In late June, I was traveling with photographer Lynsey Addario through Sicily, working on a story about migrants arriving in Europe from Africa. During a car trip across the island, we started talking about writing—specifically, how I was going to approach the long feature we had joined up to do. Lynsey, already an award-winning shooter, had just published an intimate memoir and knew well the joys and difficulties of hauling ideas and images into words. I joked that I’d really rather not write long at all. Then I told her how the most fun and satisfying nonfiction I’d written lately was radically short, and published on Instagram.
When there seemed no hope left she turned homeward, searching for healing in old rites and prayers, in balms of the dark, rich mud that her people believe can swallow sickness away. She defied the evil spirits she thought were haunting her. She said she wasn’t afraid. I learned yesterday morning that Setiel died a few days ago of an illness she could never name, at home in her village on the broad, hot shore of Lake Turkana. This will be a weak obituary. I didn’t know her well. She is survived by her pregnant daughter, her mother and mother-in-law. There may be more relatives, though the family seemed small. Randy and I spent just a few hours in Setiel’s company, learning her story and watching how she chose to battle illness. Choice is perhaps the wrong word. She had few options. What I know is that she was patient and generous with us as we dragged notebooks and cameras through what were—though we didn’t know it—the last few weeks of her life. It was clear Setiel considered us strange. Maybe even insane. She would cock her head and squint while we pried, wrote, photographed. But she suffered us without complaint and abided all our inquiries. To me she appeared brave, though she would not have said that of herself. Neither would she expect thanks—there is no Daasanach word for it. When pressed the people say instead “waag’ ikonodo,” God be with you. We are indebted, grateful for her help, her openness, her patience. Without her story our work would be poorer, and so, too, would we. // #daasanach #memorial #natgeo #onassignment with @randyolson + @natgeo // See the series: #jadeseaseries2014
Lynsey was stunned. “You can write on Instagram?”
She laughed, picked up one of her phones. Swiped toward the retro-camera icon.
“I thought that was for, like, food and cats.”
It’s true, Instagram doesn’t seem like an obvious destination for writers. It moves fast. There are a lot of cats. And selfies and shoes and lattes. The space given over to words is fairly small, too—especially for those of us who’ve spent years in this business fighting for the right to commit longform. But soon after I began experimenting within the app’s creative constraints, something strange happened—I found I loved writing short.
I came to understand the Instagram experience, with its constant flow of images and text boxes, presented an alternative story geometry that demanded from me new things. Shorter stories, sure, but also the app asks for a deeper consideration of photographs and the rich, nuanced ways that words and pictures work together. Over time I realized that beneath the selfie surface, Instagram provided a powerful, unexpected, and mostly underutilized storytelling tool.
Consider it this way: Instagram has essentially become one of the world’s most successful general interest magazines. More than 300 million people use it each month. An average of 70 million images are uploaded to it daily. And each one represents a page, a story, a sliver of light or perception bouncing in from somewhere around the world. You’ve seen Instagram’s users: often young, highly engaged, head-down on subways, buses, and sidewalks, thumbing through streams of images that pour into their phones. That absorption is not for nothing, and that global audience is built around a simple premise: that every post contains a story.
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.I converted to Instagram in April 2014, when I traveled to Kenya’s Lake Turkana for a National Geographic story. My editor, Peter Gwin, had urged me to start using the app to post dispatches from my fieldwork and at first I was wary. I’m not a photographer. At the time I didn’t have an Instagram account. And what I saw there, on the phones of friends, seemed like Facebook-lite. I knew Instagram allowed only about 2,200 characters (roughly 360 words, in my experience) with each post, and I doubted much meaning could be crammed into such a small place.
But Peter kept after me, and he shared a few pieces that he had posted to Instagram from reporting trips to Rwanda and the Central African Republic. I was impressed. These were not selfies, or even self-referential. They were small moments, rich in detail, and easy to read. They hinted at what might be possible. Around the same time, I had folded iPhone photography into my basic reporting process: I made portraits of everyone I spoke to, just as I would record their phone numbers and the correct spellings of their names. That coincidence—Pete’s work, my new photography—convinced me I could at least try making short profile packages. I decided to treat it like an experiment. I thought it wouldn’t last.
