Build Your Own Fanbase
Victoria Siemer and Elise Swopes—better known online as Witchoria and Swopes—have mastered the art of developing their photography styles in vastly different ways to equally vast audiences. Continue reading to see how they got started and pick up some tips on how to post to social media effectively.
PM: What got you into photography?
ES: I never had a true love for photography until I joined Instagram in 2011. That’s when I started shooting more photos and I still do it today with just my iPhone. I love the convenience of it. Having the Instagram community as an accepting place for art and photography is wonderful. I was never educated on how to use a DSLR or even a film camera. Being able to shoot with the simple touch of a button was super inspiring to me and I still love it to this day. I come from more of a graphic design background. I’ve been designing since I was 9. It’s always been in my blood to be creative.
VS: I was also classically trained as a graphic designer and had no formal training in photography. A few years into working at agencies, I started to get restless and tinkered around in Photoshop after work to make my first pieces, experimenting with stock photos and Creative Commons images. For Christmas one year I got a dinky Nikon SLR and I started to utilize that and teaching myself photography. That was also around the time I first moved to New York, and I was kind of lonely, so I spent a lot of time by myself shooting weird self-portraits and incorporated that into my design work to become a hybrid. And it started to slowly evolve from there.
PM: Do you find that there’s a certain type of photo that is more well received than others?
ES: People are always so intrigued when I post a photo with a giraffe in it, because that’s what they expect from me. Your audience follows you for your brand, and it helps to stick to what you are naturally.
VS: I have a pretty large aesthetic range. It’s all manipulation work, but it runs across the gamut of photo, design, or type-based work. Different series work better on different platforms, some things work really well on Facebook and Instagram but others may do better on Tumblr or Ello. People expect very manipulated images from me. Some people are attached to different things; it depends how you are discovered, too.
PM: How did you get “discovered”? When was your big break, and how did it happen?
VS: My really big break happened in early 2014 when my Human Error series got reposted and then I got contacted by HuffPost, Cosmo, and someone had re-posted on their Instagram and suddenly got 30k followers in one day. It was crazy. I sort of stumbled my way into a bunch of social media trend lists and it’s been growing ever since. After that, I started to make a lot more work and get better at it.
ES: I started Instagram in early 2011 and I think the team at Instagram caught onto my work and put me on their Suggested Users list. They left me there for a year and a half. It’s so crazy to be added to a list like that, because barely anyone knew about Instagram at that time. I got 100k followers just from that.
PM: What’s a good cadence to releasing new work online?
ES: I struggle with consistency. Sometimes I post three times in a day, other times I don’t post for a week. I post based on my mood, mostly. Something I do to reenergize myself to create more is to revisit old pieces I’ve made and reinventing them.
VS: I try to post something once a week, but it varies. I have a full-time day job, so I have to do my personal artwork when I’m at home. For me, making work is 100% dependent on my mood as well. Sometimes I’ll take a ton of photos and not do anything with them for a while, then go through a phase where I’ll edit a bunch and then release them.
PM: How do you deal with all those photos you collect?
VS: Sometimes I think I don’t like what I shoot, then I go back to it months later and look back at the images and end up seeing them through a new set of eyes and with a new intent. I’m big on hoarding, because I know down the road there will probably be a chance for me to use these images. It’s like making your own stock library. So when inspiration hits, you have a variety of images you can play with.
ES: I shoot hundreds of images. I shoot as much as I can and then figure it out later. I think having more options is always better—if you think you got the shot, grab 20 more.
PM: Does your loyal following go beyond the Internet and into the IRL world?
ES: The way I connect with my social community is the same way I connect with people in person. It’s important to stay genuine and honest and inspiring. Victoria is very real and her soul is out there. People can relate to that. It’s important to stick to who you are, and be on-brand naturally. I go to parties and bring my business cards. Recently someone asked me what my elevator pitch was, and I just showed her my Instagram. You need to show people your work and let that speak for itself.
VS: Keeping in touch with my current audience is usually a matter of consistent content creation. Keeping in touch with people outside of the Internet is something I’ve been doing more. Adobe MAX was one of my first steps to coming out from behind my computer and speaking in front of a large audience. I’m also starting to make one of my series more performative, and inviting people to take skin impressions with me at pop-up events. Going to events connects me to other artists that I probably wouldn’t have met otherwise.
PM: What camera do you use the most and why?
ES: Right now I’m shooting with the iPhone 7 Plus. I’m always interested in seeing how the iPhone camera evolves, and it is evolving. I also shoot with a Canon 6D. I’m thinking about going to the Canon 5D Mark IV. I’m still learning how to use it, but I think having that natural love for art works in my favor. I get lucky with post-production work where I’ll shoot a photo that isn’t that great, but when I load it into an app afterwards, I can edit it and make it work.
VS: Right now I shoot on a Sony A7r II. It’s my first pro camera purchase. I don’t usually shoot mobile, but the iPhone 7 Plus is super badass. So I’m probably going to get that just so I can be a little more mobile with my workflow and capturing things that happen off the cuff, since I don’t have my gigantic expensive camera with me all the time. The only reason I try to shoot as much as possible on my Sony is because (besides the fact that it was super expensive) I like to make super large prints.
PM: What tools do you use to edit?
ES: Photoshop Mix and Lightroom mobile—I really like Lightroom mobile. I also use ArtStudio, FilterStorm, TouchRetouch, VSCO, LensLight, Circular…I could go on for days. It really depends on what I want to do.
VS: I am completely the opposite. I don’t have anything on my phone except for Photoshop Mix and Lightroom mobile. I straight up use desktop, mostly Photoshop CC and Lightroom CC. Photoshop is my boo—we’re engaged. I’ve been cheating on Photoshop with Lightroom lately…I’m sorry Photoshop, but Lightroom is also really cool.
I also use Illustrator CC for some of more illustrative work and After Effects CC when I make my pieces move from time to time. I don’t use mobile apps very often because I sometimes like to print my work, and you need a high DPI to print really large. Sometimes I print things at 40×60” for galleries.
PM: What’s one piece of advice you can give to young photographers who want to build their following and get noticed?
VS: You should be passionate about your art form and put it out all over the place. Submit to art blogs, photo competitions, whatever the art form may be. Have a few accounts. Post to like 6 different places at the same time. Keep building your portfolio. The more you practice the more your skills improve. If your skills improve enough and someone sees it, it’s going to get shared, and they’ll do it because your work is impressive.
Another thing I recommend is putting yourself out there, participating in local events in your community and networking with your peers. Find people who are already established and collaborate with them, learn from them, get to know them. You need to be making stuff and probably have a job while you’re doing it. It takes a lot of self-discipline to come home after working all day to then do more work for your art. You can’t go into it with a sense of entitlement or expectation. I think it’s a mix of luck and working your ass off.
ES: I think if you really love what you do, it’ll work itself out. You shouldn’t go into it with the goal of being “Instagram famous.”