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An Interview with Instagram and Snapchat Storyteller Branden Harvey

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Branden Harvey became a professional photographer at the age of 16. He has since become an extremely popular photographer on social media, boasting over 104,000 followers on Instagram and one of the largest followings of a photographer on Snapchat (with 50,000+ views per image shared). We spoke to Harvey about his unique career path and perspective.

PetaPixel: Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?

Branden Harvey: Hi, I’m Branden Harvey. I mostly tell people I’m a photographer but at my core I’m a storyteller. I work hard to tell stories filled with hope, joy, justice, and love through photography and also through written words, Snapchat, and Instagram.

My work as a photographer and storyteller has given me the opportunity to work with brands like Hilton, Chevrolet, UNICEF, smart car, Paramount, Clif Bar, PetSmart, and Lyft in places like India, Hong Kong, Philippines, Israel, Rwanda, and even the White House.

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How did you first get into photography?

I got my first photography gig at 16 years old. I got a phone call from a fashion designer asking me to shoot a lookbook for her new line. There were going to be models, makeup artists and everything. I was actually so scared I said no at first. I didn’t feel like I was ready or good enough. But pretty quickly regret kicked in and I realized this was the opportunity I’d been hoping and praying for. I’d been working hard, trying new things, asking good questions, and sharing my photos with the world— all for an opportunity like this. So I called the designer back and begged her to let me do the shoot.

She said yes, the shoot went great, and I’ve been learning not to say no to opportunities out of fear ever since.

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Tell us about your journey with Instagram. How does one go from zero to 100,000+ followers?

I was actually really late to the game on Instagram. The app had already been out for a few years before I even got an iPhone. But when I finally did download Instagram, I started using it obsessively as a way to document my life. I’d recently moved to “big city” Portland, Oregon from a small town in Washington and was enamored by everything. So I took photos of everything. My obsession with the app quickly turned to passion when I saw the opportunity to use it to tell longer form stories. I began experimenting with using Instagram as a platform to tell stories of people I found inspiring. I called this series #storyportrait.

This idea started catching on within the community. Slowly, at first. But soon it began gaining more traction and the small team at Instagram took notice. And they shared what I was doing on a large scale. And then Fortune Magazine made a short film about what I was doing. And a handful more people started talking about what I was up to, and quickly my audience grew.

And now I’m proud to have one of the best audiences on the internet. My followers are talented, creative, and passionate about storytelling and changing the world. I couldn’t be more honored to have these people playing a role in my life.

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What is the best advice you have for becoming a popular Instagram photographer?

Go against the grain and find your niche. When I started growing on Instagram, there weren’t very many people sharing portraits or long-form captions on the platform. I think in some ways I stood out because I was doing something else.

Everyone right now is posting photos of mountains and waterfalls and coffee and lakes— and I’m guilty of doing this plenty. And though this is popular right now, it’s not necessarily an ideal way to build a lasting audience.

Find what makes you unique, go all in on doing it, and carve out your own special place in the Instagram community. Some people I see doing this well are: @timlampe, @brahmino, @laurenmarek, and @bythebrush.

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Is it possible to grow an Instagram account purely “organically,” or does one NEED huge press coverage to gain a huge number of followers?

Growing organically is absolutely ideal. The more personal referrals to your work are, the more engaged your audience will be.

Some people are able to make a living these days with their Instagram photos. Are you able to do so? If so, how does an Instagram user monetize go about monetizing their photography?

I’ve been fortunate enough to do a lot of work helping brands and organizations tell their story through social media and photography. I only accept work with brands that I respect and know will add value to the lives of my audience. This means I end up turning down more than 75% of the offers that come my way.

If you’re an Instagrammer with a highly engaged audience (big or small), don’t be afraid to reach out to brands that you respect, and talk through what it would look like to find a way to work together. You may have to start small, but if you can do work that proves that it’s in brands’ best interest to work with you, you’ll begin to have lots of people knocking on your door to do work with you.

