Jorge Quinteros: How to Make a Gig Out of Shooting for Instagram

Claudia Americana

All images by Jorge Quinteros. Used with permission.

When I first met Jorge Quinteros, it was years ago when we both lived in Queens, NY and when I first started the Phoblographer. We met up occasionally in cafes talking about how to create better images and gear. But today, Jorge is one step closer to living the dream that most photographers only begin to aspire to. Jorge developed the skill of carefully curating his images and only posting key selects. He started putting these on Instagram and eventually was approached by brands and made well known by the popular photo sharing service itself.

We talked to Jorge about how he did this.

Phoblographer: Tell us about your origins in photography: how you got into it and how you evolved.

Jorge: From what I’ve read, a lot of photographers seem to have these life-changing and captivating narratives of how they got involved with photography and I wish I had an equally appealing one to construct for myself but the straightforward response on how I got introduced to the craft was that I graduated with a BFA in Graphic Design and photography was one of those obligatory courses I had to enroll in to graduate.

I worked in my respective field for roughly 4 years and at one point the passion and enthusiasm that catapulted me to initially pursue it fizzled out. At the time I wasn’t content with not having any type of leisure activity that allowed me to express myself creatively. I’m horrible at drawing, I don’t play any musical instruments and so the camera became that one tool that gave me an excuse to venture out to places which I wouldn’t have explored otherwise. It also became a license to enter people’s lives as I started to take street portraits and of course it became that one instrument which allowed me to apply a diverse number of principals I had acquired as a graphic designer.

Picking up the camera was one of the best things I’ve ever done. Yes, it took me years and years of photographing sunsets and insignificant objects at a shallow depth of field, but, in the end, it transformed me in a very profound way. It really did make me better at living.

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One thing about finding your unique voice is that it can quickly become something to stress over. Photography is a journey and while I’ve gone through several paths and often lost myself in a complex labyrinth of what I think I should be shooting, I’ve recognized I have a fondness for portraiture, lifestyle and documentary work both of which are incredible difficult to execute flawlessly and not always well received but it’s what resonates with me. As photographers it’s natural for us to strive towards exposure and recognition and when we fail to get it, we begin to set foot on that path of self-doubt and start photographing for Likes rather than for ourselves.

Phoblographer: How did you know that lifestyle and portraits are what you wanted to work with?

Jorge: They say inspiration comes from the strangest of places so while the show No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain may not be about photography per say, I’m sure you’ll understand that sometimes you don’t necessarily have to always be involved in your own pastime to feel that’s the only way you can actually improve on it. This applies to whatever hobby I think.

In between Anthony’s entertaining anecdotes on the show, his self-deprecating humor and his weakness for profanity, I genuinely became fascinated with the conversations he was having with people and the more I began doing the same on the street, a portrait sort of became a byproduct of that interaction and not necessarily the main objective. Do that enough as you rack in NikeFuel Points walking from one neighborhood to the next and it becomes almost impossible not to develop an affinity for portraits.

I learned a lot more about human behavior than I would have ever anticipated. I’ll assume bartenders and waiters would attest to receiving similar unrequested interest but to me it eventually became the the type of curiosity that was difficult to ignore.

As far as lifestyle, it’s definitely an interest that emerge the moment I began paying more attention to the lively and overall appealing marketing in stores such as Banana Republic, American Eagle, Aeropostale, Old Navy and Urban Outfitters to name a few. Admiring it was not enough and so I would and still Google to see who the photographers were for certain campaigns and the more of it I was exposed to the more I fell in love with it and began experimenting with friends. I love that need of having to find the perfect balance between being a fly on the wall and directing which is what lifestyle photography essentially is.

Phoblographer: The story of your rise on Instagram is an inspiring one…

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Jorge: Well, first off I would say I’m well aware not everyone who shares a photo on Instagram views the service in the same light. Some are more obsessed with the technical aspects of the image production while for others it’s simply a way for them to share their lives. They don’t do it for the art. In fact I don’t think the idea even enters their mind. It’s just a way to communicate.

For example I would never upload a photograph that I don’t feel strongly about and that was captured under dreadful lighting conditions regardless of how significant the setting or person may be. Other people could care less and it’s not to say they’re utilizing the service incorrectly, it’s simply that for them the service is all about communicating something that transpired regardless of whether it’s been presented in a aesthetically pleasing way.

