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The PRO-Files: Authenticity & Instagram

“Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.” 
– Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

In 2011, academic researcher and social worker Brené Brown rose to prominence with her TED talk on the power of vulnerability. In that presentation as well as subsequent books and interviews, Brown has elucidated her thesis: that the human desire to belong is so strong, we limit how much of ourselves we are willing to reveal for fear of being rejected. But the ability to do so, to overcome fear and shame and be truly vulnerable—to fully share our authentic selves—is essential if we hope to forge meaningful connections.

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage,” Brown writes. “Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” 

Believe it or not, this has a direct connection to the world of professional photography—particularly as it relates to personal branding and social media. If you’re struggling with Instagram-induced FOMO or shaping the nature of your social media identity, consider simplifying it with this one simple trick: be yourself.

Brown’s message is that if you start by accepting yourself, you’re on your way to being meaningfully embraced by others. And in a culture dominated by social media and its associated pressures to conform by presenting a sanitized appearance of authenticity, meaningful connection is harder than ever to come by.

This strategy, it turns out, is successfully employed by commercial photographer Travis Carroll. He might not think of himself as a student of Dr. Brown’s in the strictest sense, but he shares her desire for meaningful connection. His unabashed authenticity isn’t so much a branding approach as something that he’s come by naturally. As he explained in our recent conversation on the importance of being human in the photo business, his message is simple: be yourself and good things will follow. It’s an approach that has served him particularly well with social media.

“Instagram has been my most amazing marketing tool for the last couple of years,” Carroll says. “Once I realized that, it became even easier for me to get work because of my Instagram personality—not necessarily because of the work that I'm making.”

The work he’s making is outstanding, but it’s his ability to be himself and do it naturally in person and online that he believes is endearing him to a growing list of clients.

“They can get the work anywhere,” he says. “But they hired you. Just care, just try. Start from the inside and work your way out. Be unapologetically you.”

Contrary to the oft-touted “fake it ‘til you make it” approach, Carroll says forget that. Just do you. Trying to fake it is swimming upstream.

“Last year I kind of stopped posting a lot of the work that I've been making,” he says, “and more so I’ve just been posting things that I care about. I started making these ridiculous Instagram stories… I really like Hamm's beer. And so I started just doing these long Hamm's beer Instagram stories, just silly stuff. I've even gone so far as bringing my own Hamm's beer on set and then drinking that at the wrap. And people know me for that. People love that I love Hamm's beer and anytime people drink Hamm's beer they send me a picture of it. I'll walk into a place and the art director will be like, hey man, we got some Hamm's beer over here.”

Personal connection, forged in the online world and manifested offline. Instead of scripting a carefully cultivated brand message, Carroll is a testament to the idea that it’s possible to find Instagram success just being yourself—so long as you’re not intolerable of course. Remember that however you approach it, social media can get you noticed but eventually you’re going to have to deliver. An authentic online presence helps set expectations there as well.

“I try to bring a ton of energy to everything that I do,” Carroll says. “One of my friends described me as a walking energy drink so I embraced it and put it on my Instagram and made these silly stories that have actually gotten me more work. When people think you bring good energy and are fun to be around, they will want you to be there.”

The young photographer’s “be yourself” strategy isn’t even a strategy. It’s just finally become clear to him that if you’re authentically enthusiastic, online and in life, people will want to be around you—including clients. It’s something those of us struggling to conquer Instagram would do well to remember. It doesn’t have to be as difficult as we sometimes make it.

Carroll’s philosophy dovetails with the age-old wisdom of shooting what you love and only showing the kind of work that you want to attract. It sounds trite, but the young photographer says that after years of ignoring it he finally realized just how correct it is. We spend too much time worrying about the wrong things, he says, whether it’s photographic technique or business branding.

“You know, I heard all this stuff when I was in art school,” he says, “and I thought it was bull. But it's taken me five years of getting my butt kicked and being in the industry to actually absorb the information that I learned. Which, you know, I say better late than never. We sometimes give too much weight to the technical stuff. It’s really about the concept and the passion and the love. Because a good image is a good image, right? I heard someone say this recently: if someone's going to notice that there is grain in the image, you've failed to make a good image.”

Put your energy into being the best you possible, and simply show that to the world with the help of social media. That’s how Carroll has found success, and through it maybe the rest of us can too.

Follow Travis Carroll on Instagram @travis_carroll_2.1

About the author:


William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.

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