September 29, 2022

Student photographer on building a brand, landing photography gigs

Tommy Bruning picked up a camera for the first time a little over a year ago and now has gigs shooting for star athletes and entertainers alike. I recently sat down with him to discuss his journey. (Picture by Drew Shaffer)

With nearly 7,000 Instagram followers and connections to some huge names in the sports and music industries, this student has built a brand for himself seemingly out of nothing.

Tommy Bruning, junior emerging media major, first picked up a camera a little over a year ago. Fast forward to fall 2019, and Bruning is well on his way to becoming a breakout photographer in the music industry.

For most, gaining a large social media following and being handed the cell phone numbers of people such as R&B Artist Blackbear and NFL Running Back Derrick Henry doesn’t happen overnight. 

Bruning, son of university professors Dr. Stephen Bruning and Cathy Bruning, was never really into photography or music. 

That changed after attending his first concert, though.

Bruning attended his first concert when he was 18 years old with his brother-in-law, and every concert since Bruning has decided to bring along a camera.

Bruning explained how he went from casually attending a concert to getting a front-row pass to shoot some of the biggest names in pop music nonchalantly. 

“I kind of finessed it,” Bruning said.

Bruning’s first gig was Breakaway 2018, and he said he leveraged Instagram to get in contact with some of the performing acts at the show.

“I’ll look at every single artist [on the festival’s lineup] and [direct message] every artist, no matter how big or small,” Bruning said.

Ohio artist Reuben “Lil Loski” Farr (right) and manager Jordian Ross (left) were the people that secured Tommy his first big music gig at Breakaway Music Festival in 2018. Tommy credits Ross for being the guy that first took a chance on him. Picture provided by Tommy Bruning.

This sliding into the DMs led Bruning to Ohio artist Lil Loski and his manager, Jordian Ross. Jordi, as Bruning now calls him, asked for a portfolio of current work and clients.

“I didn’t even have a camera (at that point),” he said. “I just sold myself with some of the connections I had and I sold my friend Aiden. I said I would shoot with him.”

Bruning got his camera a week before the festival.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. 

In a week, Bruning was able to learn how to use the camera enough for the weekend, and in what he describes as one of the best nights of his life, was able to get some decent shots from the festival.

Quavo, along with the other two Migos Takeoff and Offset, headlined Breakaway in 2018. Tommy was able to get some up close shots of them (and many others) in action. Picture by Tommy Bruning

“I was like, ‘Yeah, I definitely want to do this, more and more,’” Bruning said.

Part of growing a creative brand is surrounding yourself with people of a similar mindset. 

For Bruning, that creative energy came from two of his first friends on campus: Andrew McEwen and Aidan Minton.

“[McEwen] and [Minton] got me into [photography and videography] … I took their ambition and put it into the music world,” Bruning said.

He also credits Jordian Ross as someone who has helped him along the way.

Jon Bellion is just one of the many famous people Tommy has worked with. This list includes athletes such as NFL running back Derrick Henry as well as producer Diplo. Picture by Tommy Bruning.

Bruning has worked with some impressive names in the very short amount of time that he has been a photographer. From chasing down former Ohio State Quarterback Braxton Miller at the mall to creating a fan page for Jon Bellion to getting NFL star Derrick Henry’s phone number at the NFL Draft (while on another gig), Bruning  has found a way to secure gigs from some big names in sports and entertainment.

A theme that emerged for Bruning was the idea of “doing it,” for lack of a better term. That’s how he has been able to build up his brand and attain the gigs that he has.

“When I have to plan stuff, I kind of get nervous. This has been me navigating it as I go,” he said. “As long as I’m doing the best that I can, I’m fine with whatever comes.”

Bruning doesn’t want to get lost in the numbers game of social media and described it as “draining.” For Bruning, he believes that producing great content and being authentic is the way to grow a brand.

Future headlined Breakaway Music Festival 2019. Tommy was able to shoot for the festival this year as well. Picture by Tommy Bruning

Bruning said that he has talked about this whole journey with his parents. 

One thing that Stephen Bruning warns students is that becoming a “social media influencer” is a risky path to take, and he encourages his students to rather pursue traditional communications roles, advice his son is seemingly going against. 

“We talk about it a lot,” Bruning said. “[My parents] have always done a good job of being so real with me.”

Bruning said that everybody has influence to a certain extent, but that making a living off of social media is hard, and that the lifestyle is fleeting with the negative connotation that influencers have.

“One of my biggest flaws is I never think ahead,” Bruning said. “I just kind of take it day by day.”

  • Zach Ferenchak is the Managing Editor of The Chimes and a current senior studying Emerging Media with an emphasis in Public Relations. He is also heavily involved with the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA), where he is the National Vice President of Brand Engagement. Upon graduating in May 2021, Zach plans on pursuing a career in the greater communications and media industry.

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