On a cool and dark evening, Shutter Hub’s Karen Harvey ventured to the high hills of West Yorkshire, to the welcoming home of Shutter Hub member Sara Tasker, the tiny powerhouse behind Me & Orla.
Tea drinking in front of the fire, and talking into the night…
Instagram star Sara began using the platform as a means of keeping her creative mind active whilst at home with her new baby, and well, things kind of took off from there!
So Sara, you’re working now as a photographer? Did you Study photography? Is that something you’ve done?
Not formally, no. I worked for the NHS doing speech therapy, totally different, but photography was my hobby. Photography has been my hobby since my teens, making my way through various cameras as Christmas presents and teaching myself. It’s just something that’s always been there. There was a time I was living by myself and I was quite poor so I set up a little bit of a sideline, photographing weddings and things just to make ends meet, but other than that, nothing professional.
Did you start your blog first, or Instagram?
My Instagram came first. I was pregnant and I was exhausted all the time and finding I wasn’t getting the time out with my DLSR. I was probably slightly archaic and I wasn’t finding the time to take pictures and then hook it up to my PC and load the pictures up. I was reading up about iPhoneography and various things online and thought ‘I’ve got an iPhone , I’ll have a go!’ So I set it as a new years resolution – to get better taking the pictures I wanted to with my iPhone.
That was when I was pregnant with Orla, and she’s just turned three so that was exactly three years ago.
Before you got into iPhoneography what were you doing with your photographs?
I had a little blog that didn’t have much of a readership, I was putting them on Flickr and sharing them with friends. I’d print them and put them on the wall.
One day I thought I’d do it, I’d do a photo-a-day series, because that would help me to keep getting better. I set a myself target to try and get to a thousand followers on Instagram! You see these accounts with all these followers and you think ‘Oh that looks quite validating with lots of followers, I probably need some of those, so I’ll get some of those!’ So I was going to get to a thousand that year, and by January I’d already done it!
How do you think you reached those thousand followers? Do you think it’s about following other people, the right people, or is it about communicating?
Communicating. I think there was a big part of that because I was sat at home, I was a new mum, I was bored and lonely. I think there is a big ‘mum community’ on Instagram and I naturally tapped into that. I guess I just found my community and that slightly clichéd ‘find your tribe’!
There are people out there for everybody!
Yeah there really are! And I found them, it was a lifeline for me. Then in April Instagram found me and featured me. They let me be a suggested user and it skyrocketed.
People have the idea that there’s some kind of secret to Instagram finding you, like the Starbucks secret menu or Nandos black card! Do you feel you did anything different?
No, I know for a fact they just found me. They found one picture that they liked, every week they pick 10 images that are their favourites, for their blog, and they picked one of my pictures. I didn’t even know any of these things existed when they were happening so I was like ‘what does this mean?’ Having since seen it happened to other people it seems like the key things, if you want to be suggested, are to just take the best pictures that you can for Instagram and be a part of the community. That’s kind of it really, that’s all they’re looking for!
They featured me and my following went up to 35,000. From 1000 to 35,000.
Straight after that happens there’s this real attrition rate where everyone drops off and you lose followers faster than you gain them for about six months. At the time it’s a bit devastating. I still get emails from people saying ‘This is happening, what’s wrong?!’ and I’m like, ‘No this is fine, its normal’.
Then you kind of break-even. I think there’s an element of people classically following you a bit quicker because you’ve been ‘validated’ by that number next to your name, I do think that’s part of that. Your reach is bigger as well – if more people like your pictures, more people see your pictures in their newsfeed, so once you’ve got the message out there it grows and grows.
So from there when did it come to the point when you decided actually you are now a ‘photographer’ rather than somebody that liked taking photographs? When did you get to the point where you felt actually other people have affirmed what I do?
It was very much that affirmation that I needed, it took me a long time. I remember used to say in my bio, and I’m sort of tempted to change it, ‘takes photos and writes words’ instead of ‘photographer and writer’ because I didn’t feel comfortable.
