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Nov. 13, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production

From Nieman Reports: How to tell powerful narratives on Instagram

“Over time I realized that beneath the selfie surface, Instagram provided a powerful, unexpected, and mostly underutilized storytelling tool.”

Editor’s note: There are lots of new stories to read from our sister publication Nieman Reports as it rolls out its new issue. But Nieman Lab readers might be particularly interested in this story, by longform narrative writer Neil Shea, about discovering new storytelling possibilities in short posts on Instagram.

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.

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.

Keep reading at Nieman Storyboard →

Photo of an old camera and notebook by Tobias Abel used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 13, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
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