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The Insta-goldrush

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May 2018 Issue

Posting photos of New Zealand’s dramatic scenery on social media is creating a new career path for budding outdoor photographers. But as more photos go viral it’s putting increasing pressure on a number of iconic, Insta-famous spots. 

Just over three years ago, Rachel Stewart’s photography repertoire consisted of taking photos on the beach near her home in Mt Maunganui. But after upgrading her camera kit and experimenting in long-exposure photography, she went on a trip to the South Island. The resulting photos went viral and a whole new career path opened up. Now she has more than 214,000

followers on Instagram and is able to make an income through the social media platform.

Companies pay for her to mention, or tag, their products in one of her posts and use her photography in their advertising. She also runs photography tours of New Zealand.

But as her popularity has grown, Stewart says she has been feeling a growing awareness about the impact a viral photograph can have.

A handful of popular Instagram locations are attracting thousands of tourists, often in places that are ill-equipped to cope with the influx. At Roys Peak, Wanaka, there have been reports of people queueing for half an hour to get the shot. DOC has built a new car park for 100 cars at the walk, but it has still been overflowing. At Lake Wanaka, ‘that Wanaka tree’ – a picturesque willow that grows out of the water – has lost a limb due to people clambering over it; at the Church of the Good Shepherd on the shore of Lake Tekapo, the local council has erected a barrier to keep the crowds away from the building. Picture-perfect shots have also increased the pressure on Pouakai tarn, Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Hooker  Lake – the list goes on. Even Tourism New Zealand is getting in on the trend. It has nearly 800,000 Instagram followers and posts multiple pictures of these heavily trafficked sites.

Stewart says she has stopped tagging the locations of her photos, unless it is obvious, in order to prevent places from being swamped.

“I feel a huge responsibility,” she says. “Morally, I’m quite torn between wanting to protect something, but also it’s what I do for a living now.

“I’ve seen the impact and I’ve seen some photos of mine get replicated over and over again. I’m trying my best to keep those best places untouched, but the issues have definitely become worse.”

“Be unique, be yourself, take your own photos and be creative.”
– Talman Madsen

Talman Madsen has been working as a full-time photographer for two years on the back of his Instagram success and now has 40,000 followers. He also makes an income by promoting brands on Instagram in addition to working as a conventional photographer.

He has experienced first hand the repercussions a viral photo can have. He photographed Omanawa Falls, near Tauranga, which features a waterfall flowing over a cave into an emerald green pool in a forest-clad basin. It ’s just a five-minute walk to reach the waterfall, but to get to the cave you have to climb down a treacherous cliff.

“When I posted it, I knew it wasn’t a place people should go for safety reasons – it wasn’t able to handle a high number of people,” Madsen says.

So he tagged it as ‘The Secret Waterfall’. But the mysterious name only spurred people on and eventually the location was discovered. People have flocked to the falls – social media sites now have thousands of photos of people posting selfies there – but there have also been dozens of injuries from people falling trying to reach the location. Tauranga City Council has now closed the falls due to safety concerns and has hired security guards to stop sightseers from entering the track.

Madsen has also stopped tagging the location of his photos.

“I’ll share the region rather than the location. People who are interested can still go there, without putting pressure on that one spot.

“It only takes one good photo and, through the viral nature of social media, in no time at all it can be shared by millions of people. People on Instagram also tend to be dreamers and travellers who want to go to beautiful places and experience what they’ve seen, so in a short period you can have a huge amount of people heading to one location.”

But with so many incredible places in New Zealand, why do so many flock to the same spots to take the same photo?

“I liken it to collecting cards,” Madsen says. “People want to collect Roys Peak and the Wanaka tree. But they aren’t being creative, they are just taking other people’s photos. I think it’s become more about trying to be famous than producing a work of art. They are looking for a formula to grow a following – it doesn’t work like that.”

But Stewart says these spots have also gone viral for a reason.

“The Wanaka tree is a landscape dream. Why wouldn’t you want to go and visit something like that? There’s no place like it in the world. Roys Peak is also an incredible view. You can see nature at work, with these glacial-carved valleys. It’s pretty phenomenal.”

Despite the tribulations, Stewart says it’s still an incredible career.

“It’s pretty cool to be doing something that I love and to earn a living doing something creative that fills my soul. It’s definitely been a whirlwind, but I’m making the most of it. I know anything could happen and it could all stop tomorrow.”

Stewart and Madsen’s tips for budding Instagrammers?

“Share your best work and post regularly,” Stewart says. “It’s important to be consistent with the story you are telling – people want to know what to expect, so it’s good to have a consistent theme, like shooting landscapes.”

Madsen says the most important thing is a love of photography and a lot of hard work.

“A lot of people join Instagram thinking they’re going to go viral in five minutes, but it takes years to grow that following. It’s hard work. People only see the shot. They don’t see the hundreds of kilometres of driving, the hours processing photos, dealing with rejections from companies.

“Be unique, be yourself, take your own photos and be creative.”