I didn’t start taking Instagram seriously until about 3 years ago when I began really scrutinizing other photographers work on the service and realizing that the limitations that many complained about imposed by a device that we regularly carry in our pockets didn’t stop them from producing work that was actually really good. This is no longer the case now but even at a cursory glance back then, it was difficult to miss the gigantic pile of garbage that quickly got promoted and stagnated on the Explore page of Instagram but like Chris Gonzales once said on Twitter “If you Follow the right people on Instagram, it almost feels magical rather than a place for kids to post selfies” and this is exactly what I began doing.

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It’s no secret that photography for the most party tends to be a lonely craft. It’s generally just you, your camera and the desire to return with something compelling to share. When you’re companionless, you become much more aware of your surroundings and those who are in it. With a group, there’s a tendency to get absorbed in your own tight circle and you focus on what’s happening with you and your friends while neglecting everything else around. When it’s only you and your camera the internal experience of sightseeing is different and for the longest this is how I photographed but Instagram completely shatter this discipline I once had.

Not only was I noticing photographers sharing stunning work on Instagram but they were doing it as a collective with long-time friends or people they literally connected with for the first time and so I too began reaching out to people myself. That year alone and at this present moment, I’ve had the opportunity to meet an assorted number of individuals whose work and conversations has contributed to my inspiration. In the beginning, my encouragement derived mostly from books and endless imagery you can often get loss in online but it’s an entirely different layer of influence when you actual meet people who’s work you’ve admire from afar.

Immediately after the first encounters I had with people as we meandered around random neighborhoods exploring and uncovering pleasant settings to photograph each other, I began going back through the initial photos I had published on Instagram and erased a great deal of them and only kept the ones I considered best represented me as a photographer and the type of work I would like to be known for.

In my mind, the best photographers are not always necessarily the ones who have mastered every technical aspect there is to learn about but more often the ones who stay curious about everything else and those were the people who I was hanging out with.

I wouldn’t necessarily say I’ve had a “rise” on Instagram because there’s way more people in New York alone who are in a different level of popularity but I must say that it’s very humbling when I attend Instameets and have people recognize me and compliment my work. The worst thing you can do with instances like that is not be humble about the whole thing.

Oh…and having been a Suggested User on Instagram helped a bit with exposure by the way.

Phoblographer: If someone wanted to try to make money off of the platform, what are three things that you would tell them?

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Jorge: Well, before anything I would say don’t go in with the forethought of thinking that money is all that’s important. No question anybody would be enticed with the idea of generating some extra income especially with an expensive hobby such as photography but I think the level at which you can monetize from it will be determine on how much you’re able to differentiate yourself from the countless other’s who are trying to do the same.

It’s difficult to share any specific as to how to make money on Instagram because it’s an action plan I never looked into or set up for myself but what I can say is that there are companies such as Niche or The Mobile Media Lab both based in New York where you can sign up and they essentially function as an agency which match Instagram Influencers with brands looking to widen their reach. I’ve done a few jobs with the latter. Now more than ever more and more big brands and companies have recognized the great potential of making money with Instagram and I think if you have a particular aesthetic that stands above the rest you’re golden.

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I have a few friends who have turned down certain paid opportunities because even though they would have been compensated for their craft and vision, they didn’t want to lose credibility with their Followers by turning their Instagram presence into a platform of promotional goods. Who you decide to work with or what product you choose to promote has to come across authentic because your Followers are shrewd enough to see through that if it’s not.

Sometimes you don’t have to be affiliated with any agency so to speak. Occasionally a company may simply find you. The first Instagram campaign I took part in was in October of 2013 where I, along with other 6 regional Instagrammers were invited by the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau for a 3-day all expense-paid trip to The Poconos (#takeonpocono)to explore and showcase the beauty of the Fall foliage in the 2,400 square miles of lakes, rivers, waterfalls and woodlands in the region. We were driven around in vans to specific destinations which they wanted us to focus on and their exact words to all the participants were “do your thing.”

I’ve also had the pleasure of working with both The Standard Hotel at The High Line and the East Village location and mostly recently with Levi’s Commuter Workspace where they setup a month-long (July 8th-27th, 2014) pop-up co-working/bike repair/free coffee/tailoring/air conditioned space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

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Another practice which has worked for me has been to consistently tag companies or services which I’ve either photographed or have mentioned in an image shared on Instagram. Nothing particularly novel but companies love to see their customers sharing their products in everyday use and they could potentially become so enamored with how you chose to present it that any opportunity may result from making your work discoverable through tagging.

