This Photographer's Distinctive Food Art Often Gets Stolen. Here's How She Stands Up for Herself and Stays Positive.
Brittany Wright of @wrightkitchen built a business around Instagram, but she's seeking ways to reclaim ownership of her work that's been lifted from the platform.
In this series, Instagram Icon, Entrepreneur speaks with the individuals behind popular Instagram accounts to find out the secrets of their success.
While the other kids were playing with Barbies and making them talk to each other, Brittany Wright was organizing the dolls’ outfits and shoes by style and color. She grew up loving arts and crafts, and when she got her first camera at age 11, she found her creative calling.
“It just totally blew my world up,” says Wright, now 26. “My imagination, my whole life, has been one of my most favorite places to hang out, and a camera was the first opportunity that I had to be able to actually make a permanent version of what I can imagine.”
She thought she wanted to be a fashion photographer and set out to major in photography in college. But learning about a range of styles and the technical aspects such as lighting didn’t interest her, so she dropped out, abandoned her passion and spent the next few years repairing computers to pay the bills.
“Life was kind of gray. I was like a robot: ‘Wake up, go to work, wake up, go to work …’” Wright says. “I needed a hobby. I was either going to go to a rally car school and learn how to race rally cars and try to become a rally car driver, or teach myself how to cook.”
She chose the latter, more practical of the two and fell in love with it, trying to learn and read cookbooks as quickly as she could. But the way many dishes were visually represented disappointed her. She didn’t want to be the type who used mashed potatoes in the place of melt-prone ice cream. She wanted to represent the natural beauty of all kinds of foods.
In January 2013, Wright launched a cooking blog called Wright Kitchen, which she also translated onto Instagram (@wrightkitchen). The account has evolved from step-by-step recipes to singular artistic photos of food grouped in patterns of color, shape and texture. The common theme in her two lines of work -- computer repair and food patterns -- is that both involve elements of constructing a puzzle.
“I tell people I’m trying to rebrand vegetables,” Wright says. “Don't get me wrong, cheeseburgers are like, my favorite food. But … why not give carrots a chance, or why not make broccoli look like the coolest thing you've ever seen?”
Today, Wright has more than 198,000 Instagram followers, and the platform is largely responsible for Wright’s exposure and success. Last month, she published her first book compilation, Feast Your Eyes. However, in thousands of cases, her photographs have been used without her permission. The cover of her book is one of her images that’s most frequently stolen.
“I made it the cover of my book just in hopes that it would maybe connect it back to me just a little bit more,” Wright says. “That image -- I’m working on being OK with looking at it again. It just has hurt my feelings so much.”
Wright estimates that she spends 20 percent of her time working on making art itself, and the rest on the business behind it. She’s grateful for insights she gained from people whose computers she used to fix before founding Wright Kitchen, and remembers one lesson in particular: “Always assume positive intent.”
Wright spoke with Entrepreneur about how she stays inspired and positive, yet doesn’t hide the negative aspects of her work and takes ownership of it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
1. How did you get your start with Instagram?
I had initially started Wright Kitchen as a food blog, where I was posting the recipes in the process of teaching myself how to cook. I was spending forever taking 20 different shots and getting them all organized out so that you would see each step of the recipe. But each picture was kind of, you know, whatever. It wasn't anything special.
Then I started narrowing down, OK, now I'm going to do 10 pictures of each recipe and focus on those. Then I would do five. And each time, in my opinion, the set got better and better the more time that I put into fewer photos. Quality over quantity.
And then one day I was like, I just want to put everything into one picture. All of my energy of those 20 photos, now into one. Once I started doing that, the response that I was getting from friends, family or just random people that happened to have found me at that time was really positive. When someone tells you that you really make their day with your art, my heart -- it feels like I just got a hug. It just means the most to me. People were really blown away once I started going in that direction, playing with the patterns and adding more vibrant colored backgrounds -- making it more art than just food photography. My focus now is to make a piece of art.
