Edward Barnieh’s Instagram feed got him noticed. Yet it was through taking photos when Ed began to really see himself.
(Hong Kong, July, 2016) The search for happiness wasn’t necessarily a topic of conversation I was going to have with rising Instagram star and photographer Edward Barnieh, but that’s where our chat went. A charming, funny man with a wide smile, Ed is well known amongst social media circles in Asia. And his profile continues to rise. To date, he has 154k Instagram followers and counting. His photographs, from architecture, cityscapes, skylines to more recently, portraits have caught the eyes of major brands such as Nike, Cathay Pacific, Huawei, Volkswagen, and UBS. While he’s honest to admit they are after his following, his passion as a photographer is what keeps him working to perfect his craft in the hopes that it’s his creativity that gets him the jobs. But Edward’s story has multiple layers, one that involves a shy young man who moved to Hong Kong very much in his self-professed shell and finding his voice through what is perhaps this generation’s fairy tale, a social media story.
There are times in everyone’s life when things happen and the course of our lives change. A weekend in January 2013 was perhaps one of those moments for Ed. Back then, he was a 34 year old animation executive who had a comfortable life in London. Then a job in Hong Kong came up at Cartoon Network. With an aim to further his career, Ed and his wife Jess took the leap of faith and made the decision to move from all that they knew to the city with the iconic skyline. It was perhaps an uncharacteristic move for someone who describes himself as “boring”. But he loved his work and wanted to keep growing professionally. Ed also had a budding interest in photography and while that wasn’t what he would describe as a passion back then, it would be the one thing that would help change him and life as he knew it.
That change would begin almost immediately after Ed arrived in Hong Kong. During his his first weekend here before Jess arrived to be with him, he was faced with the choice of spending it in his hotel room or going out and meeting new people. It was a choice he didn’t revel in. In London he and Jess had their steady social circle with friends and family. They never felt the need to go out and meet new people. Ed insists it just wasn’t the thing Londoners did. It certainly wasn’t the thing he insists he ever did. And now he was in unfamiliar territory both geographically and emotionally. He tells me, “I arrived and saw (some Hong Kong Instagrammers) were doing a meet in Macau and I didn’t have anything better to do so I went along and I can say that that was a life changer.” About 30 people all gathered for one purpose: to explore and take photos. “We spent the whole day walking around getting to know each other…I would not have done this in London, I cannot stress this enough. I was pushed out of my comfort zone,” he says.
Now, in the 3 and half years since arriving in the city, Ed has gone from being another expat in Hong Kong to one who sees the city as the place where he found himself, a home that has given him a sense of purpose and confidence, and a region that has fuelled his once fledgling hobby to a full blown career. After that first weekend, Ed continued to step outside of his comfort zone and kept going out to meet fellow Instagrammers, taking more photos, and adding to his social media feeds. As a result, the number of Ed’s followers rose, catapulting his second career by netting attention from the brands that see his ability to not just grow a base but also take a really good photograph. He tells me, “a lot of brands have put their trust in me. I would love to think it was my style but a lot of it is the following.” He adds, “you never even know which thing it was that made someone reach out to you. You just take it and run with it. So when Volkswagen contacts you and says they want you to be the Asia person for a campaign you wonder, huh why me?”All this while Ed’s day job continues to flourish, becoming more focused and in tune with what he has always wanted it to be (he now travels around Asia and Europe looking for the best animation to buy for the Cartoon Network).
Like most things in life, success comes at a price. The trick is knowing what is worth paying, and when to pay it. Feeding the social media machine as such is one that is actually a full time job (there are jobs out there that do just that). He coined it well: he says “we are the Chief Content Officers of our lives.” If we choose to put what we do in our spare time online and hope that it eventually leads us somewhere where it becomes lucrative then that content needs to keep being refreshed. Interestingly, Ed uses his experience in television to put it into context. He says, networks–when it comes to their programming/output, do things for three reasons: prestige, ratings, and money. And just like in television, on social media money comes when you have the followers. But when you’re the only one doing what would take dozens of people at a network to do, you begin to realise there are only a certain number of hours in a day to do it all. Eventually, what was once a passion and a hobby, feels like a job with no breaks. Don’t get me wrong, we all at one point or another wish we could earn a living doing what we love, but things take a different feel once it becomes your lifeline financially, and once people tell you how they want things done. Ed quoted the late fashion photographer Bill Cunningham who said, “if they’re not paying you, they can’t tell you what to do.” So your hobby is no longer your escape and becomes another thing on your list to do. What is sacrificed is balance. He says, “It was so much fun and somewhere along the line it became something that I felt I had to do.” He stresses, “in no way is it bad. I still love it. I love the opportunities it has brought me but I wouldn’t want to miss out on anything (outside of it).”
