Social Effects — Tyson Wheatley
Hosted by Edward Barnieh
Graphic by Charis Poon
Audio by Elphick Wo
Photos by Tyson Wheatley
Graphic by Charis Poon
Audio by Elphick Wo
Photos by Tyson Wheatley
Social Effects is a podcast hosted by Edward Barnieh, or as many people know him, EdwardKB. Social Effects dives deep into the world of social media with transparency and in search of what’s lasting in an ever-changing atmosphere.
The effect of social media has had an undeniable impact on our lives, and these conversations allow us to find out more about the background of some of social media’s most prolific creatives, who Edward’s fortunate to call friends, their approach to the craft, and what keeps them up at night.
In this third episode of Social Effects, Edward spoke with Tyson Wheatley, a commercial and travel photographer represented by Tinker Street *. In a previous life, he was an Executive Editor at CNN and Communications Manager at Instagram. Tyson has beaten every Final Fantasy game ever made, is an avid trail runner, and hosts Tinker*Podcast. He lives in Queens with his girlfriend and dog.
This happens a few times in life, where a door will open and you have to decide, ‘Am I going to walk through?’ And I think the biggest fear is really if you don’t do it.
At MAEKAN, the story defines the medium. Some stories function best as written text, others hope to capture the emotion through an intimate audio experience. In cases such as this audio story, the transcripts we provide are done to the best of our ability through AI transcription services and human transcribers. We try our best, but this may contain small errors or non-traditional sentence structure. The imperfection of humans is what makes us perfect.
Tyson Wheatley: You know what, I’m inspired man, as soon as I got off the airplane I was like, “Oh yeah, everyone’s skinny here.” Not like back where I’m from where it’s okay to be fat. I’m literally the largest guy coming off that plane and I was like, “Oh boy, I remember now.” Alright, I’ll get with it. I already lost 10 pounds in one day out here.
Edward Barnieh: Also you sweat it all out. We used to climb mountains, there’s no mountains in New York.
Tyson: This is going to be the saddest podcast. We’re going to talk about, like, how awesome I was in life when I lived here, and now…
Edward: No, how awesome you still are. But I guess I should start by saying—I’m here today with Tyson Wheatley. He is one of the original creatives that I looked up to when I moved to Hong Kong. And actually we worked together for the same company at some point. And I don’t know what to say for an introduction other than to say that without this guy I wouldn’t be taking photos in the way that I do or doing any of the cool stuff that I think my life has in it now. And so I owe so much to this guy and I wanted to talk to him today and just find out why you started on this photography, creative journey. I want to go through what you’re doing now, and then what you think is going to happen next in the world of social media, creativity, photography, and all that kind of thing. So just want to hand over to you.
Tyson: That was like a six part question.
Edward: Just start with the first one. Okay, so if we just start with how did you get started?
Tyson: I got started because of Instagram and I think I think you did too.
Edward: I did. Definitely.
Tyson: Well, first, look, man, that was a really nice thing you said just now. I got chills. That was, like, so nice. I feel like you were there. I just got started a few months earlier or something like that, but you were here when we were doing the photo walks and getting together and it was all about community back then. It was photography but it wasn’t the way it is now where it’s like it’s all about photography.
Edward: So like explain that a little? Explain what it was like, at this point we’re talking about maybe 2011, 2012 in Hong Kong?
Tyson: 2011 and 2012. Yes.
Edward: So I arrived at the beginning of 2013, but Instagram was just launching and you—correct me if I’m wrong—had the presence of mind to put together a photo walk group for people. Basically this new smartphone app that was coming out called Instagram allowed people to share pictures and join together as some kind of community just through hashtags and you took that on to… Where did you go with that?
Tyson: Well I mean it was happening, you know, it’s not like I invented it. I mean this was happening in communities in different parts of the world and I was noticing this and I started asking around. You know I was reaching out to people here locally on Instagram and saying, like, “Hey, has there been like a photo walk, an Instameet?” As they were calling it back then, you know, and no one did, no one knew of one, so myself and a couple of other guys who I had met through Instagram, we decided to do one and, like, 13 people came to the very first one and we kind of, we came up with a kind of dumb name, it was called Instayay. and we just did them every month and they were so much fun. Like usually it was the first Sunday of every month and we would do them and each month one of us would take the reins and say, “Okay, well I’m going to organize it.” But it was just very simple, it was like we picked the location here in Hong Kong, we told people through the Instagram app, “Hey, we’re going to be meeting,” you know…
Edward: Sorry to interrupt but this was before DMs, this was before video, before tagging people.
Tyson: This is everyone is using iPhones.
Edward: Kind of the unofficial rules of the app were that you posted at that time, you didn’t save things for later unless you clearly said it was a latergram, right?
Tyson: That’s right, #later. Yeah, it was very in the moment, very now. It was exciting. For me it wasn’t even about photography, really, when I first started doing it, it was really about, you know, Instagram came out right when I moved to Hong Kong. It was through work, I was working at CNN at the time, and they shipped me out here to Hong Kong and I was, like, I want to document this story.
Edward: So similar to me, I think. Your original audience or your idea of your audience was to show people back home what was happening in your life.
Tyson: That’s exactly who the audience was. But then that changed so rapidly because, you know, I mean Instagram was becoming super popular overnight, it was just like tons of people getting into it. And I started connecting with people over the world pretty quickly and then I think, really, there was the community part of it which was a huge part of it. But there was also that this is a very visual application and I was living in such a visually stunning place.
