Full disclosure: Kat Irlin is one of my favorite people that I’ve met in recent years. I like her a lot. And not just because of her talent as a photographer, her ability to see the world through a 1960s cinematic lens, or the way in which she makes me look far cooler than I really am, though those are good reasons. I like Kat because she’s a no-nonsense human who doesn’t suffer fools, who tells it like it is, who works insanely hard, and who is an inspiring friend — when I’m around her I’m forced to up my game considerably. Kat works so much that it’s difficult to pin her down for more than 15 minutes, but yesterday, after trying for months, I finally managed to get her to sit still and chat for an hour. We covered a range of topics from transitioning social media glory into real world success, her opinion on Instagram’s proposed algorithm change, and why she never keeps photos of herself up for more than three hours.
As someone who has made a career on the immediacy of social media, is it frustrating for you when things don’t happen straight away?
I’m not the most patient person, that’s for sure, but there are no shortcuts. You can’t go from shooting iPhone photos to shooting campaigns right away. Miracles happen I guess, just not to me. I’ve gotta be patient and keep working at it.
So what are the challenges of starting on Instagram and trying to break into the non-social media world?
Even though Instagram is taken much more seriously now, there is still a stigma of being an ‘Instagram photographer’, so I’m trying to break through that and show that I’m a professional, whatever that means. The only way to prove yourself is to consistently create really great work. And then it takes time to get to know the right people and to make the right connections.
Would you say that networking is as important as the actual work itself?
Definitely. It’s all about the hustle. Getting to know the right people is so important — whether it’s the art director of a brand, or the decision-makers who actually hire the photographers for campaigns. The tough thing is that they’re already working with photographers, and people don’t like change, so you have to prove yourself and they have to like you. It’s twofold.
Do you think you work differently from a typical photographer?
Coming from a corporate background where everybody wants everything immediately, I’m extremely efficient, and I’m able to edit and deliver the photos very quickly. I also have very high standards for myself where I have to be constantly shooting and impressing people (laughs).
Ah yes that corporate background. You worked in finance for 15 years before you started shooting, right?
Yes, that’s right.
What did your friends and family say when you quit your stable job in finance to work on Instagram?
They thought I was crazy. In Russian/Jewish culture photography is not a real profession. You have to work in finance or law or medicine, which is what everyone in my family is doing. But they’ve been supportive since the beginning. Everyone’s pretty proud.
Good to hear. Okay, so: The legend goes that you’ve been shooting for less than five years. I find that hard to believe. Is it really true?
Yes. I’ve been shooting on an iPhone since I first got Instagram three or four years ago, and I bought my first proper camera two years ago.
That’s crazy! How did you develop that insanely beautiful cinematic aesthetic?
I think it came from growing up in Saint Petersburg. I was always exposed to a ton of art and culture, my Mom or grandmother would drag us to museums or ballet or opera every single week, and also growing up around all that architecture really shaped me. I never had any formal training and I haven’t watched that many foreign movies so I guess it’s just the way my eye sees the world.
Very good eye. I gotta ask, what do you think of the new Instagram algorithm?
It sucks. It’s probably not going to happen because too many people are against it. I think it’s stupid. Instagram is different from Facebook, because people are presenting their creative work, and if you’re not out there shooting and posting constantly then you’re going to be forgotten, which is unfair.
Final question: I notice you post photos of yourself and then delete them just about every day. What’s the deal?
Nobody needs to see my face for more than three hours.
I LIKE YOU!