2. What other platforms do you use and what percentage of the time do you spend on them vs. Instagram?
When it comes to sharing stuff about what I'm doing or any message I want to get out, it will definitely be on Instagram. It’s my only channel. But it’s almost like, putting out another piece of art, I wonder, what are they going to do to it now? I’ve seen it chopped, flipped, advertised and every other way.
I gave up on the reverse-image-searching my pictures because it would just ruin my day and my week. I got this website recommended to me called Pixy that reverse-searches all of your Instagram images, and it took a long time for it to load everything. But once it did, I had 18,000 links to go through. And I just like, I had a moment where I felt like I was sinking in my chair. I was just like, how do you even begin? Someone had uploaded a bunch of my pictures and removed the background to make them a downloadable vector image as if it was a free font. Anything that you can imagine. So there's a little fear in me now, just the power of it all.
But the amount of people who reach out to me who say I’ve inspired them to feed their families better, that is insane, in the most amazing way. And the amount of people who have severe OCD who reach out to me and say that they save my pictures, because when they have that really gnarly, nervous tick, that’s what they look at to help relieve them. I would’ve never imagined that. Hundreds of people have emailed me, commented or messaged me over the years. Those are the people who I hold dear, and when it’s really hard, I do it for them.
I’m currently trying to think of other ways to share. And I have different avenues that I'm working on right now to spread the word about how to treat digital imagery now, because it's a wild west. I'm just trying to flip it to find the positive in it, and trying to be the voice. If there's no voice towards changing it, I'll sign up to be the voice. But there are so many opinions -- you know you'll have a good discussion.
3. How much of your time do you devote to Instagram?
I think it's important for everyone to kind of step back just a little bit from the internet and spend that extra hour without your phone. So I've just been trying to live in the moment more and to go back to what inspires me, which is life. Sometimes it's just the way a house is painted or the colors in a sign I'm like, whoa those colors look awesome together. And I want to figure out how to find food that kind of looks like that or a background and play with that.
I’m spending more quality time on Instagram than just sitting there looking at stuff. I’m thinking about it before I actually go to post. I’m not just trying to Instagram-story everything I’m doing. It’s like, is this a value to share or not? Is this worth taking my phone out at dinner and pausing the moment and the conversation to take a video? Or should I keep enjoying this moment that I’m having with friends I haven’t seen in a while.
Like, do I take a lap on Instagram every day? Of course. I check in on what’s going on, see some cool pictures. It’s just not like, every 20 minutes. I can’t do that anymore. Now, I literally will just keep my phone in another room, and it’s nice.
4. How do you promote your account? What's your number-one way to gain followers?
I’ll add certain hashtags. If there are things I really enjoy, just to be a part of the Instagram community. I see that as a way of joining in and doing it the old school way, instead of hashtagging every possible thing. For example, #marthafood, I just worship Martha Stewart, so of course I’m going to put #marthafood under some of my pictures. Every time they repost one of my pictures, it just lights my world up.
I’ll do giveaways of my prints. It’s my way of saying thank you and giving back to people.
Nothing financial. I don’t give in to that stuff. If you want to hang out and watch what I’m doing, awesome. I’m not going to pay for you to be here. There are bots and stuff that will like, if you pay this amount of money, all of a sudden you’ll have 1,000 more followers. Or if you pay to have your picture sponsored and show up on people’s feeds more. Everything I’ve done has been genuine.
5. What's your content strategy?
I think the only content strategy is, if it comes to produce, is that I'm using something in season. I stick to that. I had to think about a strategy for my book, but other than that, I don't put as much of an effort into it other than, “I made this piece of art.” And timing. “Maybe I should post it at like 4 p.m. [Pacific time] so that the East Coast can still see it while they're awake.”
6. How do you set yourself apart on Instagram?
When people ask if I have any advice on creativity or making art, I have kind of the same answer to that. And that's just being yourself. I'll have people that just straight up try to fully redo my art, and no matter what you do, we have our inspiration, and those things already exist. We know that. You got inspired by it. You saw it. Figure out what makes you different and what sets you apart and what makes your own name, your own style. Always work on building new, not trying to be too much anything other than yourself.