And so it started off very community, but then it was like, “Oh, well I’m really kind of into this, like capturing images of the city,” and then more and more people were getting on it and I think we all sort of spurred each other on, and before you know it, it was like, you would see someone posting a really amazing photo—I remember at least I would say—I was always like, “Wow, look.” You know someone like Michael O’Neal, right? Like, “Look what he did, he took this amazing photo.” But it didn’t feel really inaccessible, it felt like something I could actually do myself. You know, in part because we were using the same equipment.
Edward: Yes, that was a big thing. One of the questions we probably both get asked quite a lot right now is what camera to use. And I think there’s a kind of sense there that if people can get that equipment that you have, then they can take the picture that you did. If you go back to three or four years and it was a smartphone app, everybody was spurred on knowing that they use the same equipment so they could replicate that photo exactly or even make it slightly better. We even used the same editing tools at that time, everybody was using the in-app tool, Snapseed, then VSCO came along at some point.
Tyson: Yeah, VSCO was a real game changer. You know, it’s kind of funny—I know this is totally bouncing in a different direction—I still edit all my photos on my phone.
Edward: No. This is a revelation here, people. I did not know this.
Tyson: Yeah, it’s something I kept quiet for a long time because I was embarrassed about it. I do use Lightroom if it’s a situation where, like, I need a really high-res file for a client. But I hate using Lightroom. I wouldn’t say hate, it’s just that my comfort level, I started on the phone, I would always capture images on a phone. This is before I bought a DSLR and then you know, now I’m shooting on a Leica Q but I still capture a lot on my phone, I just don’t know, I always felt really comfortable editing it and my audience is primarily mobile, that’s where people see my work. So I edit it for that screen. And because of the amazing apps, we’ve already mentioned a few, and there’s several more, because there are so many amazing editing tools right there on my phone and because I can quickly transfer the files from my camera to it, that’s how my workflow is, I do it all on the phone. I still do it that way.
Edward: That’s really interesting to hear. So you were editing on your phone. Sorry, I interrupted you in saying you’d see someone’s photo that was amazing.
Tyson: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s really when it started to become… I don’t want to say competitive, but it was like you were really…
Edward: I think, like you said, spurring each other on was the key thing and you could be spurred on by people you didn’t even know just from looking at their photos. It was almost like… Again I’m trying to look for a word that’s not competition, but it was like a global kind of get-together of, “You took this, well, I kind of took it like this.”
Tyson: Yeah. And I remember back then too, hashtags were really key during that time too because if you created a sort of style, some kind of style of a shot or something like that, you would use that hashtag and it wasn’t like, “This is mine,” it was more like, “Let’s share it.” What was that funny one that you and Nathan started?
Edward: No, Nathan and Vivian… Instagrammer down.
Tyson: Instagrammer down. Yeah, and so you would see something like that and you would think, oh man I want to do that, I want to contribute to that. Yes, that’s really the community aspect and I don’t know, it’s funny because I can see where this conversation is leading which is to the present and the present is darker, for me it is because I miss that old part of Instagram a lot. It was more innocent. Today’s Instagram, for me at least, it feels very competitive, it feels very like not fun. It feels more like work. It feels like people have made it really just about themselves instead of the larger community.
You know, it’s like, I’m building my brand, this is my brand, and it’s just really inward looking. And like, look at my profile, look how curated it is, look how amazing it is. You know what I mean? Whereas I don’t know, I feel like when it was at the beginning stages it was more about who’s bringing something new to the table? Who is experimenting? And that still happens of course, that still exists. Instagram now is so diverse, you know it’s probably too big, and that maybe is part of the problem. It’s just so big it’s like it’s not really just this community of early adopters anymore. It’s everything—it’s athletes and entertainers and it’s like jokes and it’s YouTubers.
Edward: A visual representation of everybody’s lives whatever their goals are. Whether they’re a runner or whether they’re a musician, you’re just seeing the photos that go along with that.
Tyson: I’m speaking specifically to the world that you and I belong to—that’s really evolved and I don’t know what you would call it. Maybe it’s like the influencer group?
Edward: Even that word, you wouldn’t have attached that word to what you were doing in 2013.
Tyson: Because no one would actually pay you for Instagram back then.
Edward: That brings me to my next point, that’s 100% where I was headed. Is that the thing that changed the community and the innocence? I always remember there was this quote that we used to send around, I don’t know when it was but it would have been early on, saying that having x amount of likes on Instagram is like being a millionaire in Monopoly. So it didn’t amount to anything back in 2014. And so, calm down about it, right? But then somewhere along the line, and I think you’ll agree with me, it did start to equal value. Whether you were going to take it seriously as a career or whether you were doing it on the side, there is now free stuff and/or cash available for you for having a brand or for having some level of influence.
Tyson: You probably already know this because we’ve been friends for a long time now and even though we don’t see each other a whole lot, we keep tabs on each other. So you may not be surprised to know that I primarily make a living by posting to Instagram. So it is a job and I do take it seriously, and as a result it is less fun. There is a lot of… there’s a lot of good that’s happening, there’s a lot of amazing creativity, and so we’re going to get to that for sure. I’m just kidding about the doom and gloom. It’s all a very positive experience but it’s just changed. And I do miss the good old days. But, yes, so I don’t know. So I guess we’re at the stage where we’re talking about where money came into it. Well, for me, as you know, I left Instagram in 2000 and…
Edward: No, before you say that you’re going to have to take a step back and say why you left Hong Kong for those who don’t know.