Well there was somebody, a stylist and photographer, called Marte Marie Forsberg, she’s very big on Instagram, she gave a talk, I didn’t see the talk but everyone was talking about it afterwards and saying one of the things she said was, ‘If you want to be a photographer, you need to call yourself a photographer. Because no one going to believe it if you don’t.’
And that made a lot of sense to me. At the point where people began to pay me for taking photos I thought, ‘This is probably being a photographer!’
I was approached by Samsung and then Kodak and Canon, all three of them, to do Instagram based photography work. I think with Canon I was the first person they trusted to do a takeover of their Instagram feed, and at that point I realised that maybe I needed to take myself a bit more seriously. I thought, ‘If Canon is approaching you, then you can probably say that you are a photographer!’
So people were approaching you, they found you through Instagram, got in touch and said ‘Can you do this job?’
Yes, that was kind of it! Up until that point I was finding it really hard to differentiate what I did from what other people on Instagram were doing, I was thinking ‘well were all kind of doing a similar thing’ but from the outside perspective I was the only one getting those offers. When I noticed that I thought ‘Okay! I can afford to take this side a bit more seriously, and I don’t feel I have to deal with those Instagram cliché’s so much!’
So, with the campaigns, do people want you to shoot something that they are going to use for their publicity channels, or is it partly that they want you to be seen on your Instagram account and they want to reach your audience?
There’s usually an element of that. Definitely, and I think they go through a different route to find someone in my position than they would, say, if they wanted a photographer for a catalogue.
Do you think that all photographers should be good at social media too?
Those two skills don’t necessarily go together do they? Just because you’re an amazing photographer doesn’t mean you’re an amazing tweeter! Why should you be, do you need to be?
The last paid campaign I did, I quoted my usual photography rate for it and ended up being paid four times more! The agency that represented me fought for it – a photography rate, and a social media sharing rate.
That’s how it should be. If someone wants a service, they should pay for it. You know if people charge for the whole package then it means that system is still there so that photographers can still charge what they need to, to be photographers, without twitter followers!
You’ve had your Instagram account now for three years, when did you start gaining clients from it?
After the first feature from Instagram I thought, ‘Oh, I should be doing something with this!’ so I started to approach companies, and for a long time I was just doing it in exchange for products. Small companies would give me things, and that was nice as it was a bit of a hobby, supporting my job, and I was getting nice things on the side. It wasn’t really until I got passed fifty or sixty thousand followers that people started to offer me payment instead, and photography work on the side.
Do you feel your payment is based on the amount of followers you have or is it because of your niche and therefore companies can reach a select audience more effectively?
I’d say it depends on how wise the brand or company is, and it shouldn’t really be about the number of followers but your engagement – how many likes and comment you get, because anyone can buy followers online now. It should be about identifying an audience and thinking, ‘Are these the people we want to sell to?’ But also as an ‘influencer’ I learned very quickly, I didn’t want anything that didn’t feel like it was something I wanted to talk about or enjoyed photographing. I can see how it could be very easy when you have got bills to pay and someone says I will pay you ‘X’ to photograph this and put it on your Instagram but it’s not worth it in the long run. I would rather eat baked beans for another week and hold out.
People trust you, they trust the way you live and the things that you like, and they look to that for inspiration in their own lives. Do you feel that you have a responsibility to your followers?
There is a responsibility there, especially being in a world where we are all sold to constantly, imagery is the biggest pusher of that in magazines, on TV, and online.
I feel like people are invested in it, but I don’t think that they have expectations of me. I took a week off over Christmas, I just kind of found myself doing it. It’s the first time I have properly ever taken a week off, just because I am a workaholic and also because it’s a hobby and I love it! People were contacting me asking, ‘Are you ok?’ ‘Sorry to ask, but are you alive?’ and that was actually nice. They weren’t saying ‘Excuse me where are my pictures today?’ – they were just concerned. It’s quite a genuine interaction.
Are you working for yourself full-time now?