Overall I love what Scott Rankin said on this very topic which I closely relate to:

“I believe I am part of a photography movement that is based on capturing experiences, experiences from a viewpoint of someone that isn’t a traditional commercial or editorial photographer. Clients aren’t providing me with a set shot list, but rather giving me the freedom to capture the moments as I see them from behind my lens, both mobile and DSLR. I see value in the ability to offer a client both tools to suit their needs, access to my audience and vision through my mobile device, as well as the more versatile, larger image size of my DSLR work.”

Phoblographer: How important do you think personal photography identity is in the marketing of yourself to brands?

Jorge: Absolutely important. It’s one of the most significant things you can do for yourself next to taking photographs. During a recent interview, photographer Ryan Muirhead once said, “If you align to what’s popular, and then in two years everyone hates it, you have to completely change who you are. But if you just figure out who you are and how you want to work, all you have to do is commit to that the rest of your life. People’s reactions might change, but you won’t have to. You’ll be doing something you care about, whether people like it or not.”

When I think about beautiful minimalistic space and food, Alice Gao immediately comes to mind. When I think about travel and lifestyle photographer, Nick Onken comes to mind and so brands don’t think any different which is why identity is paramount. The voyage of self discovery when it comes to photography is a tough one. At the outset you’re implanted with this notion that you should photograph incessantly which could lead you to shoot everything and when you do, you run the risk of being typecast as the person who doesn’t have much direction as to what type of photographer you want to be. It’s like a Catch 22.

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Whether it’s on Instagram or on my website, I consciously steer away from photographing iconic landmarks around New York or the prototypical cityscape that you’re familiar with mainly because that type of architectural work doesn’t speak to me and quite honestly there’s enough people documenting those. Based on the number of Likes, I’m well aware that most of my portraits don’t get the type of adulation as a cityscape would but by not giving into what could potentially get me more exposure, I’m staying true to what I care about rather than what people drool over.

Phoblographer: Tell us about the gear that you use.

Jorge: DSLR-wise I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark II and 98% of the time attached to that is the versatile Canon 35 1.4 L . In my small bag of arsenal you’ll also find a Canon 85mm 1.8 and a Canon 20mm 2.8. I would say I have the majority of my ranges covered. I’m aware that well taken care of lenses can potentially last a lifetime so sometimes I may overlook having to pay more than I was bargaining for because there’s always the choice to resell.

In my pocket you’ll find a bare and scratched up iPhone 5. I obviously consider myself a highly active Instagram user so on days I know I’ll be venturing out with friends to photograph, I wouldn’t dare leave without the Mophie well as an additional external battery pack to keep the endless shooting going. It may seem an overly amount of juice carried around to power the iPhone but I don’t think you’ll find any heavy Instagram user who doesn’t own or carry any of these in their backpack. It’s completely common.

With regard to what I use to carry my gear, it’s all carried around in the Bolton Street camera backpack from the find folks at ONA which has way room than I would want but I rather have a surplus of space than not enough. To compliment the bag my most recent purchase from the company was The Leather Presidio camera strap in antique cognac.

Phoblographer: What are your plans on expanding and growing more as a photographer and using social media to bring in more business?

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Jorge: At this point I don’t think I would do anything too drastically different from what I’m currently doing which is to simply abide with what I’m inherently attracted to pointing my camera at. In New York, it becomes almost effortless and instinctively natural to photograph buildings and bridges which I still find captivating if shot from a unique perspective and at the right time of day but I can tell you that no one has ever hired me to shoot that and if they ever did, I would be surprised if they even came across my work in view that New York alone is saturated with people documenting the same thing.

I don’t work or commute very often into Manhattan so I can’t possibly compete with all the photographers that do. I worked in retail for 8 years which is where my comfort to approach complete strangers derived from and so I took advantage of that capability to begin taking portraits on the street on my own.

Portraits are very difficult to pull because it’s very easy to make them look cheesy. I kept practicing long enough and sharing them on Instagram that one day I received an email from an Art Director at TimeOut New York who apparently followed me on the service and really enjoyed the type of environmental portraits I was sharing and that was the start of my involvement in contributing to City Stories for TimeOut New York.

It definitely feels good to be known for one particular thing and whenever I attend Instameets the compliments have a tendency to revolve around the portraits I share. I’m a staunch supporter in investing in yourself when it comes to your craft and that doesn’t necessarily have to involve equipment. To grow more as a photographer, I’m constantly reaching out to new people to collaborate with on any concept I may have and if that means renting out a space for a few hours, driving more than I would want or buying my subjects lunch then that alone is unequivocally of more value to because it allows me to produce work. I predominately shoot and will continue to shoot the type of work that I ultimately want to be hired for and that will never change.