InstaEssays: the innovative photojournalism of the future

Instagram, the largest photo-sharing platform in the world, can be used for so much more. Just ask anyone who writes InstaEssays, the latest investigation of human empathy in the marrying of pictures and words.

COMMENTInstagram isn’t just for sharing photos of cappuccinos and cats anymore.

Last term, all it took were three weeks of classes guided by visiting professor and writer Jeff Sharlet for the entire class of English students to realize that Instagram could be used for so much more.

As the largest photo-sharing social media platform in the world, Instagram has more than 75 million users, and over 90 percent of these users are aged 35 or younger. Most millennials will claim that it has quickly become their favorite app. Facebook and Twitter, by comparison, are seemingly outdated. But what is so great about sharing photos on such small screens?

For one thing, the platform reaches a creative space where voices that might otherwise be tainted by the mainstream media can be shared with anyone. We have all taken photos to capture a personal memory, and to broadcast this material taps into an already-private and subjective realm. Instagram lets us choose to invite a new audience—a technological public—to collectively observe a personal moment. Suddenly, a radically different space has materialised to allow a memory to exist eternally.

It may come as a surprise that Instagram is also the latest venue for ridiculously good photojournalism. Sure, there’s still thousands of selfies posted every day, but it’s also a developing platform where, as writer and ‘InstaEssayist’ Neil Shea affirms, the “joy of finding and telling” can be best explored.

New Experiments

Take Shea’s Instagram for example. Where else could we find this intimacy, these dark questions? The picture itself is, as they say, worth a thousand words, but Instagram only allows 2,200 characters. Still, Shea is able to provoke a specific reaction—one of speculative, profound empathy, for a terrifying individual: “Here is the enemy”, he tells us. In not so many words, the InstaEssay crafts an unconventional narrative that will outlast the fleeting moment it documents. By the essay’s end, I feel as though I know another person in this too-big world, though it only took us a minute to be acquainted.

As a writer of longform stories for National Geographic, Shea often finds himself in extraordinary places, but he is confined to reporting on specific subjects. And because of this, because that’s what he is paid to do, stories are inevitably lost.

However, with Instagram and its newfound version of storytelling, Shea can take someone’s picture much like he’d take down a phone number, and from there, the stories can flow and be communally, and beautifully, shared.

Shea is probably the most-popular InstaEssayist, but many others, including Sharlet (@jeffsharlet), have been hard at work on these “short-form” captions for a while. Most recently, Sharlet and Shea collaborated on an InstaEssay account for the Virginia Quarterly Review (@vqreview). The account commissions writers to explore stories in a sequence of photos and multi-part essays. Sharlet and Shea have deemed it “a social-media experiment in nonfiction,” and so far, the result is truly revolutionary, showcasing a collage of unique subjects from all over the world.

Some of my other favourite accounts include:

@everydayincarcertaion – a platform that seeks photos and stories about the effects of prisons and jails on people and communities;

@blairblaverman – her account bio reads: Journalist, dogsledder, author of the forthcoming book Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube (Ecco/HarperCollins)

@mutantjournalism – the combined account of Jeff Sharlet’s various literary journalism classes, including the English students from last term’s class here at Trinity College;

If you take anything from this article, pay a visit to the @MutantJournalism account and see the great work that fellow Trinity students engaged in last term. I have never been in a class like this before — where a group of English majors who normally read books and write about them were now being assigned by a professor to go out into the streets of Dublin and become journalists. And we weren’t just hopeful journalists, asking simple questions to some random strangers and then editorialising the answers; instead, we were photojournalists, required to ask the questions and then ask for the photo. Or not.

Take for example one written by fourth-year student Amy Corcoran about a man on the bus. He did not agree to the photo, and yet his picture and the ensuing story, understood by readers completely through the eyes and mind of Amy, is publicly featured on the largest photo-sharing social media platform in the world. The ethical question arises of whether or not the subject is being exploited and confined to one insight.


But the constraints, I would argue, are what make the InstaEssays all the more thought-provoking. It’s exploitative, surely, but there’s beauty to be found.

We’ve all seen or heard of the “Humans of New York” (HONY) Instagram account; it currently has over 4 million followers and 3,683 (and counting) individual posts that profile everyday people in New York City. Like other InstaEssays, HONY shines light on humanity, but it ultimately lacks an element of reality in its seemingly perfected methodology: every photo is accompanied by profound quotations. Real life isn’t profound, and I think that’s why the lesser-known InstaEssay accounts featuring unauthorised photos and eavesdroppings are especially insightful, moving, and in some ways, better.

I’ve written close to 20 InstaEssays since Sharlet first instructed the class to approach 3 strangers in Dublin and talk to them. In the same way that the HONY account has become a pseudo-photo album of life in New York, I look through the photos on my InstaEssay account now and think of it as a documentary of my time here in Dublin. From the first photo of an interesting individual I met at Whelan’s, to the latest one of an elderly man reading his Sunday newspaper at the National Gallery of Ireland, I scroll through the photos now and recall the moments that have moulded my experience this school year.


Writing InstaEssays is surprisingly easy—a way to filter memories in a mode that generates meaning. Think of all the photos in your phone that you never even view: what if every single one had a mini-essay attached as a caption, pinpointing a conversation you had or an emotion you felt in that very moment? The essays make every photo-op an automatic occasion to reflect, to get to know yourself and the things you care about in a deeper way. The added bonus comes with the empathy that others will respond with in getting the chance to know your subjects and scenes, too. It’s an amazing level of connection, and I have yet to find this sort of emotional depth in any other context of social media. I encourage you to try it out—the community of InstaEssay writers, you will see, is itself an exciting thing to call your own.

Instagram is undeniably changing the way people see the world, and InstaEssays take that modern perspective one step further. After all, the essence of documenting our lives is not information, but the blazing fact of the matter. As writers of literary journalism have done for decades, it’s a triumph to listen to the way people talk, or watch the way people act and write it down in unvarnished form. InstaEssays provide the platform for a genuine exploration of the nuances and pressures that exist, and have always existed, between words and pictures.

Other InstaEssay accounts to check out:

@ruddyroye – “Photographer with a conscience. Peeling the cornea of his eye ball to share on Instagram.”

@danschwartz3 – “Reporter, Sante Fe. Formerly Four Corners and Alaska. Born and raised outside Boston.”

@thephatic – “Instaessays, free verse, noise: small-bore journalism: Texas, mostly.

@thehiddensouth – “A photo journal, by Brent Walker, documenting conversations with the unseen.”

@tanjahollander – “Tanja Hollander is photographing all 626 of her facebook friends all over the world. Are you really my friend? debuts @massmoca 3/2017.”