Yes, full time as a Photographer and a Writer – the two do seem to go hand in hand. I get a lot of magazines contacting me, or online publications, and they want writing with my own images to go with it. It’s like my dream scenario, that’s the two things I love most.
A recent commission was to write an article about moving from the city to the countryside, and use some of my images of life in the countryside to illustrate it. It’s for an online magazine. They’re a big magazine; they’ve got their own social media following. They’re not exclusive images, and they were images from my archive. It was based on a blog post I’d written and they kind of wanted me to redo it for them. We lived in Manchester before and we moved here about 18 months ago.
Do you think moving to the countryside helped you a lot with your photography and building your Instagram following?
I think people sort of assume so, but when it was actually all kicking off, and I got up to that first forty thousand followers, we lived in a horrible bit of Manchester. It was very enclosed, you looked out the window and you just saw another wall. I actually think that helped me more, because I got very good at seeing the smaller detail when the bigger picture wasn’t so good. I think that really honed my eye, more so than living here.
There’s a very clear theme of tone and content within your Instagram feed, do you feel that your photographic style is defined by this?
You develop more of a style as you go along with anything. There are the things that I am most interested in and drawn to, and that’s what people follow me for. I am lucky that I have got other platforms where I can share other images too. I always think that how well my Instagram feed goes together at a set point in time really reflects how well my week is going! I am not sure which one affects the other, but it’s definitely a representation of how harmonious my brain is at the point in time.
I plan what I post, because it’s my business and I have to, and because I am slightly obsessive! It’s like mathematics, you post a picture and it bumps them along, you can’t predict what’s going to line up. I guess if you are a visual person you’re aware that some images could make one side of the grid really heavy and then it doesn’t have the same visual appeal.
I think Instagram is as much about the big picture as it is about the daily small pictures. People want to see how you see the world and you need to have a coherent voice on there.
Many of your followers create images that have a similar vibe to yours. Do you feel they are just drawn to you because of similar interests, or do you wonder if people might sometimes look at what you do and think ‘That’s her key to success, so that could be mine!’, so they try to emulate your style?
Possibly, I guess I’ve not really given it that much thought you know. I think that’s probably a very human thing to do isn’t it, to see someone else’s success and try and emulate it. I think Instagram is a hive for that anyway, where you almost subconsciously absorb inspiration because its presented so quickly. You scroll through the images, and you’re ‘liking’ and ‘liking’ and ‘liking’. I’ve been in a situation, not recently, but I can remember instances where I’ve seen a picture and thought ‘That’s my picture, someone’s taken my picture!’ then checked the dates and actually mine came after theirs! I’ve at some point liked their pictures, seen their picture, put it into my brain and at some point my brain’s gone, ‘Hey we’ve got this really good idea for a picture, lets do this!’ and I thought I was being entirely original, but hadn’t been. So I’d like to think it’s more that you are influencing people and influencing their tastes and their eye. I think sometimes you have to go through that journey of almost emulating the work of the people you like and admire, to then find your own way.
What is the best client experience you’ve had?
I’ve just worked with Land Rover, which was pretty amazing. That was really good fun. It was just a really open, creative brief. They wanted me to share tips for photographing in low light. The more open the brief the more fun you have with it.
I like working with other people, but I also like working on my own. As a creative person sometimes you can just get overwhelmed by the amount of ideas in your head. When you give yourself parameters it gives you a framework to work within.
I say to myself ‘Right I’m going to do a series of photographs with me and Luke Skywalker!’ then all of a sudden I’ve got somewhere to direct that creativity. The iPhone is so good for that actually – it does very little, you’ve got very little that you can actually do in terms of control, and it suddenly becomes much more about the composition and much more about the story telling.
The more parameters you set the more creative you tend to get and that’s why with Instagram I try to keep it iPhone only. I find that a challenge, everyday, and it makes me think more about how I create that picture.
Where do you see yourself going with your photography and career from now?
In an ideal world I just want to be creative and be myself.
Sara Tasker will be presenting a workshop on iPhoneography as part of the Shutter Hub OPEN on Thursday 21 July 2016. For more information and to book your place see here.
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