On a Tuesday afternoon in early September, Ryan Winburn nervously surveyed the crowd at the Florida Governor’s Conference, a tourism conference held at the Tampa Convention Center in downtown Tampa. He had been invited because he was hand picked by Visit Florida, the state’s tourism development arm, who had noticed his photography on the popular mobile social network, Instagram. Accustomed to communicating through social media with his followers and fans, it was the first time he had ever spoke in front of an audience about what he loved to do. Microphone in hand, he spoke about his passion for social media, photography and being dubbed an “influencer” on the popular social network. 

“Influencer” has become the buzzword for amateur photographers like Winburn, who reaches thousands of followers on Instagram. He doesn’t use the term to describe himself, but he understands its depth and what it means for his talents in visual storytelling and photography. “I got into photography because of the amazing photos I was seeing on Instagram and social media,” Winburn said. “I’ve used social media as an outlet for my love of photography and I’ve published all my photos on Instagram since the beginning to see what people responded to and liked.”

Instagram users create and follow hashtags to grow social communities and create digital libraries of places, events and topics on the social network. For instance, search #UpsideOfFlorida on Instagram and you’ll see more than 40,000 posts — landscape shots, mostly, of sunsets, beach scenes and events and activities in downtown Pensacola or along the Gulf Coast. The hashtag was born out of a rebranding effort for the City of Pensacola and has reached beyond city limits to create an identity and brand for the Gulf Coast lifestyle. Winburn — and thousands of others — have capitalized on the brand by telling the story of the Gulf Coast through photography. They find this grassroots approach to photography and visual storytelling builds a community, both on Instagram and off.

While Winburn devotes much of his time to photography, it isn’t his fulltime job — yet. He’s an Airman in the U.S. Air Force, stationed at Hurlburt Field. He grew up in Fort Walton Beach and counts himself lucky to have been stationed on the Gulf Coast for the length of his enlistment, providing limitless opportunities for capturing moonrises, sunsets and adventures along the coast.

But Winburn says he has future plans after he leaves the military and he’s following his passion for photography and social media to turn it into a full-time career, possibly working as a freelance adventure photographer representing various brands across the world. He says he knows that dream will be a challenge. “It used to be that if you wanted to get noticed by a big company or firm, you’d have to mail in your portfolio and resume halfway across the country. Today, no one does that. You get noticed via social media,” said Winburn. “While the storytelling doesn’t change, the method and tools you use to tell those stories have.”

As he follows his dream to make a career and life out of his photography, Winburn says he tries to not get distracted by long-term plans or goals. “Very early on into my photography I found myself answering the same question: my end goal is to create amazing imagery that tells a story or a perspective on something that others can relate to.”

Through following his passion, he’s stuck with one piece of advice that’s guided him. “I would tell someone to stop being an admirer and find their signature. Stop comparing yourself to your competition because you’ll forever feel you aren’t good enough. Just get out and shoot.”

This weekend, Winburn will be posting on the Instagram profile for Visit Florida, @ShareALittleSunshine, which has more than 20,000 active followers. As part of the takeover, Winburn is sharing his images from around the Gulf Coast.

You can follow along with the Instagram takeover by following @sharealittlesunshine and @ryanwinburn on Instagram.


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