The truth is, I’m not doing it for the audience. I used to be doing it for the audience. Now I’m doing it for me. I’m just trying to be the best photographer that I can be and I’m trying to find my voice and I’m committed to doing that.
Tyson: I left CNN to go and work at Instagram. That was big, I don’t know how much we want to get into that, but that was a very life changing moment in a lot of ways. First of all, I was leaving a career that I had worked for years on, like 11, 12 years at CNN. I was well-liked, I was well-positioned, as you know, I had a corner office with an amazing view and I had an awesome team working for me and I had a lot going for me. But this opportunity kind of came out of, I don’t say nowhere, it came from all the community stuff that we were doing and at this point you were helping me with.
Edward: Yeah, and I will say this, a lot of times you see people say, “Oh, you’re so lucky, it’s so cool that they found you.” Or something like that, but those people don’t know, what they don’t take into account is how much you worked for that, not knowing that that was the goal, but how much work you put into the community, how many photo walks you did, how many mountains you climbed, every single banger photo that you posted was leading to somebody in San Francisco saying we need to get this guy over here. I mean, combined with the journalism career, it wasn’t luck.
Tyson: It wasn’t luck and I was in sort of a nice regular contact with the community team. This is back when it was still like 14 employees. So we knew Jessica Zollman and Josh and Bailey, that was the community team. I was beta testing for Instagram. From that relationship I found out that there was a job opening there for a communications manager so I figured that that was the closest thing to the journalism career. I was on the editorial side at CNN and I thought, well, I can make the transition over to the press relations side. And so I applied and then I got the job and then I was faced with that really tough decision of, like, do I leave this really sort of comfortable position or do I… and I also really love, I still do, living in Hong Kong. So it was really tough but I left.
I don’t know, it was one of those things where, you know, this happens a few times in life, where a door will open and you have to decide, “Am I going to walk through?” And I think the biggest fear is really if you don’t do it. Will you spend the rest of your life wondering what would happen if I had walked through that door? So I mean we’re going to fast forward a lot here. But ultimately it didn’t end up being the dream job that I thought it was going to be. It ended up not really being a good fit. It wasn’t a good fit for me, it wasn’t a job that I really liked. In a lot of ways it took the shine off of Instagram, sort of being behind the scenes and working with it and I have a lot of love for the incredibly smart and talented and hardworking people at Instagram at that time. I mean when I got there there was like 100 people working there and then when I left, like, you know, a year later it was getting closer to, like, 150, maybe, 200, but still a relatively small team and everyone working really hard. I was there a year and during that year we launched video, we launched ads—that was a big thing—and we launched DM.
Edward: Right. Things that are fundamental to that app.
Tyson: Those are the three big things that I sort of worked on, but, you know, on the PR side it was weird, I think ultimately the reason I didn’t really love the job was a tough thing because it was a tough thing to transition from. Because at CNN I was leading the digital team for all of Asia basically. And so I had a really strong say in what our coverage was going to be and how we were going to approach it and what our editorial voice was going to be. And then also on Instagram I was like a little minor celebrity on Instagram.
Edward: Right. Just to let everybody know that I didn’t know him in the run up to this, but when I met Tyson he already had 500,000 followers. And I’ll tell you this, I don’t know if you could find it in Google Images, but back then an Instagram page generally couldn’t handle someone with that many followers well. The number of followers that would appear on the screen would go off the side of the screen and that is what it looked like when I first met Tyson. It went off the screen and I just couldn’t get my head around it. I never asked you because I was just like, well, you know, I’ve got to be cool about this but I genuinely don’t understand, I didn’t know there were 500,000 people on Instagram at that time. So you probably had every follower.
Tyson: Well, yeah, I don’t know. I was lucky enough to be on one of the earliest suggested user lists. I think because for a while I was kind of like the only dude in Hong Kong.
Edward: You were like the representative of Hong Kong, showing us photos from Hong Kong.
Tyson: I didn’t think of myself that way. I’m just saying that at Instagram they were choosing people in different locations as a key representative so I just won that lottery ticket and then all of a sudden my Instagram blew up, went from like 30,000 to like 500,000 in eight months or something. I don’t really know. I don’t remember exactly but it was nuts and I went with this huge ego.
I went to Instagram with a very strong voice in terms of, like, who I am, my own identity on Instagram. And then I had to go and work there and then not only that, but I took a role that is very behind the scenes, it was very like—the voice of Instagram is Kevin, it all goes to Kevin, he’s the only voice that we have. You know, I think the approach of Instagram at that time, I think it’s changed now because it’s different, there’s definitely different spokespeople now. You know some of the issues we would deal with were like, some celebrity has posted pictures of boobs or something like that and that’s what the press wanted to hear about. So it ended up not being the right fit.