My earliest Instagram writing from Lake Turkana was hardly a story at all. For the most part, I posted pretty pictures, wrote flat little captions. Not long into my fieldwork, though, in a remote village hundreds of kilometers from the nearest paved road, I met a fisherman who’d survived a crocodile attack, and his story shook me. He’d been ambushed while checking his nets, waist-deep in the dark brown water. As the beast carried him away, his mind went blank. Then white. He found himself drifting into another world, possibly into death. He could feel teeth in his flesh, but in his ears he heard beautiful sounds. Somehow, before the croc took him under, he snapped back to his senses and remembered a piece of folk wisdom. With two fingers he stabbed at the croc’s eyes. Stunned, it released him, and he fumbled bleeding back to shore.
Later, at the local clinic, he endured awful nightmares, reptile-induced PTSD.
“I have seen it in my dreams,” he said. “Coming up the hallway to get me.”
He told me he had not yet returned to the water.
I spent a couple of hours interviewing him, drawing pictures of where the croc had set its jaws across his thighs. From a storyteller’s perspective, it was amazing, the kind of experience you want to share. But I knew it was unlikely to make it into my final magazine piece. It was almost too narrow, and would probably be lost in the larger, more formal piece I’d have to file describing environmental issues, conflict, and cultural change. A year earlier his story would’ve settled into my notebook like sediment. But I wanted to tell it, and in Instagram, I suddenly had a way. At the end of our interview I asked him to sit for an iPhone portrait outside the mud hut where we’d been drinking hot Coke. I took a few shots in harsh afternoon light, decided black and white would work best in the bad contrast. That evening, I wrote up the story, staying close to his personal narrative. I didn’t try to explain why I was telling it or veer off into statistics about croc attacks in East Africa. I had already established, in earlier posts, that I was in Kenya working for National Geographic. Anyone who cared to could scroll back and find that nod to the tired old nut graf.
I didn’t want to choke his story with factlets. So I wrote for mood and tone, distilling the transformative event of the man’s life into 268 words. I used simple techniques of lede and arc and kicker that I’d learned a long time ago, in the newsroom. I examined each word to see if it deserved a place. Mostly I kept hitting delete.
To date, about 500 people have liked the small story package I posted to Instagram (and more than 1,300 liked a later rewrite). More than 70 people have commented on these pieces. Likes and comments are the going measure of success on the app, at once addictive and opaque, and the count is comparatively small. It also doesn’t mean all those people read the pieces, though I’ll bet most did. In the end the important point, what I’d been trained for years to do, was to share that man’s story. After I posted it, as the comments began to plink in, like pennies, from people I’d never met, I saw that in a small way I’d accomplished one of the things I came into journalism for—to give voice to the voiceless. It made me hungry for more.
When we were young the shore was thick with grass and that is where we hunted them. There were so many hippos then, grazing in the deep green grass. Sometimes twenty of us would go, each man carrying a harpoon. We would tie long ropes to the harpoon points and wrap the ropes around our waists, like belts. Then we would stalk them. Quietly. Softly. Hippos are clever, and very fierce. And the hair around their mouths! It can cut like a blade. The first man would creep forward and stab and sink the point home. Then he would unwrap the rope from his waist and start pulling. This is very important. If you were slow, if you didn’t unwrap it fast enough, the hippo might drag you away when it tried to escape. That was the most dangerous part. Once the first man landed his harpoon, others would step up and stab the hippo. Then we all pulled our ropes and slowly reeled the animal in. Later, everyone got some of the meat but the glory always fell upon that first man. He returned home carrying the ears and tail, and women would sing their way down from the village to meet him. Back then our culture depended on hippos. It was like killing a lion, or an elephant. You were a hero. Yes, I miss it. I liked it so much. Now you can’t even see hippos here. The last one I remember came in the 1990s, and someone shot it with an AK-47. But that’s not how we did it. We two are among the last who remember hunting the old way. // #elmolo #laketurkana #hippo #hunting #natgeo #onassignment with @randyolson + @natgeo // See the series: #jadeseaseries2014
A photo posted by Neil Shea (@neilshea13) on
Over the course of my fieldwork and in the few weeks following, I tried different story structures and voices and designs. I began seeing the Instagram series as unique from but complementary to the documentary work I was doing for the big magazine. To use a phrase of the moment, it was “slow journalism,” or, the product of a lot of sitting around, listening, and taking notes.
In one pair of stories, I wrote about the quiet tension within the Daasanach tribe that was gathering around the practice of female circumcision. I contrasted the stories of three women who performed the cutting, one old, and two very young. The old woman explained graphically what she cut and why. To her, the practice was a matter of her tribe’s survival. The younger women told me how they were subtly trying to transform the practice, make it safer, maybe even work toward its end.
