Influencer Nation

From Only Human , 7:00 am on 20 August 2020

In ‘Canopy of Dreams,’ by photographer Jenny Gao, two men walk beneath rows of lush, hanging ferns as coloured flecks of light bounce off their clear umbrellas. This photograph is dreamlike and tells a story. And it is this kind of work that Gao has become known for.

Photographer Jenny Gao

Photographer Jenny Gao Photo: Jenny Gao


Gao created the image for an ad campaign for Rotorua Tourism, and posted it to her instagram account

As soon as she did, she had a feeling it would become a viral hit. She was right. 


In this episode of Only Human, photographer-turned-influencer, Jenny Gao, tells why sharing her art on instagram led to a world she never dreamed possible. 



Social media has enabled people to share their stories, voice their opinions and broaden their network base, while also making genuine connections that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. And for artists, instagram is the platform of choice to share and promote creative work...but at what cost? 


“User experience designers of social media platforms don’t even use it themselves because they’ve designed it in a way that is intentionally there to keep you on for as long as possible,” says photographer and now documentary maker, Jenny Gao. 


Gao knows all about the reality of dealing with the pressures of social media. 


While working as a User experience designer overseas, the design graduate began honing her photography skills. That’s when she started sharing her work on her instagram account in 2015, having started her first account in 2012 when the platform was a fun place to share photos and adventures with friends and the influencer market was yet to be invented.


But a year after carefully curating her account, brands started approaching her, offering exciting deadline-driven, fast-turn-around creative projects that kept her on her toes. Gao says it was an environment she thrived in. 

At 26, projects came flooding in and people were recognising Gao for her talent. Making a living off her art was a dream  come true and led her to opportunities she couldn’t have imagined otherwise.

“I said yes, to a lot of brands that resonated with me and I just loved that quick iterative process the influencer marketing allowed me to do,” says Gao, whose portfolio includes working with big brands like ASB and Air NZ. 

But Gao says breaking into the influencer market had a big impact on her art. It was no longer about the pleasure of 'creating'. She was becoming a slave to the spikes in ‘likes’ and ‘follows’ on each post, which had to be reported back to clients. For Gao, it came with limitations.  

Jenny Gao's Canopy of Dreams captured her audiences imagination

Jenny Gao's Canopy of Dreams captured her audiences imagination Photo: Jenny Gao


“Whenever you start to pay the bills with your art, it does change your relationship with it,” she says.      


Being an influencer might look glamorous from the outset, but the reality hit harder than Gao expected. 


“Your pay is solely dependent on your number of followers, your engagement and your reach,” she says of the pressure on creative’s to maximize their reach with every single post. 


Before she knew it, Gao's every waking moment was filled with anxiety and pressure to top her last post and create another viral hit. 


Find out why Jenny turned her back on the influencer market to carve out a new career as a documentary maker, in this episode of RNZ podcast Only Human.

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