National Geographic’s Instagram Stories

23 March, 2017

In Part 1, National Georgraphic photojournalist Neil Shea offered his perspective on the evolution of Instagram as a storytelling platform. Here, he shares some of his favorite @natgeo images, and the stories behind them.

Hippo Hunters. Photo by Neil Shea.

THE HIPPO HUNTERS: The Omo River flows down from Ethiopia, crosses the border into Kenya and fills Lake Turkana. It's the cradle of humankind. Our human ancestors walked through this landscape to leave the continent and populate the rest of the world. We went to see who was there. These are the hippo hunters: the last two men in the village who remember what it was actually like to hunt a hippopotamus, naked and with just with a spear. This doesn't happen anymore. These guys have wonderful faces, don't they? They look like old guys on the block. This man on the left is wearing a piece of a hippo; I believe it's a tooth or a rib, the sign that you had successfully hunted a hippo, a token of this passage. I drew a picture of a hippo for them and then they started to describe the different parts of the hippo that they used to eat and hunt, because in this area there were no more hippos. They had killed them all off. To see a hippo again represented on the page was a huge thing for them. These old men were laughing and remembering when they used to be able to hunt the hippos. I started to sketch in the names of the parts that they liked to eat. I asked what was the best part of the hippo and the old man laughed and said, "Nothing." Basically, eating a hippo sucks. These are these rich moments that we experience every day. We're enough out of our own shit to recognize the stuff that's passing by us all the time. It's my job to record these things, but it's not going to make it into the magazine. On Instagram, I suddenly had a place I could share it.

Crocodile survivor. Photo by Neil Shea.

CROCODILE SURVIVOR: This gentleman survived a crocodile attack. He’d been fishing one day out in the water up to his waist and suddenly a croc came out of nowhere and dragged him out into the lake. He had this otherworldly, out of body experience. He was at the verge of letting himself just be taken away. In his culture, if a croc comes for you, that carries a spiritual significance. It means the underworld has come for you because you did something bad or were fated to go. He felt himself being dragged away and suddenly remembered what they tell boys and girls in this area: if you're ever attacked by a crocodile, go for the eyes. He jammed his fingers into the eyes of the croc, and it was startled enough to let him go. He managed to get back to land and drag himself up to the local clinic where he received treatment. He started to have nightmares that the crocodile was coming for him. He would wake up on the floor next to his bed, thinking the crocodile had crawled all the way across the desert to get him.

Nurses. Photo by Neil Shea

NURSES: This is an amazing feature of social media. These women from the same village perform female circumcision. It's not a practice in any way acceptable in the west, but these women explained a side of it to me I hadn’t been prepared to hear. They believe it's necessary for their tribe to survive. They also eventually opened up and told me they're trying to phase the practice out secretly. It's like a sisterhood that realizes this practice isn’t going to last, so these two women and other women in the village had started to cut much less and just make a big show of it. They were all of the opinion that it was going away and didn't want their daughters to have to go through it the way that they had. This is how a community realizes something on its own without western intervention and starts to change itself.

Isis Soldier. Photo by Yuri Kozyrev

ISIS SOLDIER: This is what ISIS looks like. This 22, 23-year old. That's a Kurdish soldier standing in the background. This young man I interviewed is probably dead, and had been since the day after I interviewed him. Because the way you deal with ISIS in Iraq is, as one general put it to me, you “usher them quickly out of the light.” Very Kurdish way of saying “the death penalty is me.” What do I tell in a story like this where our sympathies certainly do not lie with ISIS? This story came to me. I didn't know what to say about it at first until I heard the undercover policeman who's out of frame ask this guy how he was caught: coming home to visit his mother. For some reason that hit me. I come from a family of four boys. Our mother was a big deal to us. Suddenly I could tell a story that wasn’t just all the stuff you already know about ISIS. I got to ask him very few questions before we were ushered out of the room. According to his story, he’d been lured into ISIS by social media, had gone to fight because as a young Arab in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, you have no future. There is no other option. If you want to do something, you join a jihadi group, because the government's, the Kurds, aren’t looking out for you. How many of us did a stupid thing when we were twenty-something? This is a bit more, perhaps, than a stupid mistake. Joining ISIS is serious, and this guy probably paid with his life. I tried to follow him through the Iraqi justice system but he vanished very quickly. If I hadn't told you he was ISIS, you wouldn't know. He looks like he went to, I don't know, J. Crew and bought a shirt on sale and forgot his shoes, right? Good looking kid… and now he's dead because he made a mistake.

Isis Victims. Photo is by Yuri Kozyrev

VICTIMS OF ISIS These are Yazidi women who aren’t Kurds, not Arabs, but a different ethnic group in Iraq. In the middle is a mother. On the sides are her daughter and daughter-in-law, who’d been captured by ISIS and forced into sexual slavery. They allowed us to photograph them only if we covered their faces, so they couldn't be identified within their community. This was a very powerful photograph. It ran in the magazine when we did our story about ISIS and the Kurds. Because Instagram is a different platform, I told it from the perspective of the women in the photograph, which is not something I’d be allowed to do in the magazine. Because of the heavier content, we have fewer likes. You're up against panda pictures, right? But we're still able to tell meaningful stories and still had at least a couple hundred thousand people interacting with it in some way.

Boy & Baboon. Photo by Randy Olson

BOY & BABOON: This photograph represents the danger and the promise of Instagram. It’s one of my favorite photographs, one that's totally fraught because it’s very complicated. What do we know about a baboon, and why does the boy have one? Why is the baboon's face painted? These are some of the questions that I felt like I had to deal with in the story. Again, this is a photograph that got more than half a million likes, but also a lot of hate. The basic story was that this boy wanted to have a pet baboon. He went into the forest and caught it himself. Risking the mother baboon's anger (and a mother baboon is a big creature with fangs.) This boy had this interesting story. Like, why would you go do this? That became the story for me. Let's dig into why a young boy would risk his life to have a friend like this. That was an interesting story to me and that's what I told.

Words by The Editors and Neil Shea.

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