“The old ways are sometimes good,” one of them, named Kalle, told me. “And sometimes they’re not. I saw what was being done to women and I decided I could do better myself.”
I’d never intended to write about the subject, had never thought women would speak to me so openly about it. But they did, and here were more voices worth sharing. I took a straightforward writing approach, trying to preserve the tone of the debate as I had observed it—no screaming match, no finger-waving or moralizing.
Rather, a parallel discourse that would be settled, like many other controversies along the lakeshore, by the gradual death of elders and the collapse of their spiritual world. Did it explain everything? Does any story ever do that? What these pieces accomplished, quietly and perfectly, was all I expected of them—to shine a little light. Enough people read them to make it feel like I wasn’t talking to myself.In subsequent pieces I wrote in second person, or third. Once I posted a photograph of a spitting cobra, addressed the story as a letter to the snake, and used it to describe a common moment in the lives of the shepherd boys with whom I’d been traveling—wherein they had fled screaming from the snake and then turned and run back after it, attacking like the knights in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” In another piece, I chose paraphrased first-person narration, and wrote in the voice of an old man who remembered the rhythms of a hippo hunt from an era long gone. Following that story, I posted one that revealed my reporting method in that moment—which was to hand over my notebook and pen and let the old hunters, last of their kind, draw their own memories.
Two of the most successful word-picture stories of the series included a severely ill woman, named Setiel, who permitted us to observe the intimate spiritual treatments she received from a traditional healer. Several times Randy Olson, a National Geographic photographer, and I traveled with her to the lake’s edge and watched as she and the healer, Galte, waded into the shallows and scooped handfuls of mud onto Setiel’s thin frame. Applied and rinsed away, the rich, dark sediment was believed to remove illness and restore the patient’s health.
When Setiel died a few weeks later, I was deeply upset. We had tried to help her, with food and medicine, and we had seached for help from the local clinic and with a local missionary. It was all too late for Setiel. We hadn’t known her well, but in that time and place it didn’t matter. I wanted to write about her again, and by then, about four weeks into the Instagram experiment, I had a growing group of followers who had read the story of her treatment and who, I thought, might want to hear of her death. I wrote a small obituary for Setiel and posted with it one of the last photos I’d taken of her.
“When there seemed no hope left she turned homeward,” I wrote, in part, “searching for healing in old rites and prayers, in balms of the dark, rich mud that her people believe can swallow sickness away. She defied the evil spirits she thought were haunting her. She said she wasn’t afraid.”
At least 700 people saw it. Not many. Probably more, though, than would otherwise have known she existed. Probably more than read the obituary of my grandfather, who died just before I’d gone to Kenya. When I made that connection, I realized the numbers didn’t matter so much anymore.
Slowly I came to enjoy the creative constraint of Instagram, how it asked me to strip things down, pay attention to basics. I began using hashtags to convey some static factual context—the name of a village, say, or a tribe’s name, an issue—stuff that’s often handled in datelines or headlines. I also began using unique hashtags to organize pieces, both within the enormous galaxy of Instagram, and at a smaller level, where readers could find custom features made from collections of related posts. At the bottom of each post about Lake Turkana, for example, a reader will find the tag #jadeseaseries2014—a reference to the lake’s nickname, the Jade Sea. Instagram automatically archives images by their post date, and clicking on that tag (I call them “series tags”) delivers you to a feed, or a page, containing more than three dozen of my Turkana stories.
