Visual Culture

From North Korea to Baltimore, Instagram Is Fostering the Next Generation of Photojournalists

Artsy Editorial
Jan 21, 2016 12:00PM

February 13, 2010. Marjah, Afghanistan. A troop-carrying helicopter drops acclaimed American photojournalist David Guttenfelder into the front lines of the then-biggest American air assault in the war against Al Qaeda. Seeing the Marines that surround him snapping photos on their smartphones, he drops his DSLR, reaches for the iPhone 3G (his first) in the pocket of his flak jacket, and begins shooting photos, hoping to mimic the intimacy of those the soldiers were sending back home.

“They weren’t taking the kinds of pictures that I was taking, news photography; they were photographing their own life and this huge experience in their life. So I started shooting with my phone, too,” he says on the phone from the rather more peaceful “boonies of Montana,” near where he’d recently shot the Gallatin National Forest, on horseback, on a 24-day journey for National Geographic. The pictures he published in 2010 were not without backlash, with major publications (like the industry bible, Photo District News) questioning whether war shot through the lens of a point-and-shoot phone disrespected, or romanticized, its gravity. In October of that same year, Instagram was launched.

When Guttenfelder picked up his phone, he broke all the rules of traditional photojournalism—and, by some accounts pushed forward a medium that has been evolving since its inception. Six years later, extemporaneous documentation for journalistic use (and via selfie) has become the norm and Guttenfelder, with 854,000 followers on Instagram—the mobile image- and video-sharing app that has swelled to over 400 million users—is something of a new-tech godfather in the field. But having spent 20 years covering conflict overseas for the Associated Press, in the beginning carrying chemicals on his back, developing film in the field, and hanging it to dry on clotheslines, the photojournalist knows well the history of his craft.

During World War II, photographers carried weighty 4x5 cameras and hitchhiked to rush-deliver unseen film; in Vietnam, film from Leicas and Nikons was wrapped in condoms to keep it safe from the swamps; and at the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom, still-nascent digital photography invited massive logistics operations that used body bags to transport hundreds of pounds of gear. Now, a smartphone paired with Instagram—both a camera and a publishing platform—has freed up photographer time and stamina, and marked a shifting paradigm for documentary photography, forging new opportunities for photographers of all ilk, all over the world.

“Often when disaster strikes, the first witnesses will be amateurs,” says Olivier Laurent, Editor of TIME’s photoblog LightBox. “[Traditionally] you have to get a third-party photographer that is not embedded in a community to show up when something bad happens.” But with a new band of iPhone-wielding locals, the opportunities for capturing those crucial first moments of any news story have expanded exponentially.

In April of last year, 26-year-old Baltimore native Devin Allen began using Instagram to document the protests that sprang up following the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, while in police custody. Later that month, his heart-rending portrait of a young black man being chased by a trail of armed policemen was featured on the cover of TIME. “Devin was an amatuer just documenting his own city,” says Laurent, who interviewed Allen when the images began to go viral. “Suddenly TIME was promoting the work of a guy that lives in the story; he was part of the story. He found himself in the middle of these protests because he was part of that community.” Allen quickly became a voice of the movement and is now a full-time photographer whose work has been featured in The New York Times and New York Magazine, as well as museums.

Allen’s rise from documenting his community on social media to the highest heights of photojournalism is by no means unique. 20-year-old Chilean American Pablo Unzueta was earning minimum wage working as a short-order cook at a bar when TIME featured his images documenting poverty in the surrounding streets of Los Angeles, photos he shot in response to a call for pictures of veterans via the hashtag #vetsrising. (Unzuenta continues to work at the bar to pay the bills, a situation that highlights one of the core critiques of citizen photojournalism via social media: Notoriety and impact is difficult to translate into consistent paid assignments.) Matt Black began photographing rural poverty in his hometown in the central valley of California, using census data and geolocation to put names and faces to what were otherwise only statistics around poverty. His dark-horse project was picked up by MSNBC—and soon enough he won the W. Eugene Smith Grant (photography’s Nobel Prize for humanitarian work) and was inducted as a nominee member of Magnum, the world’s most highly respected photo agency.

