campaign desk

Instagram on the trail

More media are experimenting with use of the app as a news tool
September 4, 2012

When AP staff photographer Evan Vucci downloaded Instagram, a photo-sharing app, on his iPhone before the Iowa caucus in January, he used it to keep in touch with friends and family while on the road. Now, the AP has requested that Vucci and 12 other staff photographers use their personal Instagram feeds professionally, with the hashtag #aponthetrail, to capture behind-the-scenes moments they wouldn’t normally file to the wire.

A growing number of news organizations are experimenting with ways to incorporate Instagram into their digital media strategy. The two-year-old app is known for its intimate, arty photos, created by users who capture tiny moments and make them look beautiful with colored filters and adjustable depths of focus. Instagram has 80 million users and features about 5 million photos a day.

Some organizations, like the AP, are harnessing the reach of the personal feeds of their top journalists and photographers, employing strict rules against using Instagram’s filters or adjusting focus to make sure the photos adhere to the company’s standards. Others, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Vanity Fair have company feeds, run with a mix of regular features, staff contributions, and content curated from their pages; those amount to a professional takeover of a consumer device not dissimilar from the way Facebook became a mouthpiece for brands.

“Instagram plays nicely into our social media strategy,” said Santiago Lyon, director of photography at the AP. “We’d been seeing our photographers using iPhones to shoot offbeat, strange, interesting moments they’d come across, so we asked them to get Instagram accounts to formalize it. We’re seeing the coming together of journalism and social media, which complements mainstream journalism.”

For Vucci (@evanvucci), Instagram began as a source of amusement. “I started using it to take fun pictures that I wouldn’t normally send to the wire, and as a way to contact everybody,” Vucci said. “But now you’re seeing photographers from all over using it to share their assignments.” Since Instagram added Vucci to its suggested users list a week ago, he gained 9,000 new followers, who are privy to behind-the-scenes moments in the life of a photojournalist. It’s not all exciting: A recent photo, tagged “the glamorous road life pt. 2,” showed his suitcase next to a washing machine in an empty laundromat. Another, which he tagged #aponthetrail, was taken after a Romney speech in Hobbs, NM. It shows deserted chairs beneath a dramatic, cloudy sky, and a star spangled banner discarded on cracked earth.

Lyon said that this use of Instagram is an alternative to the highly controlled environment of a political convention, where access is often restricted to the photo pit.

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“We launched #aponthetrail at the conventions because they are a colorful spectacle with an eclectic mix of personalities. It’s an interesting slice of Americana,” he said, “but there is a sameness to political coverage: The meat and potatoes of it is people on stages, microphones, confetti. Instagram allows us to complement that coverage with humor, quirkiness, details. It’s another dish on the buffet of coverage.” Photos taken on Instagram by AP photographers are licensed in the same way as all other photography, which means the photos are the property of the wire to reproduce or sell accordingly.

Photos appearing on The New Yorker feed are also licensed to the magazine for 30 days, according to Alexa Cassanos, a senior PR director with the magazine (note that the press department, rather than the photography department, is in charge). Cassanos said that The New Yorker usually uses Instagram to highlight photography in the magazine and on the website. Recently, they’ve also asked noted photographers to take over the feed for weeks at a time. This week, Ben Lowy is snapping moments in Tampa. Previously, Ed Kashi used his iPhone to capture moments at a photography workshop in Aspen. Kashi told The New Yorker’s Photo Booth blog afterwards that Instagram adds “a twist to my main work, which tends to be very serious and issue-oriented.”

Lexi Mainland, the social media editor of the Times, said the paper does not have a specific policy for Instagram usage but that the usual social networking rules apply, and all Times journalists must be aware that everything they post is public. So far, the Times has limited its Instagram usage to fashion coverage, including the feed NYTimesFashion, because of the aesthetic quality to photos created by the app. “I find Instagram to be very beautiful,” Mainland said. “There’s something aesthetically pleasing about anything that makes people slow down and think about things like composition and color.”

So far, the Times has held off on using Instagram to publish news photography.* “We’re not keen on filters,” Mainland said, “and when we’ve thought about using it more, one thing stymied our efforts: You can’t link from Instagram to webpages and stories and other photos. It operates like a walled garden. I’m not sure that’s the best platform for publishers.”

The AP’s Lyon agrees that professional uses for Instagram are still evolving. “What we’re seeing is the use of a consumer device in a non-consumer setting,” he said. “Instagram might not be reportorial enough. But #aponthetrail is a worthy experiment in how to best leverage social media, iPhones, and talent.”

AP photographers to follow on Instagram include J. David Ake, Carolyn Kaster, Charles Dharapak, Kasie Hunt, Mary Altaffer, and Jae C. Hong.

*Correction: The sentence originally said that the Times doesn’t use Instagram as a reporting tool, but it’s more accurate to say it doesn’t use the app to publish its professional news photography.

Hazel Sheffield is a journalist and filmmaker based in London. She is a former CJR fellow and business editor of the Independent.