I am a healer of last resort. When all else has failed, people come to me. They come with fear and hope, and I treat them with coffee and blood, and smoke. I know how to handle the spirits that cause sickness. I am also a midwife—half the children around here saw my face first in this world. In every village there is one like me. We learn from our mothers, our aunts. From the spirits. We learn to feel with our hands where a problem resides. We see and hear what others cannot. It’s women’s business. Mostly we have no trouble with the missionaries, though once in a while someone shows up and tells us we should stop spirit-talking and send everyone to the clinic. Eh! The clinic is far and there are only a few nurses. They cannot cure everything. Take Setiel, the woman you’ve seen with me. Very ill. Those nurses gave her pills and injections, and after a long time she did not recover. Her family began to distance themselves. They feared her illness would spread. So they brought her to me. You see, she was gaatch—under the shadow of evil spirits. Four times I took her down to the lake where I washed her and applied mud to her body. Four times I rinsed the mud away and ordered the spirits to depart. Four because that is a sacred number to us, the number of teats on a cow. But the evil was very strong. The treatment failed. We tried again, and you know what happened. I won’t say the old ways always succeed. No medicine anywhere is that powerful. Galte’s story, and that of her patient, Setiel, appears in the August issue of @natgeo magazine, and is part of our ongoing project, #NGwatershedstories. You can find a short video of this Daasanach cleansing ritual by following the link in my profile. #2014 #africa #kenya #laketurkana #jadesea #daasanach #tribe #health #healing #tradition #medicine #culture #portrait #bw #makeportraits #documentary #truestory #everydayafrica @thephotosociety @randyolson
I wrote thousands of words from the lakeshore. To my surprise, my audience quickly grew. By the end of the experiment, I had accidentally created a record of our story-building process for National Geographic. More importantly, I recorded lives and struggles in a place few people have ever heard of, and fewer will ever visit. I have no scientific way to gauge the effect of the series, no metrics on audience penetration or age-set or income. At worst, hundreds of people I do not know and have never met routinely checked in to see the stories. At best, several thousand people did. The long magazine feature I eventually wrote from this fieldwork appeared in the August 2015 issue of National Geographic, a magazine with millions of readers around the world. But I consider that initial Instagram series to be the better work in several ways.
The job of a nonfiction writer is to gather as many shards of “truth” as possible and assemble them into a story. On Instagram, each post is a shard, and I collected far more there than I could ever do in a magazine. Taken together, the magazine story and the Instagram work comprise a lot of documentary material. More than my employer would have known what to do with. It isn’t perfectly organized, but it’s been a valuable test of the platform. And it has fulfilled again that desire to see more voices and faces and stories raised into view.Since that initial experiment, I’ve done many more, finding inspiration and literary precedent for short-form writing in fiction and nonfiction, poetry, and art. At times I’ve thought about Instagram through the lens of old Rick Bragg stories, slimming down toward emotional moments and powerful details. And I’ve been influenced by classical Japanese forms, including haiga, in which haiku verse, often describing mood and nature, is paired with simple ink illustrations. I know other Instagram writers who find inspiration in comic books, graphic novels, song lyrics.
I’ve also been inspired by many photojournalists who’ve demonstrated that there’s enormous opportunity to use Instagram to leverage good social documentary. A few include Matt Black, with his series on the “Geography of Poverty,” posted to MSNBC’s photography feed and his own account; Radcliffe Roye, who pairs images with very personal essays about identity; and David Guttenfelder, who created an Instagram account to share images from inside North Korea. Another of my favorites is a collaborative project affiliated with the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism called “Everyday Incarceration,” which explores the lives of inmates, their families, and communities.
In most cases, I steer away from using journalistic conventions in my writing. I’ve mentioned the nut graf. Facts, too, by which I mean bits of cold data, or what a student of mine once called “fact spam.” Attribution, experts, institutional voice—all of these I was happy to dump. Instagram is not a destination for news or heavy explanatory nonfiction. There are better places for that. I don’t believe standard forms, developed for print and television, really fit onto Instagram.
Let me be clear, though: this opinion does not mean I jettisoned more than a decade of practice in the ethics of American-style journalism. Everything I do is based on reported fact and direct observation. Ditching old methods was remarkably freeing, but I do not feel it relieved me of journalistic responsibility. What I mean is that I choose to remove or ignore things that could slow a story down unnecessarily, or block it from entering the light stream. Every writer, every editor or publication, must make their own choices about what rules will guide their use of Instagram. My advice is to let it run much looser, stylistically, than at first feels comfortable.
This has perhaps been easier for me to do because I’m a freelancer operating outside the umbrella of a larger publication, and I’ve been able to totally ignore or employ the news cycle. In September 2014, for example, I traveled to the United Nations’ Kakuma refugee camp, also in northern Kenya, and began writing an Instagram series about it not long after a massive flood inundated the camp and a burst of tribal violence sent many refugees fleeing from it. I resisted the temptation to write about the news, or its aftermath because I knew Instagram audiences—mine, at least—were not using the app that way. But later, in December, when President Obama announced his plan to normalize relations with Cuba, the news became a hook that allowed me to revisit work I had done on the island in 2008.
I searched my archives for photographs, then dug into notebooks to find stories to pair with them. Because the material was several years old, I acknowledged this in a dateline at the top of each post, and I wrote them in the tradition of travel narratives. In one, I described driving through Cuba in a rental car, picking up every hitchhiker I found, including one of the most beautiful women I’d ever met, a former Cuban soldier with a long, dark scar on her face.
