In this Instagram series we dig into the world of likes and followers. Photographers with a larger following describe their Insta beginnings, the importance of their audience and more. This week Jonathan Higbee looks back on his road to online success.
Location: New York
Collective: New York City Street Photographer Collective
Awards: 2015 World Street Photography Grand Prize, 2018 Hasselblad Masters Finalist,
Top of 2018 by the Leica Blog, Top of 2018 by Colossal
Instagram username: aliveisthecity
Favourite hashtags: streetphotography, streetxstory, citykillerz
First posted photo: May 2015
Last posted photo: February 2019
Most popular photo: December 2018
1. When and how did you start posting on Instagram?
Instagram first seduced me into creating an account with the ability to share nothing but photographs with friends and family. None of that extra fluff that Facebook had added! As a photographer and a visual person by nature, I instantly took to Instagram, where at first I would share personal lifestyle photos and silly moments with my circle. You know, completely embarrassing stuff! It didn’t take long for me to understand the potential power of Instagram as a professional tool, so I soon made a second account for my career.
Posted: August 2018 – Likes: 5619 – Comments: 82
2. How did you gain this amount of followers?
It’s half luck, half intentional hard work. It took five years to get my account where it is today and it didn’t come easy. When I was getting the nascent aliveisthecity up and rolling I consumed every blogpost about how to gain more followers that I could find. I think I attempted every piece of advice I came across, including comment on other’s posts as much as possible, post at least once a day at the same time each day, share your IG handle everywhere you can, and use hashtags. All of it’s common sense nowadays and who knows which of those tactics if any helped my reach. Then, I met up with Eric Kim in 2016, and his advice really accelerated my gallery’s growth. He suggested I work hard to figure out my unique “style” of work, and then try to post as consistent imagery as possible. On top of that, Eric advised that I force myself to only post work that I’d be proud to include in my portfolio, to only share my strongest work. It took several months, but I soon achieved those milestones (in my opinion, at least). Not long after did I notice really strong growth. The thing about Instagram is once you gain momentum, it snowballs. The trick is to keep the momentum going which is exhausting, but when you’re doing what you love as a career, it’s ultimately rewarding.
Posted: August 2018 – Likes: 1592 – Comments: 13
Posted: August 2018 – Likes: 5156 – Comments: 69
3. How important to you is your your online audience? Does the online feedback influence your artistic or editorial choices?
Those who support me online really mean the world to me, as cliché as it sounds. I owe them tremendously for the encouragement, whether intentional or not, that they provide. I’m human, so I experience bouts of insecurity and doubt (which are amplified by my struggles with major depression and anxiety disorder) that can often beguile me to consider hanging up the camera for good. But the personal messages I receive every day can really help keep my head above water in those dark moments. I say it often, but I probably wouldn’t be working on my first book with a fantastic publisher right now without the kindness of strangers in addition to all the hard work.
Just like everyone else I’d like to say that online feedback in no way influences my artistic choices, but that would probably be a lie. Criticisms, praise and other comments in our threads influence our subconscious as hard as we try to avoid it. The key is to remain aware of our hidden biases and sore spots to remain true to ourselves.
I do, however, use online feedback to deliberately shape my social media editorial decisions like posting schedule, Stories content, weekly themes, etc. My goals being online involve entertaining as many people as possible and career growth, so I adapt my sharing process and strategy to achieve those ambitions based on responses and stated desires from my audience.
4. What kind of images are most popular and do they align with your personal favourites?
Love this question! I am frequently surprised by the work that explodes in popularity. It’s often a photograph that I had low expectations for (but I still was proud of making) that goes viral. It’s been a great lesson and reminder to make work for myself first and foremost and nobody else, ’cause you never know how the audience will receive it.
It’s difficult to figure out if my favourites align with the popular posts; it’s a bit fuzzy because I’m not sure if the popularity ends up making them one of my favourites or if it’s the other way around. It’s odd. That said, some of the photographs that I spent the least amount of time making quickly rise to the top, while the converse can be true as well.
Posted: March 2018 – Likes: 2615 – Comments: 26
Posted: December 2018 – Likes: 11,4k – Comments: 137
5. Do you enjoy any financial benefits from having so many followers?
I don’t have any direct financial benefit from my audience numbers. I regularly receive emails and messages pitching paid partnerships with brands that would obviously include sharing their products in my feed, but I absolutely refuse to take advantage of those offers unless whatever their pitching me is a perfect fit for my work, my feed and me as an artist. It hasn’t happened yet. It’s always like smartphone cases and bracelets or something.
Indirectly, Instagram has become my biggest source of print sales. I don’t promote my print shop really (maybe a buried link or a post from a few years ago), yet I still fortunately receive several direct messages a week on IG from fans interested in purchasing prints. It’s the number one reason I’ve been able to make street photography my full-time career. I’m still blown away with each and every message from someone who actually wants to pay me for my work; it’s humbling and rewarding and has been a lifesaver. My friends on Instagram have seriously helped make all my dreams come true!
Posted: May 2018 – Likes: 6420 – Comments: 105
6. Do you have advice for photographers who want to grow on Instagram?
First, figure out what you want out of your Instagram presence. Many artists prefer just to casually post their work to share with their audiences, no matter the size. (The low stress way!). If you’re serious about getting noticed and focusing on Instagram as your primary tool, you’ll have to think of Instagram as a part-time job, at least at first. Tighten your feed by taking a very critical eye to the work that you’ve already shared. Cut the fluff without hesitation. Strive for a cohesive Instagram gallery. Once you’re satisfied that you have an IG profile that’s strong and that you’d be comfortable using as your portfolio, begin nonstop self-promotion. Self-promotion is really hard for me but if you want it bad enough, you have to rally and toot your own horn to everyone who’ll listen: offer to do a Instagram Take Over for your favorite publications with a sizeable audience. You, like me, will get countless “no thanks” but the ones that work out can really make a difference. Utilize Stories often, which is nice because I think everyone can be more casual using this new IG medium. Make an effort to interact with and engage your audience, other artists, as well as mutual fans of artists you love. It can seem like a daunting task when thinking about all of these tips at once, but slow and organic and deliberate will be more successful than a rush job. Above all, it’s most important that you make photography that you enjoy looking at and you’re confident with, and continue pushing your skills further; your passion will shine through in your online gallery and be a joy for fans to explore. Good luck!
Thank you Jonathan!
© All the pictures in this post are copyrighted. Their reproduction, even in part, is forbidden without the explicit approval of the rightful owners.