FROM AMATEUR TO INFLUENCE R
Rach Stewart is New Zealand’s latest social-media success, with an Instagram page that hosts a staggering audience of 180,000 followers and counting. Pretty impressive given that, just a few years ago, she was only shooting on a smartphone
Tutelage and encouragement from her friend, surf-photography legend Craig Levers, compelled the burgeoning artist to explore long exposure, eventually combining this aesthetic with her lifelong love of the land to create a style that has become the toast of Instagram. To those who worship at the altar of imagery, social media can be a mixed blessing. On one hand, these popular digital channels ensure that we see more photography created and shared than ever before; on the other, creating images has become so easy, ubiquitous, and flippant that, in the majority, any thoughtfulness or craft has gone by the wayside. Finding your way on social media can seem like you are trudging through a sucking bog of mediocrity, but photographers who manage to cut a path gain access to a platform of incomparable reach. Papamoa-based photographer Rach Stewart is perhaps the shiniest example of a local photographer to find global success via social media. In this case, the platform of choice is image-centric Instagram, through which she has managed to accrue, at the time of writing, a staggering audience of over 180,000 followers. Every few days, the photographer posts a beautiful new landscape to rapturous digital applause in the form of tens of thousands of likes, hundreds of comments, and a wave of shares washing the images clear across the internet. Not bad for someone who, just a few years ago, had little photographic experience beyond snapping sunsets on a smartphone during evening walks.
“I first got into photography after my second baby was born,” explains the now mother of three. “I was looking for a creative outlet, without really knowing that was what I was looking for.” Once the photography bug took hold, Rach soon upgraded to a Canon 650D (and has since graduated to a 5D Mark IV) and began to learn the fundamentals underpinning those sunset images she so enjoyed. Tutelage and encouragement from her friend, surfphotography legend Craig Levers, compelled the burgeoning artist to explore long exposure, eventually combining this aesthetic with her lifelong love of the land to create a style that has become the toast of Instagram. “I’ve always been in tune with nature; I’ve spent most of my life by the beach,” Rach says. “It’s hard being a mum and working, and trying to have a career. I think those times that you are with nature, when you’re limited on time, you absolutely make the most of it — I give it full dedication when I have the chance.” Rapid as it may have been, Rach’s Instagram success didn’t happen overnight. She first joined the online service after Levers announced in 2012 that he was going to start showcasing his work there — she didn’t even know what it was, and joined solely to follow the one photographer. But, as her self-taught journey through long exposure photography progressed, so, too, did her online following. Things changed in 2015, when Rach decided to venture beyond her comfortable photographic stomping ground and explore the South Island on a road trip with her best friend. Not only was she blown away by the majestic natural offerings of the south, but the internet couldn’t get enough of the dreamy mountainous landscapes she produced. A few of her shots were picked up and shared by some of Instagram’s larger ‘ feature hubs’, and her audience suddenly rocketed past the 50,000 mark. “It wasn’t a big deal for me, but it was a big deal for the people around me, my family and friends,” she recalls. “And that made me realize, wow, I’m doing something people are liking, and possibly I could start earning some money from it.” The 50,000 mark was a real tipping point for Rach’s brand: she was now being approached with opportunities from tourism clients like Tourism New Zealand, Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism, and the Queenstown Winter Festival, as well as gear sponsors such as NiSi Filters, Manfrotto tripods, and Lexar storage. With three children and a job at the Western Bay Council, Rach says she’s not really in a position to range across the globe to take advantage of every adventurous opportunity that comes her way (“Maybe if I was 10 years younger”). But she does hope that her photography income will one day allow her to at least ditch the day job. “Because I have a family, I prefer to stay home, if I can, and sell my images digitally. But when a tourism company wants me to show up and post something, I love it, and I’m really honoured to be asked to do it,” she says. And she’s certainly not sitting on her hands. When we spoke, Rach had just returned from a winter road trip criss-crossing the South Island at the behest of Maui Motorhome Rentals. Later this year, we will see the launch of her new series of Department of Conservation–approved guided workshops, under the brand @purephotoadventures.nz, with fellow landscape shooters Daniel Murray and Lee Cook. The 2017 workshop sold out quickly, but the team has just opened registration for two new events in autumn 2018. It’s a natural enterprise for a photographer who so loves company, whether it be her astonishing online following or the friends and creative family she hooks up with for photographic adventures. “For me, it’s not fun to be shooting on my own — I get inspiration from others. I do this because I love it; it’s not a job where I get sent off to take photos. I like to make an experience out of it.” For Rach, the human contact is just as big a part of her practice as the gear or scenery.