Instagram Storyteller

23 March, 2017

Neil Shea is a journalist and explorer who’s been writing and photographing for National Geographic for a decade. While working on a project in Northern Kenya, Neil realized Instagram offered the brand a revolutionary way to tell stories that would engage both traditional and new audiences. Neil recently visited our NYC Penthouse as part of Chandelier’s Truth-tellers & Troublemakers Salon series, to share his perspective on the evolution of Instagram as a storytelling platform. To see some of Neil’s favorite @NatGeo images, read Part 2.

How did you get started with National Geographic?

When I began, what I really wanted to do was go to these amazing places that I had grown up seeing in the magazine. I started looking at National Geographic in high school when I would get kicked out of class. I would sit in the library with nothing to do, next to the magazine rack, and National Geographic was there. Eventually, I landed a job there in 2004 as a staff writer. I wanted to have adventures, see the world, go to places like the North Pole. To see these things, and bring back a story.

Aren’t those stories that can be told in print?

In some ways the print magazine has become on object, something to put on your shelf, something to use as a coaster. It's a collector's item, but not necessarily a reading item.

But even what we see in print, that’s not always the whole story, is it?

I’ll spend almost three months living with people, traveling, gathering their stories, and then it gets distilled down into this 5,000-word piece, one issue of the magazine, and then it's gone forever. That started to feel like I was doing people a disservice. I would show up, ask them for their stories, spend days or sometimes weeks with them, and then just say fuck it, I can only tell this one story that I think will get past my editors. I wanted to do more with it, something that had more poetry and art in it. Instagram lets you do that because the space is so short. For a writer like me who's used to dealing with thousands of words, 300 words becomes both a nightmare and a wonderful little experimental space. A 300-word story will just take up your iPhone screen. You can read a 300-word story without flicking, for you lazy motherfuckers out there [laughs].

Has it been a challenge for National Geographic to go from print to Instagram?

The magazine is having this internal struggle with how to use Instagram and what to do with it. It's a huge audience and nobody knows really what to do with it. Instagram is this fickle thing. It's like speed dating in a way. You can follow somebody and then if they bore you, you can unfollow them very quickly. It's like an echo chamber or strange mirror for how we are and how we consume stories.

“One of the most important things we're doing is creating room for empathy.”

Neil Shea meets with local residents while reporting in Kenya’s Lake Turkana region. Photo National Geographic

But there are definitely things you can do on Instagram you can’t do in print, yes?

One of the very first stories I was sent out into the field to do was in the North Pole, up off the coast of Nunavut. This wonderful photographer named Paul Nicklen and I were out on the sea ice for about three weeks. Nothing out there but ice and animals coming into this area to feed and mate. They were having sort of their spring equinox party. Paul and I just sat there, photographing these magnificent narwhals. We all know that this is a real creature, right? Sometimes I talk to high school students now and they're like, "What is that? I didn't know that fucking existed." We were very close to them, camped out on the ice, moving our tents every couple of days so they wouldn't melt through, and trying to get stories about non-human characters, which is easier for a photographer than a writer because you can't interview one of those, as cool as they are. This is a story from 2005, which I only recently turned into a story for Instagram. Instagram is sort of this weird time-agnostic thing, where people don't care if you publish a story that's several years old. This is a strange power. National Geographic would not do this, publish a story that we researched in 2005. It's just too much time gone by. But social media upends traditional media and that's one of the beautiful things about it.

How did you go from documenting adventures to telling stories on Instagram?

Back in 2006, I started to cover the war in Iraq. It was an important shift in the kind of journalism I was doing, and at the time the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not really told on social media, even though social media was just starting to become more of a platform. I found that I had all these stories to share, but only one got into the magazine at a time. What are we supposed to do with all those extra stories? They just end up fading away in a notebook. Facebook had already come along, and there was Tumblr and some others. But none of them really grabbed my attention. Then Instagram suddenly came onto the scene and it was this wonderful opportunity—a place to tell all those stories I had feared would just vanish.


The print I’d grown up with was losing its way. You were telling stories in print, but people my age weren't reading them, weren't going to the web to experience these deeply reported, deeply traveled, and deeply felt stories. Instagram suddenly became a place to do it. There's never been a more exciting time to tell stories, but there's never been a more cluttered time. So if you want your stories to get out there, how do you do it? At least 80 million photos and videos are uploaded daily to this platform. There's 400 million users at least; this is a platform that is bigger than the population of the largest media market on the planet. Suddenly, you start to see this in a different way. How could we leverage this brand onto that platform?

“If you create a little bit of room for wonder, then you can create room for the serious stuff, the sad stuff, for everything else.”

Neil Shea has found that drawing helps root his subjects more deeply in his mind. These are his sketches from a reporting trip to Ethiopia and Kenya. Photo: National Geographic

How did you do it?

We just decided to do it ourselves. We didn't ask permission. We didn't talk to our editors. We just decided to start using that platform as a way to tell stories. At the time, camera phones were still relatively new, but they’d become a staple part of my journalistic kit. I have the notebooks, I'm interviewing people, and I make sure to take a portrait of whoever I speak to when I'm out in the field. We wanted to bring the stories that we had seen in the field into other people's experience. Randy Olsen (a photographer) and I decided to do one per day for about two weeks, to coincide with the publication and newsstand arrival of the magazine.

And did you follow a chronological order when you posted?

