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It’s no secret Instagram really, really, really wants Reels to be a thing. It’s made a lot of noise about its attempt to compete with TikTok–and, in the process, it’s alienated some of its user base.
Including Tati Bruening.
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This past July, Bruening (who has 321,000 followers on Instagram) was scrolling her timeline, but instead of posts from her friends and people she followed, she kept seeing Reels–and she wasn’t even in the Reels tab.
In a burst of frustration, she made a simple, all-text image. “MAKE INSTAGRAM INSTAGRAM AGAIN,” it read. “stop trying to be tiktok i just want to see cute photos of my friends. SINCERELY, EVERYONE.”
She also made an accompanying Change.org petition that entreated Instagram to bring back chronological timelines and implement an algorithm that favors photos rather than Reels.
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Why is Bruening so passionate about a photograph-favoring algorithm?
Well, that’s simple. She’s a photographer.
She originally learned her way around a camera because she wanted to get into concerts for free as a teen, and being a photographer got her press passes. But it wasn’t long before she fell in love with photography itself. By the time she was in college, she knew she wanted it to be a full-time gig. So she dropped out during the early days of the pandemic and ended up working with content creators like the Hype House members, Avani Gregg, and James Charles, turning them into the stars of high-production, editorial-style photoshoots.
Over the past two years, her photoshoots have helped Bruening grow her presence on Instagram and TikTok, where she has 2.5 million followers. Her favorite platform, though, is Snapchat, where she’s a verified Snap Star earning money on her content through the app’s in-beta ad program. While Instagram craves polished posts and even TikTok requires a little bit of editing and touch-up, Snapchat, she says, is a place where she can update her followers real-time throughout her day. It’s the place where she’s building her community and her career.
Check out our chat with her below.
@illumitatiana do we like this hack – be honest #photography ♬ dancing while the world burns – adore
Tubefilter: Introduce yourself! Who are you, where are you from, and how did you end up on the internet?
Tati Bruening: Wait, is this recorded or are you writing it down?
Tubefilter: It’s recorded.
TB: Okay. Cool. Awesome. So I can speak as fast as I want.
Tubefilter: Go for it!
TB: So my name is Tati Bruening, also known as “illumitati” across the web. I am a content creator from—well, I was born in Germany, but I grew up in Orange County, California. And I mainly do photography, but I also have started to put the camera and the focus on myself. So a lot of fashion, beauty as well.
Tubefilter: How did you end up getting into photography? Was it something you liked as a kid?
TB: When I was a kid I was really into music, and I wanted a way to be able to go to concerts for free. So I learned how to take photographs to get press passes and sneak into EDM shows.
Tubefilter: That’s quite a backstory. You ended up on Instagram first, right?
TB: My first platform was Instagram, but it was very, very slow growth. And then TikTok and then Snapchat.
Tubefilter: How did you end up moving from Instagram to Snapchat? That feels like a big a difference in the kind of stuff you’re making.
TB: Instagram’s kind of a place where everything’s very curated, and as we’ve seen, it’s become less and less of a place where you can feel comfortable being yourself, whereas Snapchat is a place where I can be my most me self and talk real-time about my day and feel like it’s judgment-free.
So I kind of made that shift because I wanted to be able to be more candid and less curated.
@illumitatiana Replying to @lukie2305 wearing @muglerofficial (I WILL DO A PHOTOSHOOT OF THE TOP COMMENT) #photography ♬ original sound – Illumitati 📸
Tubefilter: What would you say, in a nutshell, that somebody could expect if they’ve never watched your videos? What could they expect if they saw some of your TikTok or Snapchat content?
TB: You would probably see a 30-story-long Snapchat Story where I start in Los Angeles doing my skincare routine. And then I hop on a plane to some country overseas and I get off the plane and I talk about something happening in that area and the reason why I’m there. And then I’ll show off the outfit that I’m wearing that day and then I’ll just talk about something quite unhinged. It’s very spur-of-the-moment. And maybe I’ll do a photoshoot and show the behind-the-scenes of that day. I’m kind of a foodie as well, so I’ll show off whatever I’m having that day. You really don’t quite know what to expect. And I think that that’s the fun part of my Snapchat Story. It’s something completely different every day.
Tubefilter: I feel like a lot of creators struggle with feeling like they aren’t allowed to make a variety mix of content or give a real look at their life. They’re like, “Everything has to be photography, everything has to be fashion. It can’t be a mix.” So that’s interesting that you take that kind of approach.