For Edward, the love of photography and the attention it has garnered him has meant that all holidays, social events, outings, dinners, lunches, even friendships have focused on generating more content. He says, “I put up 2 pictures a day on Instagram. It’s relentless. It’s content. You start to shape your life around how you’re going to take photos…what places, what countries, who are you going to meet when you get there.” He went on to add, “I can’t remember the last time I just stopped and appreciated something…a view without thinking ‘ooh, I’ll come back at sunset.’ (without feeling I had to photograph it). Or that’s nice, but it would be nicer if it was typhoon clouds or something like that…You kind of rate views in your head, rate street scenes..I’ve got a constant rating system thing happening in my head…Sometimes you can get lost in it and it’s not all 100% amazing.”
At one point it came to a head for Edward when he felt firsthand how that balance got tipped in favour of taking more photographs to post instead of spending precious time with his family while on a short visit back home to London. He told me, “when I left my mum was quite upset with me because I didn’t spend enough time with my family because I was out taking photos. I got the balance all wrong. You realize if you’re only gong to see your family for 3 to 4 days every 6 months you should probably be hanging out with them more instead of going out and getting that content to make the rest of the world happy instead of enjoying your life. So that was a serious misstep.” When I asked Ed what his mum thought about this additional career he said, “she is really excited for me. She’s happy but she is often telling me to make sure I enjoy life. She can see how much I shoot and how much effort I put into this and she says I should enjoy life away from it as well and have a balance. I can’t stress enough that that is my thing for the last 3 or 4 months: balance. I can’t just go around the world taking photographs just to do it. I can’t do it at the expense of enjoying my life and the experiences.”
That said, for Ed, the experiences from his two careers have helped him grow in ways he never thought he would. The confidence it has brought him has meant when he speaks at forums or conferences, when he meets new people or clients, he’s coming from a place of experience, an experience he is keen to share with others. He says, “I’ve started to realize people actually care about what I’m doing and like what I’m doing. I realized that maybe I can shape what I do next.” He adds, “people may say social media is bad, but you can shape it to make your life a bit better”. He goes on to say, “anything’s possible. I never would have believed that 4 or 5 years ago. That phrase was quite boring to me 5 years ago. I was like ‘yeah, anything is possible for you.’ I was just living my life, coming home, watching 24, thought ‘wasn’t that great..ok bedtime, let’s go to Portobello road at the weekend, let’s have a Sunday roast in Maide Vale at the weekend with the friends that we know’. Life was very compartmentalised…To say ‘sky’s the limit’, ‘anything is possible’ was part of someone else’s vocabulary. Now truly, I do not know what email is going to appear in my inbox, I have no idea what is coming the next day, what I’m going to agree to. I’m at the stage where I don’t know what I’m going to have to turn down, that kind of mad stuff.”
As Edward focuses on his photography and what kind of images he wants to capture, he does so with a sense of wonder and appreciation for all that that weekend in January 2013 brought him. But he also realises he can’t take himself for granted. His sense of self, value, and the future, have all changed for the better. So when I asked Ed if having two dream jobs have made him happy he said, “I’m 90% there but when I get that balance right it will be great. I want to do more non-photographic cool things. I don’t want to stop taking photos but I want to manage it where photos aren’t the end game of every leisure time thing that I do.” He adds for him it’s about “finding the balance where I’m happy taking photos and I’m happy not taking photos.”
To see more of Ed’s amazing photos, check him out on Instagram @edwardkb