For someone so naturally gifted at iPhone photography, it’s striking that Francois Dourlen originally disliked it: “I’ve always preferred Polaroids to anything else, particularly digital." Francois, who’s since come around on the virtues of iPhone photography, has risen to the level of Instagram celebrity over the last two years. He’s best known for his unique style of integrating images displayed on his iPhone in everyday situations. His work has drawn interest from Disney, Marvel, Playstation, and Netflix, who pay him to fly around the world and put their likeness in his shots. Francois’s ascent from high school history teacher to IG star in less than a year is as impressive as it was meteoric.
As a young man growing up in northwestern France in the ‘90s, Francois wanted nothing more than to shred guitar with his high school rock band. Photography wasn’t even on the horizon: “My first love was pop/rock music--it still is. I’m a musician first, photographer second.” When he wasn’t cranking his amplifier up to 11 and waking up the neighborhood, Francois had a knack for skipping out on school and getting into trouble with his clan of cantankerous friends. Studies, naturally, were an afterthought. “I wasn’t a good student, not even in history, which is not only my strongest subject but the one I now teach.” The same could be said about his blossoming photography career: he didn’t realize the potential he had until he put it to the test.
In 2011, with his post-college music career stagnant and his rebellious days in the rearview, Francois was forced to make an ironically pragmatic choice--return to school and teach history. “I’d had an interest in history for a while. Secondary school just wasn’t the place to teach me it.” So after getting his teaching credentials and finding a steady teaching opportunity near his hometown, Francois had the rough trajectory of the next couple decades of his life mapped out: teach during the day, jam out with his friends at night, rinse, repeat. The future? “It was a problem for future-me.”
Francois’s bachelor-cum-weekend warrior lifestyle suited him well for about a year, until it all came to a grinding halt when he found out his girlfriend was pregnant in 2012. If his “one day at a time” approach was already growing tired and obsolete, adding a baby daughter into the mix killed it off entirely. For the first time in his life, Francois had a future to think about. So he did what any soon-to-be-father of the social-media age would do: buy an iPhone and document the journey.
Within a year of his daughter’s birth, Francois was nestled firmly within the orbit of digital photography, hooked on the instant gratification of the positive response on social media to his work. “People enjoyed my silly photography where I put Polaroids over my friends’ heads. From there it expanded to other situations.” The process is simple: Francois would take images from popular movies/shows and then superimpose them on everyday, normal situations. A round object resting on the sidewalk might be augmented with the image of a soccer player with his leg raised in the air, looking like he’s ready to kick the ball.
In the summer of 2015, just as Francois was on the precipice of Instagram fame, Disney reached out to him to gauge his interest in incorporating their movie characters in his shots. “I figured it was a joke or there was a catch, but it was real.” Not only did Disney want to pay him to use their likeness, but they wanted to send him to cities all over the world. Excited and energized, Francois was in California within two weeks, putting silly characters into photos of the Golden Gate Bridge and Venice Beach.
The work from Disney increased his Instagram popularity and visibility so significantly that Marvel, Netflix, and Playstation were on board within the next six months, enamored with the new native marketing platform Francois’s photography could provide. “They loved it because I was promoting their content naturally, it was in line with what I was already doing.” That, of course, was the key: Francois had previously established a reputation among his followers for using cartoon images; nothing would seem out of the ordinary if he were to add in images the studios wanted him to promote. “Disney and Marvel were as seamless as can be since they were already my source of inspiration.”
Because native advertising only works if it seems genuinely native, Francois is constantly busy working on his own passion projects. Not only are his personal projects a cathartic outlet, but they also liven up the account, so that it’s not just a monolithic shrine of Disney and Marvel characters. The relationship is symbiotic: “I’m happy to work on my passion, and they’re happy to freshen up my portfolio.” He can even get political at times too, so long as it’s not divisive in a right-left sense; one theme that runs through his work is a distrust of elected officials in general, superimposing Pinocchio and his long nose over images of politicians speaking.
Francois has plans to continue working with the big studios and promoting their images for the foreseeable future. “It makes sense while my daughter’s young, she loves my photography.” The irony of the whole situation isn’t lost on Francois, who finds it humorous that he’s paid to work as a professional photographer even though he doesn’t have any photographical training: “I’m not even a photographer. I’m just a guy with a camera.” Modest as he is, Francois is far from average; last week he gained his 100,000th IG follower. Not bad for an “accidental” photographer.