So there was also, to be just completely candid. There was also a lot of personal turmoil going into my life at this time right. I was going through a divorce, I was away from my children who remained here in Hong Kong and still live here in Hong Kong and still go to school here. It’s a happy ending folks, don’t get too distraught here. But it was a very emotionally difficult time for me, leaving the city, taking this new job that I thought was going to be the dream job and it quite wasn’t. And then also going through the divorce, being away from my kids. It was a bad time. I think Tinder had just come out in San Francisco and that was bad for me. So I just kind of went through this dark period. But creatively though, I feel like I was exploding because I was living in San Francisco and now just ripping it up.
Edward: And you’re surrounded by creatives, I imagine?
Tyson: Yeah, yeah. I mean one of the biggest key influences for me in the photography world was Michael O’Neal, I already referenced him earlier in the show.
Edward: Whose handle is now just @MO.
Tyson: So, you know, he just lived like a mile away from me and I would just go hang out there whenever I could and just soak it up. And, you know, San Francisco, the Bay Area is such a visually amazing place, it’s still one of my favorite places to go and shoot, you’ve got such character, fog, you’ve got the mountains, you’ve got the sea. I was still very active in going out and shooting and just loving it, loving it, loving it. But then it got to a point where it was pretty obvious that this wasn’t the right fit for me. I had to leave Instagram, basically. It was made pretty clear to me after some conversations with my boss that this wasn’t really working out. So I had to figure out what I was going to do. And then I sort of entered into this new phase which has led me to where I am now. Which was basically like, “What am I going to do?”
Edward: But I feel like even you just arrived at the right time because I would say that had the Instagram thing not come along, you would not have in 2013 thought of leaving CNN to go and take photos. There wasn’t a social media influencer-type career in 2013. And so if we look at it, you’re talking about in the space of a year, between 2013 and 2014, something happened. Enough people joined Instagram, enough brands started to pay people that it was enough for you to say, actually, this could be my thing.
Tyson: Yeah, well, I mean, so what happened was right when I left Instagram, the influencer thing was just at the very beginning stages as you mentioned. And I think, if we think like what did happen, you mentioned some of the key things. I think Instagram opening up to advertisers was also a key step because that’s when brands really started to take notice. I think at that time there had been a few early campaigns. There was the Mercedes campaign.
Edward: I was going to say, I think I referenced that to someone recently. I don’t know if you want to talk people through it. But I would say, for me, before you talk about it, I’d still say it was quite revolutionary for its time but it still stands up today as a campaign that draws engagement. You’re talking about the one where they made five people go…
Tyson: Paul Octavious, Chris Ozer, Michael O’Neal, right? He’s getting a lot of airtime.
Edward: And the fifth person… There was definitely a fifth person.
Tyson: I’m going to feel terrible.
Edward: But if you just want to explain the campaign?
Tyson: I mean, I wasn’t involved myself, I just remember it. They were all given a Mercedes Benz to drive around and I think they would each have it for like three days or four days and they posted like five photos to their account and it was a competition—it was like whoever gets the most likes.
Edward: Really blatant like-grab.
Tyson: Yeah, before that even existed. Before there was any cringey… The person who got the most likes won the car. So as it turns out, what you actually won was a lease. Chris Ozer won. It’s funny because Chris and I have become really good friends in these last few years now that I’m living in New York. But, yeah, it’s funny because he was so glad he won but he inherited a lease which is a responsibility, living in New York, and it’s like, “Okay, where can I park this thing?”
So, like, my big break, I actually wasn’t really looking specifically to be an influencer, which I don’t think influencer was even a word back then. But I was starting to get approached by people, you know, I think the first brand I think approached me when I was still working at Instagram actually was Turkish Airlines and they wanted me to go and do this thing and I was like, I can’t do it, I work at Instagram you dummies, can’t do that. But it was like for no pay or anything but long story short, the sort of big break for me was that I got invited to do this campaign with Travel Alberta. And I think it was one of the early, I don’t know if it was the very first or… But it was a big one and I went on this thing.
So here’s a funny story. So I don’t think I was the first choice for this. I think someone backed out and it was through Stay & Wander which is Alex Strohl and our good friend Maurice Li, so they organized this and they just stacked it full of like amazing influencers—Benjamin Heath and Alex Strohl was there and Tim the 13th was on it but he wasn’t actually that campaign, he was on the campaign right before. That was Hello B.C., It was British Columbia. So I got booked on this Travel Alberta job and then subsequently I got booked on the thing that happened a week earlier with Tim. Gosh, my memory is fading.
Edward: I think it’s pretty strong.
Tyson: But here’s what happened—essentially was I was still shooting everything on an iPhone even then. And so I asked for both of these trips up in Canada basically, you know, I sort of asked like what was going to happen and they were like, “Well, we’re going to be going around all these amazing places, you’re going to be around horses, you’re going to be around lakes, you’re going to be around mountains, you’re going to be doing hiking, and you’re going to get up in a helicopter and take photos.” So I had this like dark realization, I was like, man, I’m not going to be able to use my iPhone. I’ve got to take this seriously. I’ve got to get a real camera. I went to a rental company called Lumoid based in San Francisco, I think they’re still around, I don’t know, but I just wrote them an e-mail and I was like, “Hey, you know, I’m @twheat on Instagram, I’m kind of a big deal.” I mean I didn’t say it that way, but I was implying to them, like, let’s work together.
Edward: That was essentially influence in one e-mail, before “influencer” had been coined, you were just like—let’s see what I can get with the influence that I have.
