When 28-year-old Eric Rubens began posting candy-colored sunset pics on Instagram in 2012, he never expected that he would become both a social media darling and a sought-after travel photographer. How does a Northrop Grumman engineer garner more than 95,000 followers? We sat down with the San Diego native to find out.
What are some memorable experiences you’ve had as a result of your Instagram popularity?
Eric Rubens: Tourism boards everywhere look for influencers. Earlier this year, the Jordan Board of Tourism noticed my account and wrote that they wanted to sponsor me to tour their country and share my photos on social media. I went with a couple of my best friends who also are photographers. We got to see Petra, ride camels in the desert, lounge in the Dead Sea, have tea and camp with Bedouins and speak with the queen of Jordan.
Who are your followers? Where are they from?
ER: Luckily, they live all over the world, which allows me to find fellow photographers to shoot with almost anywhere I go. I’ll announce my travel plans [on Instagram] the day before I fly and someone almost always writes that they’d love to show me around and shoot with me. I’ve met up with people in South Africa, Jordan and all over the United States.
I notice you frequently respond to your followers’ comments.
ER: I want to build relationships with the people who follow me and take the time to comment. I used to only respond to comments by people I knew, but I wasn’t growing my account that fast. A lot of the people who comment are people I follow as well. We support each other and try to comment on everything we post, usually with a sarcastic or witty comment. It keeps things fresh and fun and over time leads to relationships that are less impersonal.
What does it mean to you to have a large Instagram following?
ER: For one thing, I appreciate that people look at my photos and take a two-second break from their routines. I also love how it provides an outlet to get information out to large numbers of people quickly. I wrote a post offering complimentary engagement shoots to military couples, and asked my followers to tag friends. I received a lot of replies very quickly and was able to set up some sessions. Before Instagram, it would have been difficult to advertise something of that nature and get such an immediate response.
Do you see Instagram as an effective marketing tool for creative businesses?
ER: Absolutely. It’s a very efficient way to highlight your capabilities and show a potential client your entire portfolio. It’s easy for brands to look at someone’s profile and gauge his or her influence. Over time, as you develop a niche, brands will target you based on your content. For example, I leveraged my Jordan experience into setting up a South Africa trip at the end of this year. I wrote to South African hotel chains and explained my reach and experience. They liked it enough to offer me hotel stays for two weeks over Thanksgiving.
What do you say to those who believe social media to be the end of face-to-face, personal relationships?
ER: When I visited South Africa in 2013, none of my photographer friends could take time off. So, I brought my 80-year-old grandfather with me. He was a great travel companion, but I still needed help with shoot locations. I got in touch with local photographers through Instagram. They took me to places I never would have found on my own. That alone shows you the power of it. I’ll be hosting a fellow from Ohio next week. I’ll show him the best that San Diego has to offer.
I make a point of meeting the people I follow—it puts a face to a name and often blossoms into a relationship. Jordan Herschel, who is huge on Instagram (instagram.com/jordanherschel), has become one of my best friends. What started off with a note on social media developed into a common bond that now has us traveling the world and shooting together. We have much in common: being creative, loving the adventure lifestyle. If you put in the effort, it pays off. The way I use it, Instagram doesn’t distance people—it generates close friendships.
Take a look at Eric Ruben’s photography, here.