I also wrote about a poor farmer who quizzed me on the prices of cars, and bicycles and houses in America. And, using a first-person structure, written in paraphrase, I told the story of a veteran of Fidel Castro’s campaign in Angola during the 1980s, when he sent thousands of troops to fight for a Communist regime. It was a story that’s almost invisible in the United States. It’s also evergreen—a rough Cuban analog for America’s war in Vietnam—and while it enthralled me, I’d be hard-pressed to place it in a glossy magazine.
More recently, news has been a presence, but not a directive, in a series I wrote from Iraqi Kurdistan (including a piece about an ISIS fighter I met) while on assignment for National Geographic, and in a vignette about a young migrant from Gambia who was trapped by bureaucratic goodwill in Sicily.
Over the last two months, I’ve also completed a new kind of Instagram collaboration with Randy Olson, my partner from the Kenya fieldwork. In July, ahead of the release of our magazine story on Lake Turkana, we posted a flashback series using work we did in 2009 just north of the lake. Then, in August, when the Lake Turkana story was published, we posted another series comprised mostly of stories and images that did not appear in the magazine. Together these two projects comprised a narrative journey across borders and through an endangered watershed. We posted stories almost daily, and ran them on several Instagram accounts, including National Geographic’s, offering broader ecological and cultural context—or just lunchtime reading—to an audience of millions.
This collaboration, designed for mobile phones and tablets (though my dad is still using a laptop to view it), has been incredible so far—at least on a personal level. The response (likes and comments, maddening and addicting) has been overwhelming, and our stories have been shared and reposted more than 1,000 times. What it shows is that our audience is time-agnostic. The age of the stories isn’t an issue. It’s the voice of the pieces, and the connections made between word and image, that matters.
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
All of this is lots of fun, but it’s still work. For now no one’s paying us to do it. National Geographic is happy to let us run our experiment, but it’s a labor of love. I’ve also been asked recently if Instagram is cheap, trivial, not a venue for doing serious journalism. I’m always a little puzzled by this one—I mean, hey, go do whatever you want—but like any social media app, Instagram reflects the community that uses it, which in this case is about as large as the population of the United States.
The writer Jeff Sharlet created an amazing profile, made just for Instagram, of a woman left virtually alone in her struggle with mental health problems. Jonathan D. Fitzgerald, a Ph.D student at Northeastern University is studying how Instagram narratives work and building an archive of them. Randy R. Potts uses the app to write about gay life in Texas. Journalist Blair Braverman shares stories about dogsledding and cold, lonely landscapes. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) posts images of things confiscated at airport security, revealing how many people try to bring grenades onto airplanes. And I’ve been corresponding with an Iraqi student who uses Instagram to post poems, in English, about the everyday violence battering through his life and the lives of his family.
Do these uses make Instagram—and related mobile platforms, like Facebook, Snapchat, Vine, or Twitter—sound trivial, or not trivial? The answer, of course, is yes.
The more I use the app, the more I see possibilities where it might be used non-trivially. In mid-June, I read a story in the L.A. Times entitled “San Bernardino: Broken City,” with words by Joe Mozingo and photographs by Francine Orr. As a newspaper package, it provides a fine, compelling narrative, and the paper built a Web page to house the project, including space for discussion and comments, but when I searched the Times’s feed on Instagram, I found only a few slim posts related to it.
If Mozingo and Orr are anything like me, they came away from their reporting with notebooks and hard drives full. I loved their work, and wanted more. Imagine how “extra” interviews, characters, or scenes—stuff that didn’t make it into the final cut—might be used on social media to enhance links to the print piece or create a stand-alone series from San Bernardino. What other audiences might the Times have reached? What other stories might they have told?
Another example of opportunity appears in The New York Times, which earlier this year launched a series called “Assignment America.” The header for the first two stories, described them as “exploring changes in American politics, culture and technology, drawing on the reporting and personal experiences of New York Times journalists around the country.”
Sounds excellent, the sort of project many writers would love to join. And the simple use of the phrase “personal experiences” seems to crack a door the Times opens hesitantly. The Times has done more with Instagram than many papers and magazines, linking its feed to a dedicated Web page where viewers can find stories that stand with the photos. Have editors at the paper considered using Instagram for other kinds of word-picture packages? The Assignment America series is young, and perhaps it won’t last, but it seems to hold great potential for social media storytelling. A quick look reveals the hashtag #assignmentamerica has been used only eight times, and never by the Times itself.