Tyson: Well, I mean, I was pretty candid about it. I was like, “Look, here’s my situation. I need a real camera and I need one quick, like this thing’s a week from now.” And I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have any money to buy one at a time. So what I suggested is that they rent me one and I’d give them a shout out on Instagram. I was already like whoring myself out.
Edward: From day one.
Tyson: You know, let’s just be real here, man. The truth is, like, I have just been, since that moment, since I left Instagram, I’ve just been in survival mode. This is pure survival mode and I love it.
Edward: Sorry to interrupt but literally from day one, the equipment you needed to take that first job, boom, survival mode.
Tyson: Yeah, I needed that camera—I got it. I shouted them out and I never gave that camera back. Well, I bought it, I mean, I got my paycheck from Travel Alberta and I put it down on that camera and I wrote them and I said, even during the trip I wrote back and said, “Listen, just so you know I have no intention of giving this back because you can’t go back. Once you shoot on that you’re like wow.”
Edward: What was it?
Tyson: I left that out, it was a Canon 60 and my friend Lauren Randolph, she’s an amazing photographer, @laurenlemon on Instagram. I asked her what she shot with. She said she shoots on a 60 and what lens should I get and she’s like, well I like this little 40 millimeter pancake lens. So that’s what I asked for. I asked for exactly that and that’s what I got and that’s what I took to Alberta. So you know, Alex Strohl and all these other guys they had like big ass lenses, but it got the job done and I felt really good about it, but it was clear to me that like, okay, well, this is the new wave of the future and I’ve been, like, flying on the seat of my pants ever since. It’s just basically like going from job to job.
I mean Travel Alberta was a big one because I was on a campaign with these other really huge guys and I got connected to these two YouTube kids who were awesome. I said kids but they were grown ass men and so am I. You know, I’m 42 and I’m doing this and it’s weird because now my kids are grown and now they’re there on Instagram and Snapchat and all that. And they’ve sort of realized dad is one of these people that goes around and gets paid to make Instagrams and how weird is that?
I think we’re at the stage now where it’s like, “Okay, creatively how do we evolve? Who’s going to evolve? Who’s going to take risks?”
Edward: Yeah, but they’re also super proud of you. So talk to me a little bit about how your friends… maybe your friends from before?
Tyson: My college friends?
Edward: Yeah, people that knew you as journalist Tyson Wheatley in Atlanta who is now this guy that’s in a camper van or in a boat. At the weekend he’s at sunset or he could be down in South America on the salt flats or he could be in Machu Picchu one day. How are you perceived now?
Tyson: Well, I think the thing is it’s evolving. It’s actually evolving faster than it was. If you had asked me that question maybe a year and a half ago I would have had a very simple answer for you which is like, yeah everyone’s on board this is so cool, like it’s all moving in the right direction. But the game is changing rapidly and now I’m feeling like I’m getting into another stage where it’s like I have to evolve.
Edward: Right. So talk to me about how the game is changing. I have my own thoughts on this but it’s your interview so I don’t want to…
Tyson: I would love to hear your thoughts. I mean I’ll start but you just jump in wherever you want because it’s not like I have the answers. The obvious thing is it’s become a very popular thing to do so there’s more people doing it and it’s more competitive. So I mean at the same time the market has evolved and I think that a few years ago it was a bit of a wild wild west. I was very fortunate early on to get connected with an agent who was connected with the agencies who were working on these big ad campaigns and he was able to, like, help navigate it and command decent rates for the photographers who were doing this and really stake out an early claim as this is valuable. The work that they’re doing has value and you need to pay for it.
Those waters have become very muddied now because, as you know, and it’s different, it’s not the same, the U.S. market is probably a lot different than the Asian market. You and I have had that conversation a few times and I’ve had a little bit of experience with it. I’d say that it’s probably U.S. is the leader and then maybe Europe’s a little bit behind and probably Asia behind that. If that’s fair to say.
But all of those markets, they are very savvy, you can throw a rock in New York for instance and you can land on not only an influencer but you could also land on something that works at one of these agencies that is like, “We’re the social agency. We match brands and influencers.” You know, and they’re coming with these campaigns and some of them are good and some of them are not good. Some of them are just blatant product placements, you know. Because there’s not like a defined road map for this—you have everything. You have people that are like, “This beer brand wants me to hold up this beer can in front of a mountain and a lake and they’re going to pay me 3,000 or 5,000 or 10,000.” I don’t know. I don’t know, is that what I’m worth? I don’t know. Who knows?
Edward: Going back to what you said about competition. You might just take that low price simply because there are a ton of other people that can do as well.
Tyson: Or you might do it for free. Someone might do it for free because they see this as their big break. Hey, look, I worked for this big beer brand. Now if I do that, then all of these other brands are going to come to me and they’re going to want to work. That’s a strategy, and who’s to say that it’s wrong or right? Certainly I have my own opinions. I mean first of all I don’t think you should hold up a friggin’ beer can in front of a mountain.
Edward: Sounds like you’re talking about something that actually happened.
Tyson: It has happened. And it’s happened to people that I know and respect and I’ve had to make some tough choices and I’ve made some compromises and when I have made compromises, they’ve come back to bite me. This is coming from the voice of experience here but I think people get that now, they know that you have to stay true to your thing, whatever it is you do.
Edward: But at the same time, you would also agree that you also have to make money. So, I mean staying true to your thing is not great if you have no heating. Just an old blanket on the floor but at least you stay true and you’re shivering.