TB: Yeah, and I think that’s why it’s refreshing as well. I’m a photographer, but also here’s the other things that I’m interested in and here’s why you should be interested in it. And I feel like I’m more of an online friend moreso than a public figure.
Tubefilter: When did you first start gathering an audience?
TB: I started gathering an audience when I started working with bigger TikTok names back in 2019. Late that year I really, really grew in that space through collaborating with bigger talents like Avani Gregg, James Charles, and Chase Hudson.
Tubefilter: Can you talk a little bit about your collaborations with them? Are they photography-focused or…?
TB: My initial push was I was taking TikTokers and putting them into an editorial fashion space. So taking video and photographing them in a high-end way that they usually wouldn’t be portrayed.
Tubefilter: Cool concept! And now for something a little different: You were recently behind the “Make Instagram Instagram again” post and movement. What inspired that sentiment from you? Was it a spur-of-the-moment post?
TB: It was very spur-of-the-moment, and it was honestly because I was just feeling quite frustrated in that moment with the lack of community that exists on Instagram nowadays. Everything’s really curated and the algorithm has been favoring more Reels as opposed to photo content. And Instagram is a photo app. It was started as a photo app. So for me as a photographer, and the reason why it blew up initially in the photography community, is it’s like the algorithm’s no longer democratized. We have less of a chance of going viral or our work being seen as compared to somebody who works in lifestyle and like does Reels all day long.
So I saw that inequality and I didn’t see any other creators speaking out on it because Meta has lots of deals with influencers and they wouldn’t wanna jeopardize their career. So I was like one of the very first influencers to actually say, “Hey, this is actually not okay. I like this app and I don’t want to see it go down the path of Facebook or MySpace where it just kind of loses its sense of identity and goes into obscurity. That being said, I really want to see something change.”
I typed it honestly very quickly. In the moment I didn’t expect it to go viral at all, but I’m very grateful that it did and I’m very, very fortunate to be in the position of speaking out on Meta’s practices and encouraging user feedback. So that’s where I kind of stand on that. And I’m hopeful to say that like Instagram will be making change in the future, but action does speak out than words. So I’m curious to see how that’s all going to play out.
@illumitatiana YO THIS IS ACTUALLY INSANE #PHOTOGRAPHY #greenscreen ♬ messi is the goat – ha7ou
Tubefilter: So you spoke earlier about Snapchat, and you’re clearly very passionate about Snapchat. Can you talk about that—about becoming an actual Snap creator and getting in contact with the Snapchat team?
TB: I grew up on Snapchat. I think that most people in Gen Z have been on Snapchat since they were young. So seeing Snapchat go through all of its phases and errors and they’re one of the very, very few apps that continues to innovate.
And so becoming a Snapchat star, when I first started getting some attention on TikTok, a lot of new features were added [to Snapchat] and I was honestly just having lots of fun playing with it and adding people to my Story to be able to post. And it just turned into like this big public group chat where my friends and I would post to my Story and we were just having fun with it. Having really good interactions with the community that we created. That was kind of my initial interest and fun with the whole Snap Star thing.
Tubefilter: How has your presence evolved since you became a Snap Star? Do you do anything different, or is it sort of like you’re verified, but still you?
TB: I suppose I post how I would normally post. I mean, more frequently, because it’s my job now basically to be a content creator, so I work to post more frequently, but I’ve never had to like, change anything about my content style or change anything about myself to please an algorithm, which is really, really refreshing.
Tubefilter: I also heard you’re involved in Snapchat’s ad beta. How’s that working out?
TB: I actually really, really love it. I think that I, as a creator, I am really, really glad to see that we have proper monetization for using and posting to Snapchat. I love the feature so much. I wake up every morning—this is so bad. I wake up every morning and like, I’ll see my Snap Crystals. I’ll be like, “Let’s go!” Like I’ll get very excited about it. I’ve been using it every single day, and it’s just so cool to see that your community is helping you earn and helping support your career.
Tubefilter: When did content creation become a full-time job for you? Did you get out of high school and go straight into content or?
TB: No. So I was actually a biochem major at university. So when the pandemic hit, I lied to my parents. I, uh, dropped out and told them that I was gonna go to community college during the gap, but instead I wound up sleeping on the couch of the Hype House and pursuing a career in social media.
Tubefilter: Wait—Hype House? How did you end up there?
TB: I would drive up to LA to do these photoshoots every single day. I was really hustling. So for me, sometimes it was easier to just stay with a friend or at a content house, literally sleep on the couch so I could continue my work and shoot the next morning.