“I look at my Instagram feed and it’s a network; I’m seeing through the eyes of people around the world,” says the image-sharing app’s Teru Kuwayama. Following two decades as a noted photojournalist, covering war and humanitarian crises in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kashmir, the TED Senior Fellow now works on the community team at Instagram, specifically with photojournalists and the wider photo community. “So many eyes and so many minds are coming online and being harnessed to this grid,” he says. For Kuwayama, this collective network and its unprecedented audience serves as the greatest draw for his involvement. “It’s unlocked a totally different spectrum of reporting,” he says.

And whether it’s expanding audiences and lifting constraints for pros like Guttenfelder, or providing a far-reaching publishing tool for amateurs, Instagram is giving voice to photographers all over the world and, particularly, allowing communities to tell their own stories. “Typically, the pattern is something happens and then people from Western Europe or North America jump on a plane and fly over and it’s their pictures that become the narrative,” Kuwayama says. But that’s no longer exclusively the case. Within hours of the magnitude 7.8 earthquake (the first of two within a month) that hit Nepal in April, 2015, local Kathmandu photographer Sumit Dayal co-founded the Nepal Photo Project, a collective network leveraging Instagram not only for storytelling—but also to direct international aid efforts. “It was one of the first international news events, natural disasters, that was covered almost exclusively by local photographers,” Kuwayama says of the network, which scaled to more than 30,000 followers on Instagram within a month of launching. (Its following has now grown to nearly 60,000.) “Their pictures became the voice and vision of the event, but also the mobilizing framework for disaster relief,” he adds. Using this grassroots network and Instagram’s embedded location data, NGOs could follow GPS coordinates to target aid to communities most hard-hit by the disaster.

Communities in certain corners of the world like North Korea aren’t just creating content but, in many cases, consuming uncensored images of their reality and of their country for the first time. Following his stint embedded in Afghanistan, Guttenfelder went to the DPRK capital of Pyongyang in 2011 to help set up a bureau for the AP, the first of any Western news agency. “This is a country that was completely isolated; there’s not been photography from there. It’s all been propaganda distributed by the state,” he says. “There’s no communication allowed. It’s a total black hole.”

Guttenfelder has made over 40 trips to the country since 2000 and is one of the first and only Western photojournalists to be granted regular access. Now, he has used his iPhone to shine a mini LED flash into the abyss. Instagramming from the streets of Pyongyang was “like throwing a window open on a totally unknown place,” says the photographer. “It was more powerful than any of the traditional ways that I used to publish, because you’re not just publishing at people; people go with you into the field, they follow you there, and you take them along for the ride.” Rather than the heavily censored portrayal of their world through government-controlled media outlets, for the first time locals were seeing a journalist represent their country as they knew it to be. “They said, ‘Follow this guy on Instagram. He’s unlike the mainstream media; he’s showing the real North Korea.’”

(On June 22, 2015, the DPRK enacted a country-wide ban on Instagram—previously available to a small segment of the country who could afford the $450 charge for two gigs of data—with some pointing to photographs of a hotel fire in Pyongyang, which appeared on the app and circulated widely in Western media but not in North Korean press, as the impetus for the block.)

Kuwayama likens his role at Instagram to creating “the photo agency of the future, a hive mind of eyes and ears around the world.” It certainly would not be the first social media giant to make a big impact in opening up the field of journalism to citizens around the world. Twitter served as an invaluable tool through which to watch the uprisings and revolutions that came to be known as the Arab Spring unfold across the Middle East and North Africa in late 2010 and into 2011 from the eyes of those on front lines too unstable for Western journalists to penetrate. But, Twitter traditionally being a text-based platform, its citizen reporting has most often found an audience with journalists, news organizations, and policy watchdogs. Images, however, break down language barriers and transcend geographic, economic, and political borders more easily—something no doubt at the forefront of Kuwayama’s and founder Kevin Systrom’s minds. (Systrom interned at the startup that eventually became Twitter, Odeo, in 2005.) As the image-sharing platform’s parent company, Facebook, makes progress in extending basic internet service to everyone on earth via its initiative, these far-reaching corners of the world, and their communities, can share and consume stories using the most raw, universally understood, and now democratic language: photography.

—Molly Gottschalk

Artsy Editorial
Get the Artsy app
Download on the App StoreGet it on Google Play
Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019