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Do you shoot all of your Instagram photos using your iPhone?

I shoot 95% of my Instagram photos with my iPhone. The iPhone is an incredible tool and I find myself choosing to pull it out before my DSLR time after time.

Why did you start using Snapchat to share your photography?

I’ve always loved providing context for my photography. Over the years, this has evolved into storytelling. I focused on providing the viewer with all the information they need to appreciate my photography. Snapchat is an absolutely incredible storytelling tool. I quickly figured out that I could use Snapchat as a fun way to bring my audience behind the scenes on my shoots and adventures, providing unique context to the final photos.

This was a year ago and since then my audience on Snapchat has eclipsed my audience of 100,000 followers on Instagram. I think people value the authenticity and grassroots feeling Snapchat brings to the table vs. Instagram’s curated, more-idealized nature.

(My username on Snapchat is ‘brandenharvey’)

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Why should a photographer use Snapchat to share their photography if the shots are deleted after viewing and if you have no way of seeing your follower count?

Photographers should use Snapchat as a place to share their photography because all too often we get too focused on getting the perfect final shot that we forget to try new things, explore unique ideas, and even make a few mistakes. Snapchat’s ephemeral communication style makes it easier to step outside of our comfort zones while bringing an audience along for the experience.

As for Snapchat’s lack of a follower count, the metric of how many people actually viewed your snaps is a far more valuable number. Unlike Instagram, where all you can see is how many people engaged with your photo, Snapchat allows you to see the exact number of people who saw each photo or video.

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Could you give us an idea of how much companies might pay for a single sponsored Instagram photo?

For the most part I’ve stopped accepting single-image sponsored content and have been gravitating to more “big-picture” projects. I prefer larger scale projects that tell a longer, more-cohesive story. These days I’m mostly getting approached with $10,000 to $20,000 campaigns that may include a few Instagram photos & stories in addition to photography content.

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Have you been able to monetize your Snapchat photography as well?

I have! It’s been a blast to work with incredible brands like ABC Family, UNICEF, and Paramount to create really fun experiences for my Snapchat followers. Snapchat has opened up a lot of really fun opportunities. I recently had the opportunity to be the first person to make a Snapchat story inside the White House.

Where do you get your photographic inspiration from?

I’m most inspired to tell stories through photography when I’m forced to challenge the way I think.

I’ve been trying to put myself in situations that challenge my preconceived notions about different ideas. Whether it’s challenging the way I think about Africa with a trip to Rwanda or challenging the way I perceive military action by visiting both Israel and Palestine, I find that putting myself in unfamiliar situations really inspires me creatively. It allows me to see the world more through the lens of others than through my own biased lens. As I unpack my thoughts on different ideas, I love telling the stories of what I’m learning through photography in the hopes that others might also be looking to challenge their beliefs. This is what gets me excited. This is what gets me excited to create. Challenging myself, growing, and passing along that growth to others.

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Do you communicate with other photographers on Instagram and Snapchat?

I absolutely love meeting other photographers through Instagram and Snapchat. A few years ago I actually spent an entire year without a home— traveling all over the United States, and all over the world, meeting up with strangers I’d met through Instagram… oftentimes crashing on their couches. A few weeks ago I drove through the night to visit a friend I’d met through Snapchat who was visiting the west coast from Boston for the weekend.

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Do you use other services to share your photography as well?

I used to try posting my photos on every new platform that came along. But more recently I’ve found it valuable to focus on just a few of my favorite platforms. This allows me to create content specifically for each platform without stretching myself too thin.

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How can PetaPixel readers follow along with your life?

I love connecting with new people online and offline. I’d love it if you said hi on Instagram at @brandenharvey, Snapchat at ‘brandenharvey‘, and Twitter at @brandenharvey. You’re more than welcome to make fun of my goofy hair as much as you’d like. You can also check out my work at brandenharvey.com.


Image credits: Header portraits by Maria Lamb

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