It's a Wednesday morning in July and I'm watching a relatively unknown woman get ready for a photoshoot at her flat in northeast London. There's no backdrop, no team for hair and makeup, and aside from a camera, no additional equipment or assistants. There isn't an actual client or publication commissioning the photos, either.
"You should wear that lipstick you posted yourself wearing yesterday," says the photographer who has come to shoot 22-year-old Emma Breschi.
"Oh, the Kylie Lip Kit one?" Emma asks. "It's so hard to put on, but OK."
Emma is a self-proclaimed Instagram model – not to be confused with a model on Instagram, the Gigi Hadids and Kendall Jenners who use the app to promote their traditional modelling careers. Emma says she uses the platform as a vehicle for career advancement, creative expression and a way to earn money. How all that works, and to what end, is where the murkiness of Instagram modelling really comes into focus.
By her own telling, Emma doesn't fit into the typical body norms of either conventional or plus-size modelling. She has a commercial agent, but uses social media to hoist herself into the view of bookers who wouldn't normally work with someone of her body type. She posts the sort of hashtag-heavy, "body-confident" captions – "Note to 13 year old self: Emmerz, it's just a bikini. SO YOU BETTER WERQ IT HUNTY" – that earn her admiration from followers as well as offers for work and free clothes from brands who want to piggyback off that message.
"If someone offered you a lot of money to take a picture of something, would you do it?" Emma asks me. "It depends on the brand, but I'd do it if that brand ties into what I believe. I don't need money to buy expensive things, just money to live off. If I can get a couple of jobs in a month, that's my rent sorted."
Today she's on a "test shoot" job with Simone Steenberg, a Danish fashion and portrait photographer she met DM'ing on Instagram. Neither of them will be paid for their time, but when they post the pictures from the day they'll tag each other, opting to maximise their nebulous "influence" rather than make actual cash.
If Emma's only work came from unpaid test shoots like this one, she wouldn't be able to earn an actual living. But it doesn't. She also takes photos for brands like House of Sunny, NOE Garments and Ukulele Fashion – some of whom she models for.
In a good month she says she can earn up to a couple thousand pounds from both her photography and modelling. It's not consistent enough yet, though, so she also works in a pub around the corner from her flat; the owner recognised her from what he called her "well risky" photos.
Really, though, Emma says she didn't plan to model. "All the people that I tend to follow are amazing women not giving a shit about anyone's opinion, and when I saw that I was like, 'Maybe I should try out that stuff,'" Emma says. "I never set out to be a model. I think of myself as an image-maker, and what I do in front of the camera helps me be better behind it as well."
There's a lot of this rather vague "creative speak" when Emma talks about her job, something that surprised me when I first entered this world. I'd assumed that the women who call themselves Instagram models might be seeking and using male attention as a route to fame, but that didn't bear out. Instead, it seems that they use the platform primarily as a means to an end.
Speaking to 19-year-old Daisy, or @PinkandTonic, feels similar. Daisy, a student at Oxford University, knows she doesn't have the body type to be a conventional model, but sees modelling as a sort of stepping stone to other creative work – making clothes, or maybe styling. "If I already have this massive platform of people established, then anything I want to do, I already have a huge group of people I can market that to."
"I have no interest in guys commenting on my photo," she continues. "It's not about them being a guy, it's about the kind of comments they leave. Comments from girls are like, 'OMG this is gorgeous, I love these clothes, You look amazing'; comments from guys most of the time are a side smirk emoji and a flame. It's so different."
It may be different, but the main trope in photographing Instagram models still appears to revolve around guys looking at women, while photographing them. That concept stretches back to the late 2000s, and the boyfriends of fashion bloggers charged with photographing their girlfriends in their various outfits – see Rumi Neely, Aimee Song and Chiara Ferragni.
Today, an "Instagram model" is perceived as a pouting woman in her twenties who relies on well-established, largely male photographers to boost her profile. In some cases, that can all fall apart: Bleeblu, a popular photographer based in the US, was accused of coercing a teenage model into nude photoshoots in public places last year on Tumblr (allegations he has publicly denied). "I was an insecure and naive 19-year-old fangirl," the model wrote, "and he was a 27-year-old experienced and popular photographer. This dynamic made me easy to persuade despite my apprehension."
"I do think some [photographers] really do exploit it just because they have a camera and a big following," says Dean Martindale, a photographer who started off on Instagram, has shot Emma several times and now does work for commercial brands. "There are girls that will shoot with certain people who have 200,000 followers not because of their body of work, but because [they know] they're gonna get a big following back in return. But the industry is so small, things get around."
By Insta-fame standards, both Emma and Daisy's followings are modest, at 4,400 and 2,400 respectively. To hear from someone with bigger numbers, I got in touch with Charlie Barker, a 20-year-old model from Nottingham with more than 600,000 followers. She was scouted on Instagram and signed by modelling agency Select in 2014.
Instead of sliding into Barker's DMs, I contacted her through her agent – a sign of how her career has graduated from the ranks of Instagram's informal accessibility. Still, she says over email that it's possible at this point for models to make a living based on Instagram alone, but that they'd probably have to be willing to hawk any old product that comes along – "a lot of promoting detox teas" – rather than opting for a more discerning approach. However, if and when representation from a major agency does come along, as it did for Charlie, an existing fan base means an Instagram model's creative and actual bargaining power could be superior to that of a regular model.
"When I first got signed my modelling and Instagram were very separate," she says. "Although I see them as segregated I think clients see the creativity I endorse within my page and want something more than 'just a model'."
Even if they don't get to a Charlie Barker level of followers, talking to Daisy and Emma you get the impression that fame isn't necessarily the goal. This isn't thirst-trap Instagram, with bums angled at phone cameras in selfies to ultimately lead to some free tickets to Lovebox. It's more like shrewd career planning that builds on and relies on other people's "likes". Daisy enjoys modelling "like I enjoy shopping – that doesn't mean it's all I want to do with my life".
"Instagram has become such a big part of – I don't want to say life, but maybe I should – what I'm trying to achieve," Emma says. "But I'm not just a model."