Alex Stemplewski picked up a camera for the first time in March last year. Today, he has more than 10 million followers on TikTok and has become known as the photographer who takes portraits of strangers in California.
Stemplewski, 31, documents the process on the video-sharing app, and has gained fans through the simple yet heartwarming exchanges he shares with his subjects.
In one of his videos, Stemplewski approaches a woman sitting on a beach and asks if he can take pictures of her. After an impromptu shoot, he shows her the results. "I look like that?" the stunned woman exclaims. This video has has more than 12 million views.
But how does someone who was working in insurance less than a year ago become a social-media celebrity so quickly?
Stemplewski says it began when he started to feel that something was missing in his life. Although he was happy, he lacked passion.
"I decided to very spontaneously, and with very little thought or planning, just try photography, so I asked a friend to help me pick out my first camera," Stemplewski tells The National.
He bought a Sony A7R 3 and a 50 millimetre portrait lens, knowing he wanted to mainly focus on portrait photography.
And that is exactly what he did. Every day for the next six months, Stemplewski visited an area in downtown San Francisco and took pictures of strangers who agreed to be photographed.
"I waited for people to walk by this alley with string lights on it because it looked really pretty," he says. "I would practise my photography on them and I would send them the photos if they agreed."
It was a win-win situation; Stemplewski developed his skills and people got their portraits for free.
Every night, the photographer would edit his pictures and post them on Instagram. Within six months, Stemplewski had 10,000 followers.
Yet photographing strangers was not as easy as it may sound. In the beginning, Stemplewski was turned down a lot as many models did not want to work with a new photographer.
"I'd schedule a shoot and the models would cancel on me. So instead of just staying home and not being able to take any photos, I would go out and ask a stranger. That was my ritual."
However, things did not really take off for the budding photographer until he joined TikTok.
Influenced by American entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk's YouTube video about TikTok's organic reach, Stemplewski decided to join the platform.
"A brand new person on the app can post a video and that video can be seen by millions. That's no exaggeration and no one has to know your name or who you are before that – you don't need any pre-existing fame," Stemp says. "You can be a complete social media newbie. And if your video is strong enough, if people really engage with it and like it, it can explode in the algorithm and get seen by millions."
That is exactly what happened to Stemplewski, who joined TikTok in October last year and garnered more than a million followers a month later.
It was when he hit three million followers that he decided to quit his full-time job and focus solely on photography. In those nine months, he has amassed almost 11 million followers between TikTok and Instagram.
While he may take photos of strangers, Stemplewski himself is now recognised in the street.
"That's when it really hits me ... I would just never expect that to happen to me," he says.
And his online fame has certainly made photographing strangers easier.
"I get a lot more yeses now ... It's a lot easier to get strangers to agree to do these photo shoots because they see I have a large following. Most of the time, they already know me through my videos."
He says if it were not for people such as Vaynerchuk, he would not be where he is today. "If he [Vaynerchuk] didn't take the time to share some videos on YouTube, just explaining to people how they can create a better life for themselves, I would still be in inside that office right now."
While what he has achieved over the past year may sound easy, Stemplewski says he could not have done it without hard work and drive.
"You have to have passion about what you're doing, so that you can do it endlessly and not get tired from it. It has to give you energy instead of depleting it."
His advice to other artists is "to break the patterns you see", and find something "that's really unique that no one else is doing".
Looking ahead, Stemplewski hopes to grow his idea into a large-scale project. "I'm trying to improve someone's day with just a camera, but if someone gave me a team, a make-up artist, a fashion designer, I could have a greater impact."
He hopes that once travel restrictions ease, he can journey around the world, taking photos of strangers across the globe.
"I would love to go everywhere. So maybe you'll see some Abu Dhabi videos in the future."