The Big Business of Adventure on Instagram
If a skier hucks without uploading a photo, does anybody see it? A road trip through the exploding business side of Instagram, where pro athletes roam Alberta stalking the next big trophy shot.
One drizzly day last March in the Canadian Rockies, a group of adventure photographers clustered together around the icy Mistaya River as it flowed through a polished gorge of fluted granite just off Alberta’s Icefields Parkway. Kalen Thorien, 27, a Salt Lake City–based skier, stood on a large boulder upstream, her blond ponytail highlighted against an orange jacket three octaves brighter than a prison jumpsuit. In the foreground, Mistaya Canyon. In the background, jagged mountains swirling in the fog. If there’s a recipe to make Instagram, the mobile photo-sharing social network, rain down likes, this was it.
“Little person, big landscape!” said Jimmy Chin, chuckling. This was the phrase we’d begun using to describe the setup that Instagram’s animal spirits seem to crave most. Chin is a well-known adventurer, filmmaker, and National Geographic contract photographer. His Instagram account, @jimmy_chin, has an audience of 947,000 (947K in Instagram shorthand), a number that places him at the forefront of a seismic shift in the media world: the rise of individuals as brands unto themselves.
Chin was in Canada on behalf of Travel Alberta, engaging in what has lately eclipsed the commercial catalog shoot, at least among adventure photographers: the well-funded Instagram road trip. Thorien and I had arrived three days earlier and found him in downtown Canmore, soaking wet, at the wheel of a Jeep with a pop-up tent mounted to the roof. He looked exhausted. “How many cameras did you bring?” he asked. He’d spent the morning climbing a melting waterfall with Canmore alpinist Will Gadd, and his only DSLR had soaked through until it fizzled out. We decided to grab beers at the Grizzly Paw Brewing Company and wait for the camera to revive.
Chin is a bit new to the idea of this trip. Rather than the hardcore Himalayan expeditions he’s made his name on, he was supposed to round up a gang of friends and do whatever he’d normally do for fun. Travel Alberta would cover everyone’s expenses, and Jimmy and the others would each post a photo or so a day, tagging the account @travelalberta, with the hashtag #explorealberta. Which is how we ended up in Mistaya Canyon, Jimmy’s Canon magically dried out and working again. With us behind their respective lenses were Callum Snape (@calsnape, 293K), a British national who’d worked at Friends of Banff National Park before discovering his talent for travel photography; Tatum Monod (@tatummonod, 40K), a scion of Banff’s oldest skiing family and a top ski-film freeskier; and Chris Jerard, a former Freeskier magazine editor who started Inkwell Media, a digital-marketing company that represents Chin and dozens of other individuals with huge online followings, including snowboarder Travis Rice (209K) and photographer Chris Burkard (1M).
Inkwell’s clients have a collective audience that is larger than any publication in any of their respective disciplines. That fact is not lost on companies and tourism organizations, many of which have begun pulling money out of traditional agency campaigns and paying Instagrammers to serve as photographer, model, copywriter, and media outlet all in one.
Some companies pay Instagram “influencers,” as they are known, to feature their products in photos. Some pay to have their Instagram accounts tagged in photos that promote a certain adventurous lifestyle. For all of them, Instagram represents a guaranteed and verifiable reach for every post—something that Facebook, Twitter, and most websites can’t offer. That’s because Instagram, unlike other social-media sites, still shows your posts to all your followers. (Facebook shows them to only a small subset, and Twitter’s pace is so frenetic that people miss many posts.) Nothing delivers more likes than Instagram. “Our brand awareness seems to be growing by 15 to 25 percent per month since we started using Instagram as our primary form of advertising,” says Alan Yiu, creative director of Westcomb, an outdoor-apparel brand in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The biggest names in adventure sports, stars like Kelly Slater (1.2M) and Lindsey Vonn (471K), use their social-media reach to negotiate contracts with sponsors. Others use their channels on a prorated basis. Pro surfer Anastasia Ashley (1M) says she enters into short-term partnerships to put together shoots with production costs running to five figures. “I can make a video of my foot that 100,000 people will watch,” says the 28-year-old Californian, “or I can produce something high-end.” (Full disclosure: I’ve gotten swept up in it, too. In April, I partnered with Ryan Heffernan, a longtime friend and commercial photographer in Santa Fe, to start a small agency called Talweg Creative that services the New Mexico Tourism Department.)
Not so long ago, the pathway to success for athletes was built around winning contests, planning big expeditions, and cultivating years-long relationships with a single brand. Now all that’s been swept away by a new form of self-promotion, one that displays a highly curated and idealized version of our everyday lives.
