This year, Instagram surpassed the 300 million user mark, growing by 100 million users in just 9 months. Since then, it's become a platform to be reckoned with, especially among typically visual brands, such as fashion, food, and travel.
But what if it could be used for something else? What if you are a text-based organization? How would you use it?
As first reported by Dillon Baker at Contently, two weeks ago, the Virgina Quarterly Review (VQR) announced that its next project, led by journalists Neil Shea and Jeff Sharlet, will be a curated Instagram essay series. Shea and Sharlet will select writers weekly to contribute 2-3 photos with mini essays in the captions. Both Shea and Sharlet, longtime VQR contributors themselves, have been doing this for a while on their own Instagram accounts.
What sets their approaches apart from the other famous Instagram account that uses the art of the long caption, Humans of New York? Humans of New York's long captions are quotes from the subjects being photographed. Shea, Sharlet, and VQR aim to instead put the long captions in the hands of talented writers, whose text can add dimension to a photograph.
To get a sense of the kind of content we can expect from this project, set to launch from VQR's Instagram account in July, take a look at Shea's and Sharlet's own Instagram projects.
Shea, whose work often spans global war zones, often appears in National Geographic. What has recently appeared on his Instagram account read like notes from the field. Most recently, he was on assignment in Kurdistan, and his long captions/caption essays describe the people he meets, the situations he finds himself in, the curious landscapes he's trying to become a part of.
Behind every front line is another line, deeper and longer and made of all that falls off a soldier. Or that is thrown or kicked or flattened under his feet, real things and imagined ones, relationships and friendships, water bottles, cans, boots, everything disgorged by war that rolls down out of the endless days. Here in the garbage you find puppies. What I mean is, puppies made possible by soldiers and their leftovers. Usually these puppies don't last. In Afghanistan, the Americans would shoot them when they got big or mean. In southern Iraq it was the Arabs who shot them, for dogs were spiritually worthless. In Africa they use stones and sticks instead of bullets. Wherever I go I search for dogs. Recently I noticed that they run through my notebooks, packs of dogs I'll never see again but that were, for a moment somewhere, companions. The pups here wrestle at dusk behind the outposts of Kurdish troops. To their credit the Kurds were indifferent. Now and then a cook might even roll a hard-boiled egg down toward their skinny scabbed mother. She would lift it quickly and slink back to the trash line where her pups waited, untamed and watchful, like the wolves they were long ago. I always liked knowing they were out there. #kurdistan #dogs #animals #soldiers #isis #nationalgeographic #thingsisee #combat #iraq #instakurd #everydaymiddleeast @petergwin @kengeiger @becksfrankel @hawrekhalid •• see the series: #kurds2015
A photo posted by Neil Shea (@neilshea13) on Jun 10, 2015 at 7:09am PDT
Sharlet, whose work tends to be more U.S-based, uses his account for portraits of people who would otherwise go unnoticed. Think of it as a Humans of New York with an involved narrator. Sometimes he will focus on one person across two, three, or more photos, as with Mary, below:
1. #A_Resourceful_Woman // At first she'll speak only through a crack in the door. She is not, she explains, wearing pants. "You want to interview me?" she says. "Why? I don't have any power!" She slams the door. Opens it an inch. "What's in it for a little old lady like me?" She asks for three forms of ID. "Wait," she says. "I have to wash my hands." Half an hour later, she opens the door. "You can come in. But you might not like me." /// On Thanksgiving I wrote a series of Instagrams about a woman named #MaryMazur, who lives in a welfare motel in Schenectady, New York, and who, the two nights leading up to Thanksgiving, tried to buy a turkey and a microwave in which to cook it. But the buses didn't run according to plan, and she had a hard time propelling her wheelchair-she was also pushing a cart carrying a plant-and it was cold. She'd bundled herself in all she owned, purple sweats and one sneaker, but it was not enough. Not enough for me, that is. When I met her near midnight I tried to buy her a meal. No. I suggested she wait until daylight. No. I called a number for Social Services she claimed was 24 hours. No answer. I called the police. She hated them. "You're not my husband!" she cried, and they laughed. The next morning she checked herself out of the hospital, and that night she tried again for her turkey. This time there was a blizzard. // These are the stories I told, stories about finding Mary in the cold and looking for her in the storm. The story I did not tell was of finding her, because I did not. She didn't need me to. Early in the a.m. of Thanksgiving she returned to her motel. With groceries. No microwave. Not much of a happy ending: Mary Mazur, 61, eating cold cans in the dark-she doesn't understand light sensors-naked-no explanation-talking to the leaves. // Which is why I've returned: To learn what she tells them. To be continued: #A_Resourceful_Woman. Start here or with the 4-part story of searching for Mary: http://instagram.com/p/v314jVp30Q/?modal=true. (No links in Instagram.)
A photo posted by Jeff Sharlet (@jeffsharlet) on Dec 8, 2014 at 10:15am PST
10. #A_Resourceful_Woman // "Bring me in close," says Mary. Right up to the door. She has her choice of motorized shopping carts. She carries the plant, Bandit, with one hand and hangs on to my arm and hops on her good foot from cart to cart, peering at the plugs, studying seats, until she picks the right one. Bandit up front. She wishes there was a seat belt. There isn't, so he'd better hold on-because Mary is off! Full speed. Laps round the lobby. Like the real Bandit. Like Burt Reynolds in his black and gold Trans Am. Nobody catches him. Nothing slows Mary down. There's a speed bump at the help desk-the Walmart gift card through which her case worker keeps her on a leash is worth $50, not $150. Mary keeps cruising. She has food stamps. And the card will get her what she needs. A microwave! She used to have one. She'll have one again. Tonight's the night. She has the card, she has me to carry the machine. "Let's go check them out," I say. "We will," she answers. No rush. So much to see. "I like the light here," she says. It's always on. She likes the space. "Room," she says. She stretches her long arms, condor-wide. Warming up. Grips the handles. Ready to roll. Past the jewelry, beaming like it's hers. Past the Christmas sweaters-"looks great," she says of a blue one with two snowmen. Past a stock clerk who fails to answer her questions about chocolate milk. "Nice boy," she says, but he doesn't get it. She needs her brands. Here, she can have them. Here, Mary chooses. Everything's new here. There's no case worker, no motel lady, no stalker ding dongs. No ghosts. Here her money-stamp, card, cash-is as good as yours, and she's as good as you. Maybe even better. "I'm a shopper," she says. Here--with a thousand constraints, under the roof of a corporation that makes little pretense of caring about anything but her money--she sets the terms. // Continued. #truestories
A photo posted by Jeff Sharlet (@jeffsharlet) on Dec 30, 2014 at 4:37am PST
This innovative move by VQR signals a change for Instagram, as more and more non-visual brands adopt it. Brands that aren't typically visual should think about ways to enter the market, whether it's through these long captions or through other ways: using it for a peek behind the scenes of your company culture, for example, or as a mini You-Tube.
What's clear is that there is a gap in the Instagram market, and this smart move aligns that gap with the troubling decline of print journalism. VQR's Instagram essay launch is proving that journalism won't be left behind in the digital revolution.
Editor's Note: The original story has been modified to give proper attribution to the author's primary source. We regret its omission in the original article.