Arts & Culture

Instacoma: Three local groups build community pride through social media photography

Tacomans have been taking photographs of the city for as long as the medium has been around — a visit to the Tacoma Public Library’s Northwest Room demonstrates that. But over the past year, social media platforms have allowed locals to meet up both online and in real life to shoot and share photos of their town. Three stand out: Instameet Tacoma and Picture Tacoma, both on Instagram, and the Awesome Tacoma Facebook group.


It’s a romantic enough story when two partners meet via Instagram, but Kendra Moen and Bridget Hardee took it several steps further. After the two met via the social media site last year, they also participated in the annual Shoot the T photo competition, and in April this year decided to get some love going for the city via an Instameet group.

“(At the competition) we saw a lot of people interested in taking photos of Tacoma and proud of our city,” says Moen, a professional photographer who this year was a finalist in the competition. “There’d never been an Instameet Tacoma group before.”

Instameet groups are a spin-off from the traditional online meet-up groups, where folks with similar interests get together in real life to pursue those interests. Often location-based, they allow people to continue real-life acquaintances through sharing photos. Participants tag photos of Tacoma and its people with the hashtag #HeartofTacoma and Moen and Hardee copy and share them from the Instameet Tacoma blog, which already has more than 650 followers.

Moen, a small-business owner downtown, likes to focus her photography on other small-business people who are making a difference, such as Jordan Neslund from Bleach skate shop on Pacific Avenue, shot in front of the Museum of Glass. Others post beach shots, street shots, landmarks or other Instameeters at events.

“We saw it as an excuse to do portrait soirées,” Moen says. “To celebrate landmarks, but also people: A city is its people.”

It also is a way to unite social media and real life: “There is a gap between social media and actual in-person relationships and this project has been a way to bridge that gap,” Moen says.

The group has had one live meet-up event — at the Seymour Conservatory and Social Bar in June — and Moen is keen to have more in the fall, though with Hardee in the military, she’s not sure how long they’ll continue the blog.

“It was cool to see people make all these connections,” she says of the meet-up. “This really encourages community; it’s a fun excuse to connect with people. I wouldn’t normally meet new people, but with Instagram, people feel more comfortable with that. We’re encouraging people to be out and looking at their surroundings, to get to know the person (near them), building positive energy in the city. People are really busy these days, but everyone has time for Instagram.”

Find it: Instameet Tacoma is at Tag your Tacoma photos with #HeartofTacoma. Follow the blog to find out about upcoming events.


Professional photographer Jesse Michener has always had a photo-love for Tacoma, starting when she’d follow her photographer dad around the city. But when she launched her recent solo exhibition “Tacoma (253),” a series of 253 Instagram-shaped photos of Tacoma places and people, and a friend asked her what was the next project, she knew she had to get other people involved.

“We’re a pull-up-your-bootstraps kind of city, and there are still places where that’s evident,” Michener says. “We shouldn’t hide that. When we look at places and see them for what they are; when you’re 100 percent Tacoma and loving it; when you throw off all pretensions — I love that.”

But being a certified educator as well, Michener wanted to help people make their photographs better as well as just encouraging them. So she kicked off the Picture Tacoma project after a weeklong teen photo camp in June, displaying the best pics both at Fulcrum Gallery and on the new Instagram blog. Since then, she’s held two photo walks around town (a free chance to roam a neighborhood with your camera and a professional next to you) with another this Saturday, two more instructional camps at the library (with a pop-up exhibition for them this weekend at the Old Post Office building) and more planned in August and September, along with all-day workshops for using DSLR and smartphone cameras.

Like Instameet Tacoma, Michener encourages Instagram bloggers to tag their photos #PictureTacoma, and she reblogs the best ones from the official account, feeding them into the Picture Tacoma website.

“I chose Instagram on purpose because the medium is so visual and can be curated so easily,” Michener says. “And it’s not just about photography. It’s about getting to know people. The camera’s just an excuse to talk.”

Picture Tacoma’s mission also gives an excuse to experiment: The photos on the blog range widely in shot type, exposure, aperture, shutter speed and framing, giving plenty to look at and discover about the art form.

As well as documenting the city, Michener also wants to help it and the people in it. On her second photo walk, she noticed a high proportion of homelessness and worrying public behavior as a result.

“We were in Wright Park and there were people screaming, having crackhead fits, even having sex,” she recalls. “We had to talk about it. I don’t know what the deal is, maybe resources are being cut.”

So Michener is launching a photo project to help. This month, she’s calling for artistic photos of Tacoma’s doorways, from which she’ll choose the best 100 to curate into a grid-like poster of the kind that’s been done in places from Paris to Pennsylvania. All proceeds of poster sales, as well as photo entry fees, will benefit mental health services in Pierce County; look for the tutorial on the Picture Tacoma website on what kind of framing and angle to use.

“I feel like doors are the gateways to opportunities,” she says. “I wanted to take something Tacoma has a lot of, and make some good come of it … for the medium to be a catalyst for change.”

Find it: Picture Tacoma is at, and Tag your photos with #PictureTacoma. A temporary exhibition of Picture Tacoma shots from teen photography campers is up 1-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Old Post Office, 1102 A St., Tacoma. The “100 Doors” project opens for submissions Aug. 23-Sept. 5; each entry costs $2.53 (from our area code). Upcoming workshops include Smartphone-ography Aug. 24 or 25, $35; and Photography Basics Sept. 28 (manual mode) and Oct. 19 (editing), $55 each. Upcoming photo walks include 11 a.m.-noon Saturday starting from the Old Post Office, and 9-10 a.m. Sept. 6 from the beginning of Five Mile Drive, Point Defiance.


Before Instagram, there was Facebook — and it’s still a popular meeting place for groups such as Awesome Tacoma. Founded a year ago by photographer Gordy Lee, it began both as an informal way for photo pros to share work and tips, and as an attempt to improve the online image of the city.

“The whole focus is on the positives of Tacoma,” says Lee, who had found that an online search for “Tacoma” mostly brought up mentions of Toyota trucks. “There’s enough negativity already in the press. I wanted to improve our search-engine ratings.”

What started with just a handful of photographers has blossomed into about 870 members, including Mayor Marilyn Strickland, Councilman Marty Campbell, and artist Lisa Kinoshita. The hundreds of photos on the page include everything from bridges to festivals, flowers to sunsets.

“Occasionally someone will post a photo of a police car with its lights flashing — that’ll get deleted pretty quickly,” Lee says. “And if you’re a spammer, we’ll get rid of you.”

The Awesome Tacoma group has occasional real-life photo meets as well; a recent one at the Point Defiance Rose Garden had eight photographers out in force shooting dahlias.

“The focus is hyper-local,” says Scott McElhiney, who’s been in the group since the beginning and is a page administrator. He’d just lined up a perfect shot of two bees nestled inside a yellow flower. “And it’s about sharing and learning from other people. I like the fact that a dozen people can shoot the same place and time and come up with a dozen different shots.”

For Lee, the Facebook group helps get the word out about his work. But mostly, he says, it’s just good to share.

“It’s always nice to see other people’s work, to meet someone you’ve always heard about, have coffee and go shoot photos,” he says.

Find it: The Awesome Tacoma groups is at; ask to join and be informed of meet-up events. The website is fairly static these days. The group will hold its first Tacoma Photography Week from Aug. 30-Sept. 5, including photo outings every morning and afternoon, with loaner DSLR camera available. Join the Facebook group to get details.