That's also a big thing for creators is having that voice to say no. When a client reaches out to you and wants something specific, you can say, “Thank you so much for thinking of me. But that's not me. Here are some people that you might want to reach out to that can do that.” I have kind of a set list of what I would consider myself interested in. But with that said, I'm always open to anything, too. So I have a good idea of what I do. You know, having that good idea of what you're good at, then being able to speak to that, and being very clear and having a lot of communication with who you work with, you're golden. Have a clear understanding of what you're about to do, and you won’t set yourself up for feeling awkward.
7. What's your best storytelling trick?
Sometimes less is more. A lot of people have long-winded approaches to sharing their stories, and sometimes short and sweet gets the point across. For me, it goes back to being genuine. People can smell the B.S., and it’s just not even worth putting it out there, whatever you do. No matter what I do, I ask myself if I’m proud of whatever it is. If I can’t say yes, then I’m not done.
I think by just putting the heart into what you do and feeling really excited about what you do, the stories come along with it. The experience that you had getting whatever it was. If you're some fashion blogger or whatever and you spent all week looking for some shoes, obviously you're going to have stories about the process of getting that damn pair of shoes. So it all goes back to putting your phone down. Allowing yourself to be emotionally available to even gather those stories. And looking people in the eye when you're walking around.
8. How do you leverage your Instagram and to what extent do you monetize it?
I would say 90 percent of the time when people reach out to me, they just say, "We don't know what we want. We just want your style." I've gotten good at being a creative director and pulling back and saying, "So I do a lot of different things. Here are some of my pictures. Tell me which one you like and we'll go from there. OK, so you like this, Now, what do you like about this? What do you not like about this? Why didn't you like these other pictures?” Then I can really narrow in exactly what they want, all the way down to, I illustrate out what I'm thinking a lot of the time to be like, “OK, is this completely right?” Communication is everything.
I get reached out to by a handful of different brands all the time, and I feel really thankful. But I’m getting to that point now where I’m getting good at the whole having to say no. But with saying no, it’s like saying no with a yes. I can’t right now, but maybe in the future. Never shutting it down all the way. Because if it were up to me, I’d have a million hands and I’d do everything. I’m a one-gal show. It’s important to make sure you’re set up to do something and never give anything other than the most confident “yes.” I haven't even gotten to the point where I can reach out to the brands that I would really, really want to work with. I just feel really thankful, and I’m going with the flow and letting it all unfold.
My print shop is still just prints, and I’m just waiting for the right person to approach me to help me blast my art on everything from comforters to shoes to wallpaper. I don’t want to put out poor quality products. I don’t want to put my art on a comforter that’s going to make everyone itchy. But with promoting the print shop, someone will say like, “That would be a good yoga mat.” I had a puzzle company reach out to me, and those will come out soon. My book came out, and there will be a calendar. But notebooks, and beach towels, and plates and cups… it’s like, holy shit. Meanwhile, I’m just trying to make art over here, and seeing it get stolen everywhere, and trying to deal with it all at once. You become this business woman with Post-it notes everywhere, and it’s like hang on, y’all! I think we all try to hurry up with our ideas, and taking one extra week to think about everything that much more could be your success.
9. What advice do you have for other people who want to build brands on Instagram?
Make your own content. Take a moment to think about your voice and what you want to share, and what you want to get across.
Or make sure you’re properly respecting the content. Instagram is a community of people, and there’s a structure of how you should properly treat imagery. Show that you are engaging properly in the community. Tag people on the picture when you’re reposting it, and not 500 other accounts and yourself and other things so that the creator gets lost in the process. Treat the community with respect. Understand how to use Instagram before you just dive in.
