By Julia McCaig
If you’re one of the nearly 1 million followers of Emmett Sparling’s Instagram account – @emmett_sparling – then you’ll be familiar with his breathtaking photo and video work from locations around the world.
But while this kind of following (965,000 as of early March) could firmly cement Sparling in the coveted ‘Influencer’ category, it’s not a label the Bowen native leans into. Instead, Emmett prefers to be known as a “Content Creator”, uploading what he wants without plugging a product or location in every post.
“I just kind of made a rule for myself that I’d only post what I want to post, even if that didn’t make any money,” says Sparling, who emphasizes creating a portfolio instead of product-driven posts. “In the short-term you make less, but in the long-term you end up making more… you get more followers, you get more eyeballs on your stuff, and you get the bigger jobs out of it.”
Sparling is not averse to taking paid work of course; the jobs he references include several ad campaigns for both companies and country tourism boards. But, he has conditions for these projects: they have to tell a story.
“If you have a piece that tells the story it’s a lot more powerful than something that’s just like a travel montage video,” explains Emmett. “It makes more sense than throwing in a bunch of random clips that look good together but don’t actually tell a story or don’t follow a cohesive layout.”
Emmett was drawn to visual storytelling from a young age, inspired by his mom and uncles who were all photographers. After attending Island Discovery Learning Community, Sparling chose Island Pacific School for the next step in his education. It was there he says he learned many of the skills which have allowed him to become so successful in his craft today.
“The thing is that at IPS, what I noticed it prepares you for is… seeing teachers not as some big authoritarian figure who is terrifying; you actually become friends with your teachers,” explains Sparling.
“And that really helps going forward, just in terms of relationships with adults as you’re growing up, and going through high school and stuff. You end up becoming way more comfortable with your teachers… so you’re not afraid to just ask them random questions here and there.” He says marshmallow fights in Jennifer Henrichsen’s Grade 9 class also helped in this regard.
Another of Emmett’s greatest accomplishments during his time at IPS was conquering his hesitation toward camping. While he was once afraid of being eaten by bears while sleeping outside, Sparling now has no qualms about freediving with sharks in underwater caves.
Fittingly, Emmett’s Masterworks project was a short film, titled ‘Between The Lines’. It was here he says his decision to pursue telling stories through media took a huge leap forward.
“You either discover that you really like something or you really hate something,” says Sparling. In his case, movie making fell under the former. “Okay this is super fun to actually sit down and make a movie,” he recalls of the finished product.
This life path was reinforced at Rockridge Secondary, and a phone call from his Science teacher to his parents.
“Emmett’s my favorite student, but I don’t think he should go into Sciences. He said he should definitely follow his passion and pursue moviemaking because that’s clearly what he wants to do, and is clearly what he’s good at,” was the message. “So that’s when I kind of thought maybe we’ll try this out for a bit,” he says.
Emmett wasted little time beginning his documentation of the globe after he graduated high school in 2016. And all this time he’s been able to stay true to his storytelling ethos.
“The whole portfolio versus influencer type thing comes in because you stay a lot more passionate about it, you don’t get burnt out because you’re working for yourself and you’re taking photos for enjoyment,” he explains. “Whereas the other way of looking at it is… as an influencer you’re taking photos for clients, and for companies doing that all the time.”
Sparling returned to Bowen early in 2020, following years of travel including a nine-month stint in Bali where he performed shoots in Africa, Asia and Australia. A week after returning, the pandemic broke out and brought Emmett’s (and everybody else’s) travels to a halt. He used the time to reflect on how far he has come since shooting photos around the island as a kid.
“I’m just going back to the spots where I learned how to take photos… it’s crazy how much better photos I can take in the same spots… I have a more trained eye now so I’m seeing different compositions in places than before.”
But, just as Emmett’s skillset has evolved, Bowen has too. “All these things are changing that I kind of grew up being used to,” he remembers. “After being gone for years you come back and you see that the place you used to go practice your stock photography is now a big construction site, or even on the way to the meadow… you go across a little bridge and that whole swamp area is completely flooded, because the beavers have chopped down almost all the trees and completely taken over that area, which used to be a cool little forest that had running water.”
Sparling’s world travels also helped him gain perspective, and an added appreciation, for things here at home. “I walked around Killarney Lake for the first time in a while, and just seeing things that when I was little – I used to think were gigantic hills or something – now they don’t seem very big anymore.”
“The more you travel, the more you realize that we have it so good in Vancouver. The mountains, the ocean, clean air, and a nice city,” says Emmett.
Sparling notes another important constant his hometown has to offer.
“Island Pacific School gave me the confidence to go into life a lot more confident than you would otherwise,” says Emmett. “And it gives you the mindset of following your dreams, and don’t listen to what anyone else has to say.”
Sparling has used this mindset to travel from Cape Roger Curtis to Cape Town, and following the pandemic break his globetrotting lifestyle resumed. Emmett has recently been in French Polynesia working on a film about rising open temperatures. It’s an avenue he wants to pursue more of going forward.
“I want to go into directing feature films at some point,” says Sparling. “Right now it’s been all photography and travel stuff, and I’ve kind of put that part of my brain on silent – the whole coming up with short film ideas and stuff.”
Emmett says he has a goal to one day win an Oscar. Considering how far he’s already travelled since graduating from IPS a decade ago, there’s a strong chance the golden statue will indeed be in his future.
Director of Community Engagement
Island Pacific School