Instagram – a platform for professionals?

May 1, 2014

London, United Kingdom

By Russell Boyce

Global Editor, News Projects, Reuters Pictures

Two amazing pictures showed up on my screen over the past few days. The first was from Myanmar, where a Rohingya Muslim woman was pictured holding her malnourished twins. The second captured a deadly explosion in Iraq.

Both were sent out to our clients on the newswire, and I decided to share them on social media. First I posted them to Twitter, with links to slideshows and our Wider Image website. The people who follow us on Twitter know what to expect – breaking news pictures from around the globe including some images that are quite brutal.

Then I went to Instagram. I paused. Over the last few months, Reuters’ Instagram account has increased its following to almost 50,000. Each picture gets an average of over 1,000 likes and the numbers are growing.

We don’t force crop our pictures into squares and we never use the filters – what you see is an image just as it was moved to the wire, un-manipulated.

 A displaced Rohingya woman carries her severely malnourished twins in her lap in their house at the Dar Paing camp for internally displaced people in Sittwe, Rakhine state, April 24, 2014 REUTERS/Minzayar

We are continually told that Instagram is the platform of the future for picture-sharing and news photography. It’s a space Reuters needs to be in. 

So why my hesitancy? Who would want to “like” a picture of malnourished children? No one, I assume. Yet purely in terms of beauty of photography, emotion and content it’s a very powerful news picture.

But is Instagram a platform for this? The second picture is an exclusive image of a deadly blast, captured with full force. It shows the very moment that several people were killed and many injured. Again, what to “like”?

 An explosion is seen during a car bomb attack at a Shi'ite political organisation's rally in Baghdad, April 25, 2014. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

Followers can comment right under the picture. Would there be an outcry and accusations of insensitivity at posting a picture of suffering children? Or would the groups who blame the Myanmar authorities for a health crisis among Rohingya Muslims – which the state denies – say the image was meant to advocate their cause?

Would supporters of militants who exploded the bombs at the Shi’ite political rally write comments applauding the image and enraging those who suffered from the attack, who would be appalled that the picture had even been posted?

Every good news picture evokes debate and opinion. The more followers an Instagram account gets, the more diverse the commentary normally becomes. Nothing goes unchallenged or fails to raise the hackles of one group or another.

One might think a picture from Ireland of a sheep that had been dyed pink to support a cycle race would be fun and harmless enough (it got 1046 “likes”). The comments ranged from clapping hands, smilies and “Mood for a pink outfit anyone?” to “People who do this to animals should be SHOT. Most dyes are not safe for them”.

A screenshot shows a post on Reuters' Instagram feed

The only pictures that don’t seem to upset people are silhouettes. So maybe we should just ignore everyone and post whatever represents the best of the file? But the point is to gain followers not lose them. Would someone interested in world news like to see cute pandas; or would our “panda followers” be horrified by pictures of children with malnutrition or bomb blasts in Iraq?

I have to admit I enjoy posting Reuters pictures to Instagram; I get the buzz of instant gratification from “likes” and positive comments. Also, I tip my hat to the very small group of photographers who have carved out a niche for themselves using Instagram to promote their work (I believe these photographers are so good that they could make great pix using a pin-hole camera). The platform has given joy to millions of amateurs using their phones to post pictures.  

But we are paid professionals and I am beginning to struggle with the question: What is the actual value of Instagram for professional news photographers? Likes cannot, as yet, be converted into dollars so how will they fund the business now or in the future?

So another question: Is the platform best left to the amateurs, to enjoy filter-enhanced sunsets, rainbows, street scenes, lovers, pets and families or is this really the new, professional platform of the future?

Last question: Would you “like” a picture of malnourished babies in Myanmar?

If you don’t give a damn about “likes” and just want to read the story and see the pictures, click here.


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Beautiful article on current trends, people posting photos using such apps directly from phone.

For the question, Would you “like” a picture of malnourished babies in Myanmar? – Yes, definitely for the emotion captured in the image. But sad to see still we could not eradicate malnutrition from the world.

Posted by Aravind123 | Report as abusive

Interesting observations. However I’m not sure you’re taking the appropriate perspective.

Whilst you are indeed “paid professionals” you’re not just ‘making money’ directly, you are also looking for the most appropriate and ‘easy’ dissemination channels for your ‘product’. Instagram is such a service. Your product is not ‘just’ imagery, it’s information, awareness-raising, news.

But your ‘product’ I’d argue is not just the material that you disseminate, it’s the integrity, impartiality, and insight with which you deliver it. Your ‘value’ is your brand perception. And that can be of inestimable value to you in the long term.

I agree that the word ‘like’ is wholly inappropriate, and that an alternative term would be useful, but I think also that to go down that route is to perhaps lose sight of what is actually being ‘liked’ however obliquely – which is you, Reuters.

“The only pictures that don’t seem to upset people are silhouettes. So maybe we should just ignore everyone and post whatever represents the best of the file? But the point is to gain followers not lose them. Would someone interested in world news like to see cute pandas; or would our “panda followers” be horrified by pictures of children with malnutrition or bomb blasts in Iraq?”

I think you are treading on dangerous ground when you start to even consider such ‘self-censorship’ because you fear you may offend some group or other.

I’d argue that the value to you of ‘followers’ is not determined solely by their ability to bestow ‘likes’ upon your images, rather to ‘like’ the fact you offer carefully curated and quality photography that delivers emotional impact whether its content is ‘likeable’ or ‘repulsive’.

To do anything other than that is, I would suggest, to show huge disrespect to those less fortunate participants in events around the world which cause them huge personal grief. These are events that may not be ‘likeable’ for a segment of your audience, but they are virtually unbearable for the victims and we all need to bear witness to that.

Which kind of answers your question: I may not ‘like’ the image of malnourished babies in Myanmar, I but I do ‘like’ the fact you choose to show and widely publicise it, and also explore the complex issues behind such desperate imagery.

Posted by johnmacp | Report as abusive

Wow, did your arrogance just insult everyone who posts to Instagram. You accuse photographers of digital manipulation just because they use a filter and you suggest people who post to Instagram should be amateurs. I suspect the thousands of “professional photographers” that participate and share in the fantastically open Instagram community and the millions of photographers who are amateurs simply by the fact they don’t make a living from shooting pictures but daily post great images equal to what the so called pros shoot would take offense to what you wrote. It is funny how Reuters constantly uses amateur pictures found on social media on its wire taken during breaking news events. By your words shouldn’t these images only be suitable for the amateur only Instagram publishing platform?

Are you also suggesting that because Reuters only posts a standard 35mm frame your are better than all of us who love a square format and prefer to use it to the tiny image you post. I am not sure you should boast that you get 1000 likes on average for a follower base of 50k. It doesn’t appear you are engaging the community of photographers on Instagram very well.

Your column in the end is nothing but an advertisement for your Wider Image web site. Lets see if your are honest enough to share with the photo community how many users you have for that display of photography compared to Mark Zuckerberg sharing recently that Instagram has 200 million users. It is 2014 and I believe the world of photography lovers has spoken saying that if you want to enjoy and participate in the beauty of photography today, be a member of the Instagram community.

While Reuters employees a fantastic group of photographers globally who constantly bring great images to publication it is but a small part of the overall world of photography. Maybe if you embraced the photography community as a whole and stopped tagging people pros and amateurs and just admired a picture for what it is no matter who took it you might find a better engagement with Reuters followers. Instagram simply allows users to do as they like with images.

Posted by JosephMarks | Report as abusive