Tyson: I have got three kids that are going to school at a very expensive school in Hong Kong and I live in New York and I do a lot of traveling so it’s not easy. It’s a hustle. But so then there’s this other creative thing that’s this whole creative tug of war that’s going on right now just within my own vibe.
I’m trying to figure out what kind of artist am I? You know, what is it that I love to take photos of? What’s my thing? And the weird thing is, like, I like taking a lot of different kinds of photos, and so I feel like I’ve really stretched myself in the last couple of years and I feel like it’s paid off in the projects that I’ve been able to get.
But in terms of my community on Instagram, not everybody’s been on board with it. Not everybody has come along with it, like it used to be a lot easier to grow my following and audience and now it’s almost impossible for me to do.
Edward: There’s two things I want to ask about that. First of all, I would say that, although you stayed true to yourself, do you feel your followers expect a certain thing from you? And you may have deviated slightly and those followers just go and follow someone else.
Tyson: I think there’s a lot of things that happened, I think that there’s a lot of amazing people to follow. Because of whatever, the algorithm or whatever… This is the algorithm talking, I don’t want you to see Tyson’s photos.
Edward: Does it have a voice?
Tyson: Yes It does. You didn’t know this? I’m surprised. You don’t know because you’re murdering the game on Instagram, you’re still growing.
Edward: I’m still growing but I’m like, I’m across from some of that stuff, the algorithm still throws some of my stuff in the bin all the time, it’ll just chuck it. You’ve just got to work out why and then be like, “Do I care this time or not?”
Sorry to hijack, I feel like if you post what you think is an absolute banger and there’s nothing wrong with it, the sky is like orange and purple, the flare is blowing up, it’s from an angle that no one’s ever seen in the history of the world. You fired that drone up to 500 meters. You’re at the peak, there’s fog, you know what picture I’m talking about, like, “Oh my god, the world is about to… and there’s a nuclear sunset.” And then when the algorithm throws that in the bin, then I’m upset because I’m like what did I do wrong? Like, I’m in this incredible city, I know you love Hong Kong, algorithm, and I do that and it doesn’t work then there’s going to be trouble, I’m going to throw my phone down.
But if I’m drawing something experimental, alright, if I’m shooting a portrait of someone or I’m just going to do something just a tiny bit abstract, the person is going to be out of focus and the background is going to be in focus. I think I’m talking about a show I did the other day, a girl hanging her head over the side of…
Tyson: I love your portraits. Yeah, I like what you’re doing.
Edward: And then if I do that and then the algorithm doesn’t like that, I’m happy to move on because I just feel like from a personal point of view, the photos that are favored are pretty traditional amazing cityscapes, very colorful, we both know exactly what kind of photos are favored.
Tyson: I used to know, I feel like you’re tapped into it now. I don’t know that I’m so tapped into that anymore.
Edward: I mean, just to drop one last thing with the algorithm, but I feel like if you don’t do enough of those photos that are in favor for a certain amount of time then it’s almost like you’re put on Tier 2, you’re put on another plan.
Tyson: I’m on another plan. To get into numbers, I mean I don’t mind talking about it and I’ll explain why, because it took me a long time to get to this but I’m now comfortable in it and I recognize that I don’t give a fuck whether you like my photo or not. The truth is, I’m not doing it for the audience. I used to be doing it for the audience. Now I’m doing it for me. I’m just trying to be the best photographer that I can be and I’m trying to find my voice and I’m committed to doing that.
I’m incredibly thankful that I have this big number behind me—even though it’s inflated by the suggested user list—it’s a thing that I can be proud of and it can open up doors for me. And if I’m doing quality work, hopefully I can still get hired to do it. And you can still have influence, people will still see it, a large number of people still see my post, it’s just not as big as it used to be. That number doesn’t really go up. It’s not really going up. It’s gone a little down, progressively.
So like, a couple of years ago I’d say if I had one of those shots you were describing, a certifiable banger, that would get like somewhere between maybe like 10 to 13, 14, thousand likes and then all of a sudden really it was almost like a switch, I noticed maybe in a span of two weeks that that same type of style of photo would get like 7 to 9. And then maybe six months later it was down to anywhere from 5 to 7. So, like, now I’m lucky if it gets, you know, 6,000, or something like that, so that was tough for me to deal with because on an emotional level it sort of revealed some things inside of me which was like, “Wow, man, you really got sucked into the matrix. You really like went deep down this, like… You were believing that your stuff was amazing and you were justifying it by the number of likes you got.”
Edward: Yes. And then they took that away from you.
Tyson: They took that away from me and then it was like whoa, they can take that away from me? That’s bad news because this is how I’m making my living and that can get taken in, so that’s like an emotional thing that you go through, it’s just, like, this is not in my control. So how do you deal with that?
Edward: So how did you deal with it?
Tyson: Well, that’s kind of what I was talking about earlier, which is like I just decided I’d just try to do quality work and I’m just not going to get too bogged into the game. The game is important for sure. It’s important to be out there and posting and sharing and doing quality work but you can’t make it just about the engagement because I tried, like as soon as I started losing it I was like, “I’m going to try harder, I’m going to go twice as hard.” I tried all sorts of things. The other sort of key thing that I realized, and this is more a critique about Instagram itself and whoever created the algorithm or whatever, the way I see it, the problem with the algorithm is that… You were talking earlier about like wanting to try something new. So the sad thing is that if you deviate from the norm and then people don’t… are like, “I don’t really like that one,” and they don’t like it, because they didn’t like it once or twice, then you sort of get thrown off of their radar and like you can probably still come up but I don’t know how it works. But it’s clear that it’ll move you down and make room for something new because it’s trying to feed you the thing that you’re going to like like like like like. And the problem with that, well there’s lots of problems with that.
