Last week, National Geographic and the Facebook Journalism Project presented a panel discussion in Washington, D.C., focused on the topic of visual storytelling and photojournalism on Instagram. The hourlong conversation, which was moderated by Patrick Witty, Deputy Director of Photography and Digital at National Geographic, featured four esteemed visual storytellers:
- Michaela Skovranova, an Australian photographer and filmmaker known for her innovative work around ocean life and featured on Photo Boite’s list of 30 Under 30 Women Photographers
- Tasneem Alsultan, a Saudi-American photographer known for her work on gender and social issues in Saudi Arabia and a member of the all-female Rawiya Middle Eastern photography collective
- Cengiz Yar, an American documentary photographer based in Northern Iraq and recipient of the 2015 James Foley Award for Conflict Freelancers
- Malin Fezehai, an Eritrean/Swedish photographer and winner of 2015 World Press Photo Award whose work focuses on displaced communities around the globe
With more than 81.8 million Instagram followers, more than 4 billion likes and more than 31 million comments, National Geographic is no stranger to the photo- and video-focused social platform.
“Immersive visual storytelling has been a big part of our DNA for well over a century, and it’s one of the reasons why we think we are the most followed brand on social,” said Jonathan Hunt, Senior Vice President of Digital Strategy and Audience Development for National Geographic Partners, in his opening remarks.
National Geographic’s Instagram account launched in 2012 and now features the work of 120 photographers, who all have direct access to @natgeo. This is “incredibly frightening at times,” but it’s in line with National Geographic’s vision to be completely authentic and unfiltered, Patrick said.
“Smartphones have democratized photography, Instagram has democratized publishing, and that has changed photography; it’s changed the way photographers work.”
Patrick began the panel discussion, titled “Photojournalism on Instagram: Visual Storytelling in a Scrolling Age,” by asking why the storytellers use Instagram. The responses ranged from using the social channel as a photo diary meant to show commonalities between women around the world (Tasneem), to using it as an alternative way to get people to care about what’s happening around the world (Cengiz), to making it a professional portfolio (Michaela).
“Through Instagram, people get to see a fuller scope of you or a fuller scope of the work that you’re trying to do,” Malin said.
Instagram Stories, which launched in August 2016, adds another dimension to how the panelists tell stories on the platform. “My stories are things that show me uncensored,” Tasneem said. She added that her regular Instagram feed is more of a portfolio and an insight into her work.
Cengiz said Stories give him a way to convey easily digestible updates on what’s going on in Iraq. Since people have become so familiar with what these smartphone-shot videos look like, “Why not use it as much as possible?” he asked.
The meaning of likes
“Are people seeing this? That’s what matters,” Cengiz said when asked about the significance of likes. “I don’t think double-tapping on [a photo] matters at all.”
“I think you have to be really careful, because then you start self-curating and chasing the likes,” Michaela said. “So I create my feed for myself to get lost in, and chances are that someone else will as well.”
The number of likes certain photos receive are sometimes eye-opening. Tasneem, for instance, is surprised by her most liked photo, which she didn’t think much of until a friend remarked on it. “That’s how I kind of understood that my favorite pictures are not everyone else’s favorite pictures,” she said.
Instagram’s effect on photographers
Near the end of the discussion, a member of the audience asked the panelists how their relationship to photography has changed because of emerging technologies and platforms like Instagram.
“I think Instagram actually forced me to keep a little bit on my toes to produce something every day,” Malin said.
Cengiz said scrolling through his Instagram feed motivates him to go out and shoot. “It’s so inspiring seeing great work on my phone every morning.”
Instagram enables anyone with a phone and an internet connection to be a photographer, Tasneem said. “It’s why I’m here today.”