There are of course legitimate editorial concerns surrounding Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. Though users maintain ownership of their content, control over it is lost as their photos can be reused and reposted by others. But at a time when mobile presence is crucial and tight-fisted approaches to content are waning, what does the L.A. Times lose by sharing more of Mozingo’s and Orr’s work, especially when the main feature is accessible for free online? What might The New York Times gain by opening up their series on America—with all the chaos and democracy it suggests—to short, mobile storytelling?
Perhaps institutional fear keeps this kind of work off Instagram. Or the simple busyness that swamps newsrooms. My own editors at National Geographic—which has more than 30 million followers—support my Instagram project but still don’t really know how to bring it under the brand. Lately there’s talk of changing that, but it’s not clear how or when it’ll happen.
The wooden canoes always seemed to hobble through the water, half-sunk and fickle as a Sunday drunk. Barely more than flotsam. Once I asked who made them and the fishermen pointed north to Ethiopia, to a fading kingdom of trees. Many things came from there, looping down through the delta—guns, fish, fertilizer, rumors of death or rebellion. Rafts of thick grass came, too, and every few days a new flotilla drifted into the lake. Most were green specks, but now and then a large one appeared, an islet rustling with birds and frogs and other creatures. Occasionally the local priest, a German, would swim out to meet them and haul aboard as though he were a giant shouldering into Lilliput. Imagine—this white guy rising from the opaque water, long-haired and pale as dawn. He rode the islets south for a time and did not worry about crocodiles. In the middle of our stay something strange occurred. For several nights the islets arrived on fire. One after another, glowing fierce as comets. Before I slept I would scan the darkness and note their positions in the void beneath Orion’s belt. When I woke hours later, delirious with heat, I’d find them farther along, still aflame and somehow more familiar. Always by morning they had vanished. For a while I thought them a dream. I asked, but no one could say why they burned or what the Ethiopians might be doing upriver. Soon I thought better of it and stopped looking for answers. Mystery keeps better than fact, and I wanted those nights blazing. // #laketurkana #omoriver #daasanach #kenya #islet #canoe #natgeo #onassignment with @randyolson +@natgeo // See the series: #jadeseaseries2014
It would be a mistake to think that this kind of short-form writing can replace deeply reported, well-planned narrative nonfiction. I’ve said before that Instagram work shouldn’t be like newspaper writing, or even magazine writing. And I don’t suggest writers junk their long-form dreams. We’re talking, after all, about stories best read on phones.
Writing for Instagram is different and should be approached with a distinct, possibly purer, purpose—the joy of finding and telling. Writers trained to observe and collect, test and analyze, have in this app a fresh opportunity for innovation, to see how those skills might be applied to mobile storytelling. Later this year, I’m planning to begin another experiment at the Virginia Quarterly Review to see how far it might go.
With my colleague Jeff Sharlet and our editor Paul Reyes, we’ll curate a project that will regularly feature writers on the magazine’s Instagram feed. Each will post between three and five short, true pieces on subjects from many corners of the United States and, we hope, the world. They’ll be paid a modest amount, and their pieces will be assembled into an essay, which will be housed on VQR’s website. The best of this work will also be published in the print edition of the magazine.
This will be narrative at its simplest—the writer as observer, correspondent, communicating from a place our audience probably hasn’t experienced. Far as we know, it’ll be the first project of its kind. We’re not sure how it’ll turn out. To be sure, it’s far less about Instagram as a brand than it is about our desire to tell and share stories, particularly from places and people who’ve been missed in the mainstream. There are several apps we might have chosen. The pace of mobile innovation suggests there’ll be more coming. For now, though, Instagram is a tool that can gather and distribute stories more widely than many other kinds of social media. And, we simply just like it.
I was reminded of the particular power of the app in February, during a visit to Instagram’s Silicon Valley headquarters, where I gave a workshop on writing short true stories. On a cool afternoon I sat listening to David Guttenfelder describe his love of Instagram, the billions of images, each reflecting a little square of light. Guttenfelder, a former AP chief photographer for Asia who has more than 800,000 followers on the app, was showing his photographs from Japan, Montana, Iowa, North Korea, and elsewhere. He said Instagram has changed how he thought about sending his images into the world.
“This is the biggest, most important platform out there,” he said. “The reach of this thing is incredible. More people see my work on Instagram than will ever see it in a magazine like National Geographic.”
My first thought was to agree. My second was to wonder how to get more writers involved. Soon, at VQR, we’ll be looking for answers.