Among our little crew, it was mostly just fun. The plan was to ski at the Lake Louise Ski Resort and in the sprawling, glaciated back-country beyond. But it hadn’t snowed much of late, and the winter was unusually warm.
So while our guides worked hard to sniff out cold snow in secret stashes, we headed north toward Jasper, with all that landscape spilling by. Inside the corridor of mountains that straddles British Columbia and Alberta, an hour west of Calgary, there are five national parks. Along Icefields Parkway alone, there are dozens of scenic roadside vistas—mountains, waterfalls, elk herds, and the Athabasca Glacier, billed as “one of the world’s most accessible.”
A half-mile from the parking lot, where a fleet of tour buses with monster-truck tires drive out onto the glacier, we found a Fortress of Solitude–style ice cave in translucent blue that could perfectly frame a small figure. It wasn’t really a destination so much as a backdrop. But that’s what people are into.
Instagram culture is actually changing the way people travel and plan their trips. Instead of thinking about the experiences they want to have, people are thinking about what the photos they want to post. It’s like that old joke: Did you have fun on your vacation? I don’t know, I haven’t developed the film yet.
“It’s becoming a problem,” joked Jessica Harcombe Fleming, the representative from Travel Alberta who organized the trip. “People will call us and ask whether there are hotels or restaurants here, because all they see is these little figures and big mountains.”
Paul Zizka (55K), another photographer based in Banff, worries about what the trend does to creativity. “Why is everybody coming here and shooting the exact same trophy shots?” he asked when we spoke by phone. “Ninety-nine percent of the images come from the same ten locations.”
On one hand, Instagram democratizes the photographic business, allowing talented people to find clients based on their skills rather than which editors they know. Snape’s career, for instance, was jump-started when an image of two elk crossing some railway tracks was picked up on National Geographic’s Your Shot website. But it has also created a culture in which photographers and athletes are valued by the number of followers they have rather than their aesthetic or skill. In fact, Instagram can reinforce your worst habits as a shooter by rewarding you—sometimes handsomely—for producing treacle. Instagram loves sunsets, the Milky Way, and the stuff of inspirational posters.
About a two-hour ski into the mountains, the husband-and-wife guiding team of Craig McGee and Lindsay Andersen found several northeast-facing couloirs that had blown in deep. We wallowed up a narrow slot off Surprise Pass, above the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Craig and Lindsay liked what they saw of the snowpack—locked in and unlikely to slide—so they gave us the green light. Boot-packing up a fresh couloir can feel as awkward as swimming in mashed potatoes. But we were rewarded with beautiful turns down a 45-degree hallway of rock and snow.
On our second day, we headed out Icefields Parkway in search of a classic big-mountain line off Mount Chephren. We changed into ski boots as Chin hopped around capturing the action, experimenting with extreme angles and shooting portraits. (A note to amateurs: Very few serious Instagrammers actually shoot their pictures on a phone. The best use DSLRs, carefully retouch, and then transfer the files to their phones and upload them.)
The snow had rotted in the approach to the mountain. McGee postholed among the firs and spruces to see if he could find a crossing over the Mistaya River. On Lindsay’s radio, we could hear Craig grunting and working, trying to find a snowbridge that hadn’t yet melted. “I just don’t think it’s going to happen today,” he said.
We discussed some other ski objectives, but it was rainy and nasty, and ultimately the plan that won out didn’t involve a mountain at all. We backtracked to Bow Lake, a scenic spot surrounded by jagged peaks, and built a campfire on the ice to sit around while eating our bag lunches—checking the box for another classic shot. A group of climbers guided by legendary Canadian alpinist Barry Blanchard, 56, happened to be setting out on skis across the lake in hopes of climbing Mount Baker, on the Wapta Icefield. Waves of clouds came and went, occluding and revealing Crowfoot Mountain, which sits at the bend that gives Bow Lake its name. We shot all of it, a scene that’s painfully beautiful and yet constantly at risk of becoming a simulacrum.
Jimmy ended up posting about a dozen shots from our trip on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, reaching, Inkwell calculated, a potential ten million people. The rest of us posted 39 photos, reaching maybe one million. The afternoon before we departed, we arrived back in Lake Louise to find Chris Burkard, the photographer, and a crew from an adventure-clothing maker planning a shoot at the Assiniboine Lodge, a backcountry inn beneath its namesake mountain, which bears a passing resemblance to the Matterhorn.
One thing they wanted to know: Was Thorien available to model for the week? She’d injured her knee in a car accident in January and had been unable to ski for most of the winter. So she needed the work.
“How much do you think I should charge?” she asked me. For the past few years, she’d been pulling espressos in Salt Lake City and fighting wildfires for $11.40 an hour.
Maybe a grand? I said.
She more than doubled it. The company agreed. And just like that, another flourishing Instagram career was born.