Edward: The main one is that it kills creativity.
Tyson: Thank you. Yes. It punishes creativity and it makes us all so afraid to try something new, which is the exact opposite of when Instagram started, because we were all about trying new stuff. And now it’s like, no, it’s got to be a lake and it’s got to be a mountain because that’s my thing. But the strategy behind that, you can totally understand and appreciate and respect.
I follow tons of people who are just nailing the aesthetic that they have over and over and over and they’re killing it on Instagram. Hats off to them, but secretly—or not so secretly because I’m going to say right now on our podcast—I want to see what that person can do. I want to see that person switch it up. I want to see that person take a portrait because I know that person. I’m not naming anybody but I know that there’s something else amazing that that person can do and I would like to see it. So I think in a lot of ways, I think we’re at the stage now where it’s like, “Okay, creatively how do we evolve? Who’s going to evolve? Who’s going to take risks?” And I’m hoping that we’re gonna get back to a place where we’re comfortable doing that because I feel like the people, at least the people that I know and yourself and so many others, you’re not just people I follow on Instagram, you have become my friends but you’re also my creative peers and I just want us to keep, like, elevating it.
Edward: Yeah. I would agree about the aesthetic thing totally and that it’s punishing creativity. What did you just say? Lakes and mountains and someone in a canoe boat with a hat, you know, that kind of shot, there are similar tropes in Asia. I might use some of them, like a man on a bike, you know one man on a street on the very old vibesy ‘80s looking street or there will be just some neon and some taxis or there’ll be sunset over the skyline of Hong Kong kind of thing. And as that is what is known, if I try and do something different and I do try different things, sorry, if I try and post something different it does feel like you are punished for that in some way.
Tyson: Yeah, well, I mean your eye is drawn to those things, right? I mean just those tropes as you call them, those things you just described are also like really aesthetically pleasing things. It’s so funny, like I live in New York now but I’m so bored. I love living in New York.
Edward: You don’t even post photos from New York.
Tyson: I don’t know, I’m not excited about it visually. I think it’s just because it’s just been photographed so much. Yeah, I don’t know what it is exactly about New York but it’s a different feeling as soon as I get here. When I get to Hong Kong I get very excited about taking photos, when I go somewhere new I get very excited about it.
Edward: Just for the last time, going back to the algorithm, sometimes you’re punished for going somewhere new. Sometimes it’s the location that can be the wrong thing.
Tyson: So maybe that’s the problem, I’ve got to buckle down and just take pictures of New York.
Edward: 20 in a row. That’s your challenge for next week.
Tyson: No man, I’m here in Hong Kong and then I’m off to Tokyo.
Edward: Ten Empire State, Ten One World Trade, Five Manhattan Bridge—boom. Back in the game. So where do you see this going? Like, from this point where you’re at and you know what you’re doing, you know what you don’t want to do, you’re doing it for you. And just to say, let’s say when I met you you were doing it for the audience and then let’s say that maybe two years ago you came here and you said something very funny to me. You were just like, “Can I just do one photo for me, one photo for them?” Right, that’s what you said to me, I think it was like 2015 you said that and I’ve held on to that for quite a long time—one for me, one for you. And now you’re at the stage where it’s all for me. So where do you go now with this? All these photos are going to be me pushing myself forward. You’re going to hope that brands catch on to that?
You absolutely need to be driven and stay focused and, like, block out anything that’s going to cause anything negative... But at the same time also remember that this is a community and stay out there giving the love and support.
Tyson: Well, I mean I started off this year, it was pretty rough for me. I went almost three months without working and that was a really scary moment. And I had to, like, re-evaluate everything and I thought maybe, actually, I was going to have to give up taking photos. But fortunately things picked up, I got some cool projects and then I got my confidence back in the in the arena of—I can get paid to take photos, we can find the right fit. I’ve been working really hard on trying to create the right relationships, trying to make the work better, I’ve also evolved in terms of trying to learn how to do more lifestyle stuff. I’m trying to make it so that I can appeal to more people. It’s about survival. I’m staying true to myself in terms of what I what I like to take photos of. But I’m also trying to adapt as a creator. I’m trying to be able to learn different disciplines and it’s also about just not staying complacent and bored with the same kind of shots.
And I should have mentioned this earlier, really, I’m just… I’m trying to differentiate myself. The road trip that I did this summer, that actually was an opportunity for me to try something that I hadn’t really done before which was work my kids into it, which was like, I’m a dad, I need to embrace that. I’m a dad. I’m here with these kids. To answer your question, the future for me is really about just trying to evolve in the storytelling because we have new tools now.
Edward: We haven’t really covered that, so in the time you worked at Instagram they launched video, DMs, and ads. Those are the three biggest things, things that are just so normal on Instagram now that we take them for granted. But in the last year the biggest thing that has superseded all of those is Stories.