I was really hustling during that time to make any sort of name for myself because I knew that at that moment if I didn’t do it right then and there, then I would never have a chance of getting into the social media world. If I were to fail, I would have to go back to college, and I don’t think that biochemistry was necessarily going to be a long-term career field for me.
Tubefilter: What does your average day generally entail now?
TB: So I’ll wake up at five—
Tubefilter: Oh, jeez.
TB: Yeah, I am regarded as one of the most hustling people in this whole space. People genuinely don’t understand how I get all of my stuff done in the day. So I’ll wake up at five, I’ll work out, I’ll either take some Zoom meetings or do emails or something, just because my team works on the East Coast and so I wake up early to compensate for time difference. Then I’ll film some TikToks or some short-form content. From there I’ll change out of whatever makeup and hair and whatever I had to do for those videos to go to studio and collab with another talent. I’ll do a photoshoot, I’ll go home, I’ll edit said photoshoot, I will retouch, and then go to the beach because I love the beach, or just sleep.
Tubefilter I’m still stuck on you getting up at five.
TB: Yeah, I do. I have to in order to keep up with all this stuff because I’m not just creating one sort of content. I’m making an editorial, full-blown fashion photoshoot almost every single day. Like I’m going to the studio, setting up, coordinating a hair and makeup team, making sure that I have a full production to work with nearly every single day. That in itself is an entire job. And on top of that I’m doing beauty, fashion, lifestyle content, and managing everything from like a “This is my career now. I need to make sure that my taxes are paid” standpoint. You know what I mean?
@illumitatiana spider angle 😎 #photography ♬ original sound – Illumitati 📸
Tubefilter: I do. Do you consider the blend of photography and social media a long-term career for you now?
TB: Absolutely. Because it’s not like I’m only…There’s a whole craft, like I’m becoming an artist as well. It’s not just to create content. I’m also curating work that eventually I want to show in a gallery. I have other work on the side that’s entirely just commercial work where I’m making album covers, I’m doing ecom websites and stuff like that in terms of photography. So I have this whole side of my world I don’t even post about.
Tubefilter: That makes it even more egregious that Instagram is losing you, basically. You’re doing this kind of work and it feels like they’re not paying attention to you or people like you.
TB: I mean, Snapchat appreciates it so much more and I get to share all the craziness throughout the day real-time to Snapchat, which is way cooler than posting one photo on an app that will have little to no engagement, where half of people don’t even get to see the content because it’s being pushed away by things like sponsored posts and Reels.
Tubefilter: You’ve mentioned a couple times doing these real-time updates. Do you feel like that sort of “real,” lo-fi content is better in terms of building a community than maybe ultra-polished posts or videos?
TB: Yeah. I mean, I’ll make one of those a day, but the rest of it I see as an entire counterculture to this highly curated, manufactured content. We were thinking it would be Reels, but Snapchat is like the prize place to be unhinged and be real. That’s why it’s having such a huge moment right now from a creator standpoint, because it’s where you can be posting, have it be semi temporary, and be your most unhinged self.
Instagram has lost its entire model of being instantaneous. Now people are curating images weeks in advance, sharing it after FaceTuning it and filtering it 10,000 times. On Snapchat I can literally take a selfie like this, be like, “I’m in an interview!” and people will be like, “Oh my gosh, that’s awesome.” And people would actually see my content.
Maybe that’s why BeReal is such a moment right now as well. In terms of their longevity, I don’t know what that is, but Snapchat and BeReal are the two apps that are really fostering that sense of realness right now. And it’s really, really, really refreshing in the space, especially as a photography creator.
Tubefilter: Can you explain a little bit about the community-building aspect of Snapchat? How you’re able to build and communicate with an audience?
TB: In terms of community-building, you have such an easier time interacting with your audience on Snapchat. You can press two buttons to reply to anybody that’s responded to your Story. You can ask questions, you can take polls. I love using the poll feature, for example. And you get real-time feedback and you can literally have a live conversation with your audience basically via your Story. It’s really, really seamless to communicate with your audience and that’s why it’s so much easier to build that community, as the interaction is so much easier. You don’t have to put out a 10-minute ad roll video every time you want to respond to comment.
Jellysmack is the global creator company that powers multi-platform social media growth for video creators, media companies, brands, celebrities, and its own online communities (Beauty Studio, Oh My Goal, Gamology, House of Bounce and more). The company’s proprietary technology optimizes, distributes, and promotes video content, resulting in meaningful audience growth and increased revenue in record time. Jellysmack is currently partnered with hundreds of talented creators including MrBeast, PewDiePie, Like Nastya, and Bailey Sarian. Looking to Go Bigger on social? Visit jellysmack.com.