05 January 2016

Nieman Storyboard: “How to Tell Powerful Narratives on Instagram”

So far, this territory has been left to photographers. Since the app’s release in 2010, photojournalists have been using it to great effect, showcasing unpublished images, digging into their archives, sharing ongoing creative projects. Writers, though, have largely stayed away from Instagram as a storytelling platform. There are plenty of reasons for this—it’s not easy, after all, to write short.

But those who wade in will find that storytelling on Instagram is an awesome hack: a purpose for which the thing wasn’t intended, but at which it excels. The app is vibrant, flexible, and unusually transcendent. In mobile terms, it’s immediately more democratic than filter-heavy Facebook, less terse than Twitter, less ephemeral than Snapchat. And, most important to me, is the platform’s reach: Instagram provides a creative space where voices and views that might otherwise be ignored, lost, or mangled during their brush with journalism can be shared, beautifully, with almost anyone.

Neil Shea

A contributor to National Geographic Magazine and other publications, Neil Shea recounts how he discovered Instagram as the perfect medium to share stories from his journalistic projects, small glimpses into the lives of the people he meets that would otherwise get lost in the final, more formal piece. It’s one of the fascinating ways people are using the Facebook-owned app and its flexibility helps make it more and more popular. Although I’m not entirely convinced many people actually read the stories accompanying photos, this experience is a valid reason for viewing Instagram as a future platform for news, but I think it will develop as complementary to traditional news stories rather than replacing them.

One morning you are wandering through the refugee camp when a stranger calls from a doorway, saying “Woman, do you want work?” It’s what you’ve been desperate for, though briefly you resist, fist on hip in the dusty street, a breath of pride. He can see you aren’t a refugee. The beads make it obvious—the heavy plastic hive wound round your neck and the straight spine that helps you carry it. That’s why he asks. You’re small but appear strong, and why else would a Turkana woman wander here? There is no interview, no negotiation (With what, Catherine Lometo, could you negotiate?). And so you become a housemaid working for a refugee who even in his stateless poverty is a degree or two less poor than you. It’s one of the little riddles of this place, that the tribe to whom god gave the land should become servants of those who by great misfortune landed here. There are hundreds like you. Your employer is a Muslim exiled from Ethiopia. He has a wife, children, a touch of pious arrogance. When you arrive in the mornings to wash and sweep the children without greeting withdraw like mist to other rooms. You don’t even know their names. Details less relevant than money. But your employer is not a bad man, and when his monthly ration comes he shares with you some food, which feeds your brothers and sisters. So forgive him, the refugee, and return in the red evening to your village. There, younger sisters wait and beg like fledglings. It’s only beads they want, to coil blues and yellows around their slender necks, to become beautiful, too, strand by strand, and keep a secret for themselves. — See the series: #kakumaseries2014 @unhcrkenya @randyolson #kakuma #kenya #turkana #ethiopia #refugees #everydayafrica #makeportraits #bw #monochrome #periphery #collaboration #theamericanscholar #instagramjournalism #killingthenutgraf

A photo posted by Neil Shea (@neilshea13) on

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