From SXSW: Instagram and the Photojournalist

Instagram is a great way to share real-time information through images and short videos.

So you can imagine my surprise when I learned at South By Southwest that for the most part, photojournalists aren’t using the mobile app to communicate.

Kira Pollack, Dan Toffey, David Guttenfelder

Kira Pollack, Dan Toffey, David Guttenfelder   (captured with a Sony NEX 5N and edited in Lightroom — compare to Instagram of the same below)

“News photographers are the fewest on Instagram,” said David Guttenfelder, AP Chief Photographer, Asia, on the SXSW panel “Instagramming the News” with Kira Pollack and Dan Toffey. “We already had a place to publish, so we came to it late.”

Good point. Photojournalists in general already have places to share their photographs, so they wouldn’t necessarily be out looking for new sharing opportunities. Plus, I’m sure many have thought of Instagram as something for the masses and not for the professionals.

But along came Hurricane Sandy.

“We tried for the first time during Sandy, arming five photographers with iPhones and the password to the main Time Instagram feed,” said Kira Pollack, director of photography at Time Magazine.

And what a good decision that was.

Sandy was one of those rare crisis events that the media actually had time to plan for. News organizations knew that it would be a ‘real-time’ event reported on the spot by the millions of people with smartphones in Sandy’s path.

Had Time Magazine not given its photographers the ability to immediately share images, it would have had to wait until each photographer could get to a computer with access to electricity (something lower Manhattan was without that night), to get their images sent to the newsroom. By then, those images likely would have been old news.

Instagram reported 1.3 million images shared on its site related to the hurricane.

The Time Magazine cover that week was itself an image taken by one of its iPhone-toting photographers and posted to Instagram.

Guttenfelder shared that he first began using Instagram just to be creative, “to document my life.” Now it’s part of his work. His phone is his second camera. He makes a conscious decision with each image whether it’s for his traditional Canon or something that belongs on Instagram.

Interestingly, Guttenfelder said the general public’s understanding of photography is growing because of Instagram.

Personally, I can attest to being a better photographer after three years of Instagram. It makes you think about your composition, and the story it will tell.

But the great power of Instagram is not with the professional users. The power comes from citizens, who share real-time images of what’s happening in high-risk areas of the world.

Time Magazine watches these citizen photojournalists and taps the better ones to cover stories rather than send photographers into dangerous situations.

And Instagram itself is working to expose great photographers and photographs it finds, says community manager Dan Toffey.

“We want people to have a richer, broader experience,” Toffey said.

So is Time Magazine leveraging Instagram to its full potential from a media point of view? “We’re still figuring it out,” Pollack said.

That is probably the best answer anyone can give about using Instagram for anything other than personal use. There are limitations and challenges which make it perfect and imperfect at the same time.

Instagram creates glimpses into real-time happenings all over the world. It’s not about carefully planned photo opportunities that tell a well-crafted story.

Same image as above, but captured on an iPhone 5, edited and shared through Instagram.

Same image as above, but captured on an iPhone 5, edited, and shared through Instagram. It is perfectly imperfect and in the moment.

So what are the benefits for photojournalists?

“This is the first time we have experienced immediate feedback from audiences,” said Guttenfelder. He related the joy he experienced, after years of being a professional photographer, when seeing the likes reported on one of his Instagram images in numbers rather than a list of individual names, which only happens when you get more than 11 likes.

Victoria HarresVictoria Harres is VP, Audience Development & Social Media at PR Newswire and the original voice behind @PRNewswire. She leads the media relations team that provides customer service to the members of PR Newswire  for Journalists. In her spare time, she Instagrams the world around her.

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