There are several big milestones in an influencer’s life: hitting a million followers, getting your first brand deal, and (for the very lucky) landing a photo shoot with Bryant Eslava.
Mr. Eslava, a 27-year-old photographer, is known for working with the biggest social media stars, often before they hit the mainstream. His Instagram feed, on which he has accrued more than 4.4 million followers, is a who’s who of the internet. There’s Kylie Jenner, Emma Chamberlain, David Dobrik, to name a few.
“He’s the biggest social media photographer there is,” said Dixie D’Amelio, an 18-year-old TikTok star with more than 7 million followers. “Everyone knows his name.” She added that growing up watching YouTube, it had been her goal for him to shoot her. “He’s shot like every single person on the internet,” said Addison Easterling, 19, another social media influencer. “Just shooting with Bryant opens doors.”
The Hype House, the largest and most prominent TikTok collective, recently announced its arrival in Los Angeles with a series of photos by Mr. Eslava.
His photos are distinctive. Mr. Eslava shoots with film, not digital. The images he captures are candid, but always flattering. He often photographs his very famous subjects out and about, but away from hordes of adoring fans.
“They get to see whoever I photograph in a different perspective,” Mr. Eslava said of his followers (and the followers of whoever he is shooting). “A lot of people who watch these influencers only see them through TikTok or YouTube. I show them this behind the scenes.”
Mr. Eslava makes the majority of his living doing brand work and commercial photography. This allows him to have a more casual relationship with his subjects, some of whom have become close friends. It’s a win-win situation: They get photos to post on social media and Mr. Eslava gets to capture a world he’s been immersed in for nearly a decade.
Influencers he has shot often view the photos as keepsakes from a particular time in their life, often when they were just coming up, before they achieved true internet fame.
After receiving a Nikon D40 camera from his parents for getting good grades his sophomore year of high school, Mr. Eslava began posting his work to Tumblr. He taught himself the mechanics of photography on Google and by watching videos online. He pored over Urban Outfitters catalogs for inspiration.
By the time Mr. Eslava arrived in New York City in 2011 as a freshman at the School of Visual Arts, he had amassed a major following on Tumblr. He became so well known that the platform itself took notice. In February 2012, Tumblr invited Mr. Eslava and several other Tumblr stars to cover New York Fashion Week.
The experience proved to be a pivotal moment. Mr. Eslava was captivated by the energy and passion he saw from designers and loved documenting backstage moments. “I was like, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” he said.
Tumblr began inviting him to more and more events. Eventually, Mr. Eslava dropped out of school to move back to Orange County, Calif. and pursue photography full time.
When Cameron Dallas, then just a Vine star, invited him to collaborate in early 2014, he jumped at the chance. Before long, Mr. Dallas and the boys of Magcon, a social media influencer tour, were regularly working with Mr. Eslava. He eventually moved into a house in Los Angeles with Mr. Dallas and Nash Grier, another Vine star, to continue documenting early creators. “I was just doing it for fun — for me it was keeping me creative and busy,” Mr. Eslava said.
His Own Kind of Fame
Like many of the influencers he works with, Mr. Eslava is quick to leverage new technologies to promote his work. Already he has more than a half million followers on TikTok alone.
When Snapchat (and later Instagram) rolled out the ability to create custom filters for Stories, Mr. Eslava launched several. He hands out stickers printed with Snap codes that link directly to the lenses. And he worked with a developer to customize his Instagram filters to include a pop-up that encourages people to follow him.
“It’s funny,” Mr. Eslava said. “I was at a coffee shop in Orange County and the very first time I got recognized the girl at the coffee bar asked for my name and she was like, ‘Omg you make those filters right?’”
Only recently has Mr. Eslava embraced the fact that with such a massive online following, he has become somewhat of an influencer himself. “Building a social media presence was never a goal of mine,” he said. Throughout most of his career, Mr. Eslava remained behind the lens. “I didn’t feel comfortable in front of the camera,” he said. “I had a lot of chances to be in my friends vlogs or stories, but I’d always say no.”
It wasn’t until last year, when Mr. Eslava began to update his followers about his efforts to lose weight, that he put more of a public face on his work. “Now I post photos of myself and I see comments like, ‘Yes king! Keep it up! You’re glowing.’ It’s motivating,” he said. In addition to his photography, Mr. Eslava released a hoodie and T-shirt with Fanjoy, an influencer merch platform.
On Monday, Mr. Eslava and two other influencers walked into a Brandy Melville store in New York City unannounced, and were swarmed by fans. Teenagers waited in circles as Mr. Eslava doled out photography tips and answered questions. Bahja Smalls, an 18-year-old from Philadelphia, said that she had been following Mr. Eslava’s work since she was 12. “He really gets the people who are the hottest,” she said. Destinee Bartsch, 18, said: “My friend Liv started taking pics because of him.”
Mr. Eslava told people in the crowd that they didn’t need a fancy camera to get into photography. “You can shoot with a disposable,” he said. When one group of giddy teens asked if he could do the “Renegade” with them for a TikTok, he admitted that he still hadn’t mastered the viral dance.
Mr. Eslava’s demeanor is earnest and accessible. “He’s not just going to use someone,” said Ms. D’Amelio.
In terms of how he’s developed such a skill for capturing those who are about to go viral, “I can just tell,” Mr. Eslava said. “I spend a lot of time on all platforms and I can see when someone is consistent, basically. I’ll reach out to them and be like, would love to collaborate with you. It’s funny because a lot of people I work with are big right now, but what people don’t realize is that I’ve worked with them since a long time ago. If they go down on my Instagram they’ll see we started a while back.”
While others in traditional entertainment and media once scoffed at the idea of influencers going mainstream, through his photography, Mr. Eslava has had a front-row seat to the power shift in Hollywood. There was a moment in Milan with Mr. Dallas about five years ago that Mr. Eslava said he’ll never forget. “I remember being in his hotel room on the balcony overlooking the street,” he said, “and the entire streets of Milan were filled with fans. You couldn’t even see the end of the street. That’s a memory that will always stick with me, being able to capture that.”
“In a lot of photography I’ve looked at from the past, you see all these black and white photos of fans of, like, the Rolling Stones,” Mr. Eslava said. “I think to myself, someone had to take those. They had a photographer with them at the moment, and I see myself in that position now.”