Saturday 3 May 2014

Instagram - A Platform For Professionals?

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 our 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. 

Displaced Rohingya woman Norbagoun carries her severely malnourished 25-day-old twins in her lap in their house at the Dar Paing camp for internally displaced people in Sittwe, Rakhine state, April 24, 2014. Restrictions on international aid have exacerbated a growing health crisis among stateless Muslim Rohingya in west Myanmar. In February, Myanmar's government expelled the main aid group providing health to more than half a million Rohingya, Medecins Sans Frontieres-Holland (MSF-H), after the organisation said it had treated people believed to have been victims of violence in southern Maungdaw township in January. The United Nations says at least 40 Rohingya were killed there by Buddhist Rakhine villagers. The government denies any killings occurred. An attack in March on NGO and U.N. offices by a Rakhine mob led to the withdrawal of other groups providing healthcare and other essential aid to another 140,000 Rohingya living in camps.  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 need 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. A series of explosions killed 18 people at a Shi'ite political organisation's rally in Iraq on Friday, police and medical sources said. The militant group, Asaib Ahl Haq (League of the Righteous), introduced its candidates for elections on April 30 at the rally in eastern Baghdad. Three bombs exploded in succession as people were leaving, Reuters reporters at the scene said. 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 groups, who blame the Myanmar authorities for the 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 image 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”.

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