Sam Graves is a self-identified child of social media. “The internet boomed, Instagram boomed, photography boomed, and I was right there in the thick of it. I didn’t think it would get as big as it has, but it doesn’t surprise me.”
Sam grew up in small-town Oregon. After high school he left home to travel. “I didn’t want to go straight to college and incur a bunch of debt,” he says. Instead, working with a non-profit based in Australia, he traveled to the likes of Egypt, Thailand, and India to see what was beyond American borders. With no set time frame, he followed his heart.
Sam returned home in 2008, just as the global economy was crashing. He wasn’t able to get a job anywhere without making minimum wage or less, so he started Started Sam Graves Window Washing. After a year he switched to house painting, and a year after that he closed his businesses to pursue work in coffee. For two years he worked as a barista in a Grant’s Pass, two hundred miles south of his hometown.
It was in this time that Sam stumbled upon photography, which he attributes to the emergence of new image-making technology. “I didn’t start developing as a photographer until I got an iPhone,” he says. For a while he used photography to get away from work, away from a social environment—going on hikes by himself with his phone. “I went through my own phase of instagram-filtered selfies, food, and dog pictures,” he says. “Seeing people use Instagram as a portfolio blew my mind.”
Sam moved to San Francisco knowing he wanted to pursue photography as a career. “There are people that love their jobs as career baristas—I enjoyed it. But I was doing photography more than anything else I’d ever gotten into—enough that I felt I could make a career out of it.” Still, coffee was a good entry point into the city. It took Sam only half a week to find a job as a barista, and he stayed in coffee for another two years.
Upon arrival in San Francisco, Sam was hungry to meet up with other people and be a part of the photography community. “I didn’t have anyone else to shoot with in Oregon—it was a solo effort. Instagram has been one of my biggest catalysts for networking and friendships. This little app has impacted my life in so many ways. I don’t think I’d be a photographer if social media wasn’t a thing. Getting connected and staying connected makes my job possible.”
Sam says interest in his work from other Instagram users was a big part of his early development. “Photographers have never been able to get instant feedback like this,” he says. “And though it’s not the constructive criticism photographers also need, it’s people who appreciate the way that I see things and give me positive feedback.”
Sam knows his story is like that of many others, yet he is proud of the path he’s taken. “My career is a part of the momentum of the present moment,” he says, “and I think we’ve all seen a style come out of Instagram—iPhone-ography and Instagram definitely influenced my style, but I attribute it more to my love of travel. I was raised on National Geographic and the photography of professionals in Oregon. I’ve always been drawn to the beauty of the world. I have a desire to dig deeper into the world of photography, to go back to the basics. But I’ve also had a blast listening to my intuition and trusting myself as a creative person—my journey has been a bit more personal than that of classical instruction.”
Sam is a student of the world, and is happy to take whatever sorts of photography jobs he can find within it. He’s photographed everything from weddings to cars to corporate headshots to travel imagery for resorts and agencies. “I love it when people ask me ‘what do you shoot?,’” he says. “There’s no one answer. I love any project that allow me to explore the creative edge. In my work with Boosted, rather than just a landscape, I get to capture the life within it. I’m on the hunt for higher purpose. There’s always been an activist in me but I haven’t known how to explore it. I want to really feel it before I devote my voice to it. So many projects are one-offs. I think the real work comes from extended engagement, with time to develop process and really get to know who and what you’re working with.”
These days pushes his photography far beyond his iPhone. “I’ve always wished that I could fly. With a drone I can go 1500 feet up and 2 miles away. And you can buy one at Costco! I’m so stoked that I live at a time when things like Boosted boards and drones are becoming a normal thing. I play with toys people couldn’t have dreamed of a century ago.”