Two years ago, Michael O’Neal quit his marketing job at Apple to become a freelance photographer. “I started using Instagram a lot more because I had a lot more time,” he says, laughing.
At that time, the community had about 10 million members. (Now, it has 130 million active monthly users, and 45 million photos are uploaded to the site daily.) O’Neal found Instagram to be "a source of inspiration, a place to share ideas." And he made friends just by commenting on other people's photos and asking them to get a coffee or go on a photo adventure.
“Instagram is really about community and all the people I’ve met through the app … it’s about hanging out with people that you’ve never seen for two years and then becoming friends with them,” he says. “It sounds dreamy and wishy-washy, but it’s true.”
What’s also true is that, for O’Neal and some of Instagram's most popular photographers (each with half a million followers), it's also becoming a way to make money.
This summer, O'Neal and four other Instagrammers are participating in a contest called "CLA Take the Wheel" sponsored by Mercedes Benz USA (24,000 followers). For five weeks, each of them will, for one week, take a trip with a CLA, an entry-level luxury car that Mercedes is launching this September. Along they way, they will take and post Instagram photos tagged #clatakethewheel. At the end (the last journey wraps up Aug. 23), whoever has the most likes for his or her photos gets to keep the car for three years.
"The stats on Instagram are just incredible," says Mark Aikman, Mercedes-Benz USA's social media lead, noting that the campaign is aimed at bringing new buyers to the automaker. "Some of the stats we’re seeing on Instagram are that the usage, activity and engagement is even higher than on Twitter, so it seemed like the perfect platform to meet this new audience for the CLA."
At least one new business has popped up to meet the demand for Instagram photographers. All the photographers in the Mercedes campaign are represented by picture agency Tinker Street, which two months ago launched a division called Tinker Mobile that has a roster of 20 Instagrammers and has so far worked with companies such as Delta, PayPal, and Pitchfork.
Tinker Street founder Jesse Miller emphasizes some of the group aren't professional photographers and that making careers out of Instagram isn't their main goal. "Relationships are first and foremost for us. It’s a nice coalition of people -- there’s a wide range of the levels that people are at with photography, and what they do. Some people have full-time jobs," he says, noting that Cubby Graham works at the non-profit charity: water, but was added because of the strength of his work and because he's friends with everyone else.
Miller wouldn't disclose the rates Tinker Mobile has negotiated for the photographers, saying that it depends on each individual project, but he did mention that sometimes it works with small companies and does a trade instead of charging a fee. He says that the collective's main goals are to work with companies that prize creativity, and to do work that benefits the community and the environment.
While the photographers are open to commercial opportunities, it's unclear how open the fans will be. At the launch of the Mercedes campaign, there were a few grumblings. One follower said on the first #clatakethewheel post (a video) by the first photographer, Tim Landis: “#sellout.” However, it was only one of two negative comments of the 150 total on the photo, which had more than 8,700 likes. (The week before the contest, photos Landis posted generally received between 9,000 and 16,000 likes.)
O’Neal, who drove the CLA the contest’s second week, admitted that he did worry about whether participating would hurt his Instagram credibility. “Yeah, absolutely, I asked myself if it was the right thing to do, but I also thought, ‘Times are changing and why not use this medium to tell a story?’ ” he says. “We’re blazing a new trail with this, and there are going to be people that are going to be hateful about it or question it or wonder why I’m doing that, but I’m a struggling photographer. I’m trying to pay my mortgage just like anyone else, and when someone asks you to shoot something for a great client like Mercedes, it’s very exciting.”
Photo: Michael O'Neal