Tyson: Yes, Stories is the biggest thing that’s happened since it launched, in the history of humanity and it was a complete rip off of Snapchat. Stories is a big deal and I think Stories has to play a role in why… Because stories is what I see first. I open up the app and Stories is what I see first, I have any energy left I’ll go through the feed. I mean I’m still into the feed. I like it.
Tyson: For a while there I sort of revolted against it because I got grumpy or something. But I mean, I think I was just like the old man and, like, you know, “Kids get off my lawn.” Even in the last, like I’d say, three or four months, I really embraced it and now I put most of my energy into Stories. In fact, on this trip right now I’m basically trying to make a short film every day and I’m putting those on my feed and I find, like, I’m putting more energy and effort into shooting video and trying to capture video and I made a little film about our road trip that I’m really proud of. I wouldn’t say I’m reinventing myself. I still want to be able to take amazing images and still get paid to do it. That’s definitely my top priority but I also think I want to make some films. So I’m trying to shoot video, I’m trying to learn how to edit it, I’m trying to make that into a story, really trying to embrace it and it’s fun.
Edward: On your phone or using a laptop?
Tyson: I’m using my phone. Right now I’m using a program called splice. GoPro makes it. And they add these transitions, I can put music on it and it makes it really easy. It’s really easy to edit so I’m just shooting on the phone then I’m picking things that I want, I throw it into Splice, I trim it how I want, add the music and the transitions, and then I take that and I throw it in another thing called Story Splitter which makes them all 15 second things so I can put them on my Stories and then boom, I have a little movie. A month ago I was putting everything in borders. I was like making my videos and making them all borders. A lot of people asked me how I did it.
Edward: I asked you that.
Tyson: You did. And I told you, I tell everyone, if anyone DMs me and asks me how to do something I always tell them, I’m just using this, you know, and so…
Edward: I feel like Stories have become quite professional over the last few months and it feels like It’s the stage where Stories feel like Instagram 2013, 2014 again. People like doing stuff on their phones, putting a filter on.
Tyson: See, I told you we were going to have a happy ending.
Edward: It’s not even a feeling I have, I can see it happening. We’re all moving towards just getting better at video and becoming better storytellers. Unfortunately, at this time with Stories, it’s all gone after a day but ultimately, I would say there are so many things happening on the Internet every day socially, before you get into reading the news, there are so many things socially happening in a day, but even if you did something that could be seen next week, would you even look at it? You know if one of your friends created a video this week and put it on their feed, would you watch it again next week? Not really. Very rarely. So actually just putting it on Stories and having it disappear after a day isn’t that big a deal. And if it is spectacular, maybe you can save it and put it somewhere else later. I feel like stories is the thing, and maybe the thing that if not brings back your sense of community that you were looking for, maybe at least keeps your creative energy flowing.
Tyson: Well, I mean, I have more engagement on stories. I mean, look, you’ve just got to get your work in front of the right people. You don’t have to get it in front of everybody. I’ve learned that it’s just really about making, like, really important connections and having that trust with somebody. I feel really grateful and lucky that I can call you a friend and that you inspire me and that I can hopefully still inspire you, that’s really all that that matters. And I’m not trying to be the most famous Instagram you know. We’ve got Chris Burkard for that and Alex Strohl, both great guys and I think that photography is a tool that I have, it’s something that I love doing, in this age that we live in you can be whatever you want to be. I think that I’m like living proof of that. For me, I just have to find out what my own voice is and I’ve been having a lot of fun.
Edward: Are you close?
Tyson: Yeah, I’m getting closer. I mean, I feel like with Stories I’m definitely feeling it in terms of this is what feels fun and natural. I have to be really vague about this, but I had a meeting here in Hong Kong with a filmmaker from Australia and we were talking about doing a really rad project that may or may not happen but it could be a new sort of phase for me to work in on that I would be really excited about. So you know there’s all these cool opportunities, I’m still getting jobs, I’m going to do a project in Tokyo next week, and then I’m going to go to Hawaii and do a project that I’m really excited about. I think the dangerous thing, and this is something that I went through in my darker phase, the dangerous thing for me was comparing myself to others. I think healthy competition is good, I think it’s good to see what other people are doing, but you just can’t get caught up in, like, this person got that job, why didn’t I get that job? That’s poisonous.
Edward: There’s a guy in Hong Kong, I’m sure it’s not his quote but he’s the one that shared it with me, a guy called Brian, and he told me that comparison is the thief of joy. So I don’t know if we want to end on that note but to be able to enjoy yourself or really appreciate what you do and take the time, I think, stop comparing yourself to others.
Tyson: What I’ve learned is that you just have to be really laser focused on on your own thing. I mean so there’s that but then there’s the other thing of let’s all do it together though. Don’t forget to support and love your fellow creatives, you absolutely need to be driven and stay focused and like block out anything that’s going to cause anything negative like hating on somebody because they got a job that you didn’t, that’s not going to work well for you at all. But at the same time also remember that this is a community and stay out there giving the love and support. I’m just trying to do that really and have fun of course.
Edward: Of course, I think we’re going to end it there. Thank you very much for that, Tyson. Keep going.
Tyson: No. No, let’s go shoot or something, or go and eat some dumplings.
Subscribe to the podcast Social Effects, listen to episode two of Social Effects hosted by Edward Barnieh with Holly-Marie Cato or episode one with Varun Thota, and follow Tyson Wheatley on Instagram.