Words: Barbara Szabo
Instagram photos: Bex Finch
On February 12, 2012, Bex Finch, watched as Justin Vernon (the frontman of critically-acclaimed indie outfit Bon Iver) won a Grammy award for Best New Artist. She had been a fan of his for a long time. Little did she know, he had her eye on her as well—through the digital lens of Instagram.
Justin discovered Bex’s work through a mutual friend. They exchanged quirky tweets and messages back and forth on Twitter, and before long Justin invited Bex to his compound called April Base in Wisconsin to take photos, document his life, and hang out for a week.
“I really admire his ability to maintain a fairly normal life living in his hometown with family and friends close by, while being a Grammy-winning musician who sells out stadiums around the world and gets recognized everywhere he goes,” notes Bex, still bewildered by the experience and in awe that a phone app could lead her to such an opportunity.
Bex (@BexFinch) is what is referred to as “Instafamous,” having over 190,000 followers on the photo sharing application that serves as a visual diary, a window into someone’s life through images and accompanying short captions. Instagram has several built-in filters with which to adjust images, as well as other editing tools, but users can also use other editing programs such as Color Splash (isolates color in a specific area of the photo), Diptick (crop several shots into a collage), and Photoshop Express.
Business Insider named her one of the top nine “Incredible Instagram users that advertisers are dying to work with.” She created the hashtag #FromWhereIStand, which is an image captured from above, as the user looks down at their feet. A hashtag is the “#” symbol followed a keyword or phrase as a way to categorize images and captions so that users can dig through the Instagram world through specific topics.
#FromWhereIStand has become one of the most popular hashtags, and now has more than 150,000 subscribers. The series of photos has a literal meaning (“here is where I’m standing, what shoes I’m wearing, what’s around my feet,” explains Bex), but it can also represent the stand a user takes on an issue. Bex is planning to post a picture of herself standing in front of an Obama 2012 sign to encourage her followers to vote — and to vote for him, she hopes.
“Taking photos of your feet wasn’t exactly a revolutionary idea, but I put words to the idea and started taking photos of my feet almost compulsively to get the series started, which is why it’s credited as mine,” she said.
Bex started using Instagram December 2010, only two months after the app launched. By March 2011, she was placed on the “suggested users” list, composed of celebrities, photographers and companies that catch the attention of Instagram employees. She remained on the list for over a year.
When compiling the “suggested users” list, the Instagram team looks for original photos with a unique perspective, businesses that use the app for branding, and people who represent their own community in a way that reflects the Instagram community as a whole.
“I think Bex’s popularity on Instagram can be attributed to her unique and talented photography skills, timing of joining Instagram and duration she was featured as a suggested user,” says Jared Chambers (@jaredchambers), an Instagram user who started following Bex’s work before actually meeting her.
Tyler McPherron (@tylerturtle), Bex’s boyfriend, also became Instafamous when she recommended him for the list, and within a few months he reached 118,000 followers. They soon became an Instagram couple and started to get noticed all around the city. They recall the time they were spotted at a Lomography photo store opening. The young man approached them, starstruck to meet people who he had known so much about but never actually met before. He had followed their digital lives and this was the moment where a virtual existence transformed into reality. Another time, a young lady dashed down the hill to Tyler and Bex while they were sunbathing at Dolores Park in the Mission District of San Francisco. She was excitedly asking about their work, referring to specific images with vivid hand gestures, light brown eyes gleaming with admiration.
“It’s strange to be recognized, by appearance only, as a photographer, though I guess I do take enough self-portraits and have bright enough hair to stand out,” said Bex.
Indeed, Bex does stand out. Although she is merely five feet three inches tall on a good day, her bright reddish strawberry blonde hair that falls just below her shoulders, accented with bluntly chopped bangs to the middle of her forehead, makes her noticeable from wherever she stands.
While on a cross-country road trip from San Francisco to New York City February 2012, Ed Droste, singer of the band Grizzly Bear, started following Bex’s Instagram photograph feed. He invited her to Cape Cod where the band was cooped up for weeks, writing the music for their new album Shields. They explored the island together and took Instagram photos of one another. She is traveling with the band on a leg of their European tour at the end of October through the beginning of November to document the tour through a photo essay.
“I like that idea of people following my work and can come up to me to talk to me about it,” said Tyler. “Sometimes I think, I have this many followers, I wonder how many of them are in this room.”
Last September, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism invited Bex to Israel for ten days with nine other Instagrammers to take pictures of the country. On the trip, she met President Shimon Peres who invited her into his home and showed the photographers around.
“He even took an iPhone photo of me taking a photo of him,” she says excitedly.
For Bex, using the app worked in her favor, but some people frown upon Instagram users as amateur photographers.
“There are definitely times when people take it way too seriously,” says Tyler. “People get really bent on that gratification of getting likes and comments, and that’s not the real world in many ways.”
Interaction between Instagram users works in the form of commenting on or “liking” images. These actions welcome a communal environment, a place where Instagrammers offer feedback, whether constructive or at times flat out radiating criticism, on images taken thousands of miles away. Bex and Tyler are no strangers to compulsively checking other users’ reactions, in the form of words and symbols, only minutes, even seconds after they post a photo; they switch back and forth between doing that and swiftly scrolling through the feed of images compiled from the work of every user they follow, pausing on certain ones for more than two seconds to “like” it with two quick thumb taps.
“Without Instagram, I would have never been introduced to several of the photographers that have helped shape my creative style and for that reason I see the app as a worthwhile use of my time,” says Jared.