We didn’t do that. No magazine story really follows a chronology in terms of the photographic placement. On Instagram, people didn't care about time. We also started to notice that people were commenting, engaging with these stories on a level that they would never engage with the magazine, so this was a powerful way to give people other dimensions of stories that we were working on. Because it has such a huge follower base, we could tell anything we wanted without the editorial process being in our way and we could reach people who would never pick up the magazine. These stories that I'm talking about were sort of like rough drafts. They were first published on Instagram and then later I thought that they were good enough to bring them into the print magazine. Instagram became a drafting board. This is how you figure out what's good, what's not good.

What’s the most interesting aspect of Instagram storytelling from a reader’s perspective?

If I tell you nothing about a photograph, how do you read it? This is one of the beauties and paradoxes of photography and stories working together. If a photograph has no caption, you will write one in your head. It happens like that. Before you're even thinking about it, you're making connections based on your own personal experience. Maybe what happened to you that day. Maybe a movie you saw the night before.

I’ve noticed you use hashtags to organize thematically…

If you invent your own hashtag, all of the stories will be gathered under this thing. You're creating your own miniature magazine. We created a magazine called #NGwatershedstories.

How do you measure engagement?

Instagram itself can measure, to a degree. I've gone out to Palo Alto and talked with them about this, and they're generally very secretive and careful about their data, though they've gotten much better about sharing some things. I believe they can tell how long people spend with a story, but we can't on our end. We measure it by how many likes and comments a story received, how many times it was reposted. This is where we’re able to see engagement. The comments can be incredibly active—lots of people asking us to write a book, saying they loved it. And some people hating our work and saying, "What the fuck are you doing? Unfollow, unfollow."

“Social media upends traditional media and that's one of the beautiful things about it.”

A few miles from ISIS, National Geographic's writer Neil Shea is on a quest to meet the Kurdish fighters

How big are the audiences you reach?

The magazine is published in about 37 different countries, maybe 37 different languages. That means it has roughly 6 million subscribers. This is down from the heyday of 12 million or so back in the '80s and '90s. Our channel reaches about 91 million homes, but that’s not a measure of how many people actually watch it. The channel recently reorganized itself and started to create new content. One of the series they premiered last year was Mars, directed by Ron Howard. They spent about $20 million on the series and on its best night it had 1.4 million viewers. We have 73 million followers on Instagram, which means the stories that we do, they're potentially reaching a much vaster audience. And we're essentially we're doing it for free.

Are the people reading the magazine also following you on Instagram, or are those audience demographics different?

We found that the audience was young, they were new to National Geographic, and they were international, which was fascinating. They were not magazine subscribers. This is a general survey of people who engaged. They weren’t website users. We've also found that once people realized we were doing this every day, they came back, tuned in, and wanted to see more. When the series ended, they wanted more and they would write to us and say, "Give us more."

What have you learned most as a writer about the challenges Instagram presents?

Writing for Instagram is a design challenge. You have a box. You’ve got to put stuff in it. If you want to be good at any kind of writing, work with the photograph. Don't fight the photograph. If the photograph shows something obvious, you don't have to waste any time describing that thing. If it's an ice cream cone, you don't need to say that. That's wasted space. Leverage the photograph. The photograph is sort of like the opening few notes of a song. Be sensual, right? The photograph tells you a lot, but it doesn't tell you what it felt like. What did the Kurdish interrogation room with the fake plastic flowers smell like? Glade. Unwashed feet. Cigarette smoke. Old tea.

Is there anything you categorically avoid?

When you're writing these things, you have to decide what comes in and what’s left out. Most is left out. Leave most of it out. The best characters are not you. Social media clichés. You know what they are. Avoid them. No more cats.

“The greatest thing that these little stories want to do is leave an echo.”

How do you decide which images and words are appropriate?

At a certain point, in editorials rooms all over the U.S., they're beating themselves over the head. What does the reader think? What does the reader want? What does the reader know? We used to say at National Geographic that you wrote to an 8th-grade reading level. (This is when I first arrived.) You can't use words like fuck or shit, which is what normal people say in a lot of circumstances. You never know what the reader is going to know. You never know what they're going to bring to the image. You can't control for that and I actually think you shouldn't most of the time because that's part of the creative process. You bring something, they bring something, and then something new is formed.

Why is Instagram storytelling important to you?

One of the most important things we're doing is creating room for empathy. This is increasingly necessary. Now, you all know the era we live in now. The best stories create and amplify empathy. Those are also the most successful stories. It creates a space for wonder. In standard journalism, we often don’t remember that wonder is this huge force in human experience. If you create a little bit of room for wonder, then you can create room for the serious stuff, the sad stuff, for everything else. But if you leave people in a dark room, they will not come back, right? The greatest thing that these little stories want to do is leave an echo. They want to leave some kind of emotional note that people will think about. If it lasts with you for five minutes, that's more than I expected. But if it lasts with you for the day, that is a win.

Why do you think people flock to Instagram?

People don’t come to Instagram to learn what they learn in the New York Times. They don’t come to Instagram to see an electoral map of the U.S., or CO2 levels in 2016 versus 2017. They come to be entertained, to be diverted, to be taken somewhere. Making Instagram stories, what you're doing is creating a little bit of a space for people to step out of the rush of their day. In fact, that's one of the incredible capacities of the human imagination—we can be transported to another state of mind by looking at a photo for reading a story. Once you give yourself to this, it's really amazing.

Words by The Editors and Neil Shea.

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