Instagram is inherently impersonal. That can be said without much contention. The endless feed is there to flip through while dishing out “likes.” It doesn’t lend itself to heartfelt personal connections. It’s escapism after all, right? You can get inspired by someone’s photography and live vicariously through their adventures only to return to your own life when your cell phone data maxes out.
For most, C’est la digital vie, take it for what it is, and if it’s not good enough, go complain on Facebook. For Ricky, Craig, and Eric, those norms needed to be tested, and the digital communities they found themselves subscribing to needed a little face-to-face boost.
Ricky Staub, 32, found himself amazed at how some people he followed on Instagram offered the possibility of real friendships. Having met up with Craig Hensel and Eric Ward, on multiple occasions, Ricky was humbled at how quickly the digital acquaintance translated to something more tangible. They helped Ricky in work situations and offered a spare bedroom when he was passing through town. The three began talking about how amazing it was that something so impersonal could become…real. So, a barstool idea began to bloom and a road trip was planned. The three set out to meet up with people they followed on Instagram to find out if their cumulative “likes” were worth anything more.
We sat down with Ricky to talk about what sparked the New Community documentary and his highs and lows from the road.
What is your background professionally?
I own a film company based in Philadelphia and LA. We’ve been around five years. We shoot TV and online commercials. This past year, getting more into narrative stories both personally and for brands. We also have a unique mission to our company. I started the company to give opportunities to men and women coming out of incarceration or homelessness. Every year, we run an eight-month paid apprenticeship at our company training adults in the business side of filmmaking. Not training to be editors or directors, but high-level project managers with transferable skills.
If you’re curious for more in depth nitty gritty, I did a TED talk this past year about it — Business Without Boundaries
How’d the idea come about? What sparked the road trip?
I met Eric on Instagram a couple years ago. New to the platform, I randomly came across his profile. At first, I didn’t understand how the platform really worked — I’d merely taken it on because I thought it’d be good for the company. We had a commercial shoot in this beautiful part of Virginia, so I invited Eric to come on as a behind the scenes photographer. We’d never had anyone document us shooting and figured he could do that and then post about us and help jump start my feed.
Much later after this, we stayed in touch and continued to work together. I was passing through his hometown and he invited me to stay at his house with his family. It felt weird at first because he was my “Instagram” friend, but I figured what the heck. I had a great time with Eric and his family, and it was amazing to me that this little app of pictures had actually turned into a real friendship.
I was headed to Chicago, so Eric encouraged me to reach out to anyone there that I followed to meet up and shoot. So, I sent Craig a note on one of his pictures. About 15 minutes later, Craig responded that he’d love to meet up and shoot. We grabbed dinner and beers and shot around Chicago for hours, had a really deep convo about life and faith and everything you can imagine. Again, I was just floored by how real these friends felt.
From there, the three of us started tossing around the idea of visiting others we’d never met in real life. So, we put together this trip funded by my company — I figured a kick ass road trip doc would make for good marketing. From there, we just began to plan where we wanted to go and who we wanted to meet…and hoped they’d give us a bed!
Why Instagram? Why not focus on other social media platforms?
I won’t speak for Eric and Craig (although they’ll probably agree), but I don’t see the type of connections being made on Instagram being made on other social media platforms. I don’t see Facebook friends doing meet ups and I’m pretty sure Twitter is super stand-offish just by the nature of its interface. To me, Instagram became a thing I personally really loved. I’d never considered myself a photographer, and now here I was meeting up with people and taking pictures and getting beers and hanging out just for fun — not even to take pics. I think stories are better told when they’re personal.
Do you find that professional photographers are the ones really sinking their teeth into the community you describe in the movie, or is there more to it than that?
Not at all. Of course many are professionals, but many others are doctors, or teachers, or moms who love documenting their life and happen to have a really good eye and a phone handy. We met up with such a crazy dynamic group of people on the trip from all walks of life. And I follow the same type of diverse grouping. Some people I follow and connect with don’t take good photos, but I love getting a peek at how they’re living and what they’re doing. I’m interested in them as people.
Do you guys follow people based on their story, such as the case with @ErinRBrooks, or imagery? They don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but does one pique the interest before another?
I’d say it can be a mix of both. Some people I follow purely because their photos are sweet. However, if they don’t engage or talk back, I usually fall off following them. I love connecting with people and getting to know them more than anything else on there. Such a unique opportunity to learn about other cultures and people.
Was Erin the only woman who reached out? Is it just coincidence that she was the only woman featured in the interviews?
There were a lot of women on the trip; they just happened not to make the final cut. The film could have easily been an hour long if I kept all the interviews. We had some great interviews with Jenah (Craig’s wife) and others, but Erin’s story just floored us. So, basically a coincidence. I was aiming just to tell the best story, not a “diversity balanced” story.
How did you find or pick the people you visited and interviewed?
This was based on who we followed and the route we decided to go. We wanted to head south because of the awesome scenery and some of the people we really wanted to meet. Eric was close with a guy named Eric Lyons who shoots with a great community in Oklahoma City. And Craig and Eric were close on Instagram with a married couple, Geof & Ayanah, and they were in Arizona. So, we built from there.
Are you getting negative feedback about the concept? How would you respond to people who don’t see the community?
We haven’t gotten any negative feedback yet — but I’ve only shared the film with friends, family, other Instagrammers and clients. And everyone has been overwhelmingly positive and excited to join in helping us share the story. I’m sure there will be haters out there who feel like Instagram is a click or BS or have been burned. But that’s to be expected. This is just our personal story and a portrayal of our personal experience on Instagram. I think the best response we’ve received is just how many Instagrammers can relate to it because they’ve made similar friendships. I like that the film is universal like that.
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What an honor it has been sharing the journey with these guys. Never been around a more humble crew. Yesterday was filled with shooting in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. We eventually ended up in the middle of no where under the stars. Really thankful for @JeepOfficial, not only for these amazing Jeep Renegades, but for the continued encouragement and support they've provided. Oh, when you have a minute, head over to @LittleCoal's feed for his first ever star shot, it's epic! @NeighborhoodFilm #SP In partnership with @jeepofficial #neighborhoodfilm #RenegadeLife #Jeep