VANCOUVER – When Glenda Ollero moved to Vancouver six years ago, she connected with like-minded people over a love of photography, through a then little-known app called Instagram.
Now, Instagram has over 500 million monthly users, and the group known as InstameetVancouver regularly partners with major local organizations for meet-ups — something that puts Vancouver ahead of many other cities when it comes to the Instagram world. The group’s members have worked with Ballet BC, the Museum of Vancouver, Destination British Columbia, and the City of Vancouver, to name a few.
The meet-ups offer one-of-a-kind opportunities for the group’s members and their portfolios, like taking photos backstage and during the dress rehearsal for the ballet.
“For people who have put in time and attention, it’s changed their lives and influenced their careers,” says Ollero, who works in media relations as her day job. “It’s cool to have watched that happen.”
Instameets are a worldwide trend
Instameets are part of a global phenomenon, where a group of photographers meet at a predetermined place to take pictures and upload them to Instagram.
The first informal event in 2010 of what would become InstameetVancouver was a walk through Gastown with a group of approximately 15 people. Many participants were newcomers to Vancouver, looking for friends and a reason to explore their city, who had met online through common hashtags. People had fun, and decided to make the meet-ups a monthly tradition.
Attendance grew from 20 people to 60 within the first year. She took on the role of organizer, along with new friend Gabriel Cabrera, whom she met at an early meet-up.
Meet-ups help lead to paid work
Maurice Li, a professional photographer, has been involved in InstameetVancouver since the start – and met his current business partner at a Gastown meet-up. Li frequently travels for work, but comes out to Vancouver meet-ups whenever he can.
“Networking is not the drive behind it,” says Li. “More than anything, it is a social benefit.”
“It’s a way for people with a common hobby to get together, meet people, and explore.”
Li’s company Stay & Wander now represents Cabrera, a cook by trade, who was working in social media and starting to dabble in freelance photography when InstameetVancouver started up.
Now, Cabrera is a full-time photographer and collaborates with people and organizations he met through the group, including Joanne Pai, who he teaches photography and styling classes with around the word.
“When I started, it totally helped me,” says Cabrera. “The benefit is you never know what might happen. You go and meet someone you might collaborate with.”
Cabrera has done paid photography and photo-shoot styling for Air Canada, The Four Seasons, Tourism Australia, Urban Outfitters, Earls, and local food company Luvo Inc. The latter reached out to him over Instagram, after taking note of his work and looking for a local photographer.
Local partnerships keep expanding
As InstameetVancouver received growing interest from new participants, and the group’s prominent members gained online followers by the thousands, Ollero looked for more creative locations to hold meet-ups, to expand beyond the neighbourhood photoshoot formula.
Initially, she would call up organizations and ask them to host or partner for a meet-up.
Now, she doesn’t have to look for partners any more – organizations reach out.
Ballet BC has partnered with InstameetVancouver six times, inviting the group to shoot dress rehearsals, tour backstage, and create a buzz before the show formally begins.
“They may be reaching demographics we’re not reaching in our normal advertising media,” says Curtis Wong, director of sales and marketing at Ballet BC.
“It’s unbelievable to be able to blitz a very successful platform eight hours before the show.”
British’s Columbia’s official tourism organization, Destination British Columbia, partnered with InstameetVancouer for a meet-up this past August, as a part of their #ExploreBCDay initiative.
“We were interested in tapping their super-active and engaged community and leveraging their expertise,” said Jenn Perutka, social-media community leader at Destination British Columbia.
This year, there were 36 attendees at Vancouver’s #ExploreBCday meet-up, compared to 25 the year before.
“It was very successful, and we got some great pictures,” said Perutka. “The growth of it is something we want to continue.”
Another meet-up was hosted by the Vancouver International Airport.
“Any opportunity to engage with the community, we relish and enjoy it,” says Christopher Richards, YVR’s social-media manager.
According to Ollero, some public events, such as the Lions Gate Bridge walk, see attendance of up to 120 people of wide-ranging ages and skill level. While it can be “daunting” to organize so many people, she said, she’s happy to see people get out and explore a landmark in their city together.
Free work has unintended consequences on the photography industry
These opportunities are exciting for InstameetVancouver’s participants. But some professional photographers, like Richard Lam, are wary of the unintended consequences of organizations using free photographers for marketing.
“It chips away at our livelihood,” says Lam.
“It’s a dangerous line to walk on. I don’t like it, but who am I to say don’t do it. I just have to be better and outshoot the free guy.”
Community building pays off
For most InstameetVancouver participants, professional advantages are secondary to what was always the goal – connecting with the community.
“What I love about it is how involved everyone in Vancouver is,” says Ollero.
As for Ollero, she anticipates continuing to organize Instameets, “from the side of my desk,” as long as people are still interested.
“This is something that is good to do for my soul.”