The guy that put the numbers all over my bananas told me that he thought he deserved credit because he put the numbers on it. It really messed with me. Yeah, we share our work on this platform, but that doesn’t mean that we can be ignorant towards knowing how to be respectful.
To be successful, just be genuine. Have an open heart. Don’t be so quick to only focus on your success. Grow with others. It’s not about your gain over someone else’s.
10. What's a misconception many people have about Instagram?
That everything is perfect. That everything is this glorious poolside sunset with a cool-looking cocktail. People think it’s the most romantic, amazing thing. But there’s a lot of hurt and a lot of hard feelings. Even just trying to share those things on Instagram, the amount of backlash that you get and the amount of opinions that show up can scare you to show the negative sometimes. That’s something that I’m working on, even myself. Just getting to where I can have the confidence.
I think the fact that this is such a wild west of a business and it’s all so new, and the rules and regulations are still getting built out. It can create a lot of misconceptions that might not even be misconceptions, with people just trying to figure out how to even do this. There are so many ways that we go about doing this, essentially, one thing. There are so many different ways that you can be you. It can be a really vicious platform, but it can also be such a warm and inviting place.
Click through the slideshow to see five of @wrightkitchen’s favorite posts.
“It's really, really special when you can get a client that just empowers you to be yourself. And it’s fun to collaborate with minds that trust me and really let me just get weird. I came to Samsung with all these insane ideas. What I do isn't cheap essentially, and when someone's willing to financially support that, I think it's really cool that they trust me enough to be like, ‘Yeah go spend $100 on doughnuts.’
“I was living in Seattle at the time, I drove all the way to Portland, got doughnuts and went all the way back to Seattle the same day, got more doughnuts and then the next morning I just cranked it out. Everything that I do for Samsung Mobile is a photograph shot with their phones to show the image quality of their camera.”
“I picked all those tomatoes by hand at a local farm up in Washington I used to go to all the time. So that picture is a good example of the love that I put into what I do. I went out with my buckets, looking just real nasty, covered in mud -- that's my happy place out there. That farm literally opened their farm to me. They were like, 'Brittany, you can come whenever you want. You can use what you want from our farm.' That is just the most amazing thing, that this huge farm just trusts me enough to let me go out and harvest what I want. It's really special in the growth process. Instead of going to a market, I'm right there in the plants, picking what I want. A big part of it is my curiosity and love for food.”
“That image actually got removed off my Instagram by Instagram. They mistakenly pulled the original post off years ago, and I couldn’t get it back up. That’s the cover of my book for that reason, because that image has just been totally everywhere without my name. I made it it the cover of my book just in hopes that it would maybe connect it back to me, just a little bit more.
“But that image -- I’m working on being OK with looking at it again. When I see it, I just have this [shudder]. I shut down a little bit. It just has hurt my feelings so much.”
“That was a really cool example of building out all of the pictures for a full campaign. Doing something off of Instagram, for a brand, and then being able to bring it back into Instagram to help show how excited I was.
“Like Samsung, they’re also like, ‘You do you. This is kind of what we want.’ Being able to make such a big citrus image for them, and they made this big ball pit with that behind it. It was really cool to see it all come full circle. I just love collaborating, and specially I love working with non-food-related brands and bringing the food into it.”
“That’s my first political post. There’s a lot going on in the world, and a lot going on with our food, too. We throw away so much food. I’m trying to rebrand vegetables and refocus our minds on what a tomato looks like or what banana looks like. As people, with food, we’re so quick to put our stamp on what that looks like. This is my hope of broadening our thought process a little more. As well as with humans, too. I mean, the caption says it all.
“I was really thankful for the positive response. Those are those moments where I say I’m trying to show also some kind of negative in my work, too, but in a positive light.
“It goes back to that whole ‘assuming positive intent’ thing. Not joining on the whole negative bandwagon, but being like, ‘Let’s go back to the colors and the rainbows and the happy feelings, even if you think I’m some crazy woman trying to be a positive, happy light -- I’m making you smile though, gotcha!’”