years later, he now has nearly 100,000. “I remember in August 2014 I posted a video of my friends eating bananas on top of a skyscraper in Hong Kong. When I woke up the next morning my account had blown up.”

  • Photographs by Mr Chris Burkard/Massif

California-born photographer Mr Chris Burkard, 30, has accrued more than 1.5m Instagram followers since joining the platform in 2013. He puts his rapid rise down to the connections he made in the surf industry while working for Surfer magazine, which regularly featured his work on its own social media channels. But surfing isn’t the only subject that attracts Mr Burkard’s lens.

Snowcapped mountains, crystal-clear lakes, rivers and waterfalls fill his feed, which has a strong travel element to it. Recent posts place him in the Swiss Alps, the Italian Dolomites, the Westfjords in Iceland and Horseshoe Bend in Arizona, to name but a few. It might come as a surprise, then, to learn that he didn’t step onto a plane until he was well into his twenties. “Growing up, I never had the opportunity to travel,” he says. “I explored what was around me in Central California. My camera was my golden ticket to get out and see the world.”

This is where his success on Instagram has been instrumental, leading to large commercial projects and providing him with a network of industry contacts. “It has really been a big part of my career,” he says. “And being able to share a photo to 1.5 million people at the push of a button is awesome.”