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Instagram — It's About Communication

60,000 Sudanese refugees seek safety in Yida, South Sudan, located 20 kilometers from the border with Sudan.

With discussions continuing on whether Instagram is just a fad or a publishing entity to embrace, thought it might be interesting to share the complete discussions I recently had with Olivier Laurent, editor of the prestigious British Journal of Photography. Last week he published a well written and researched article titled The New Economics of Photojournalism: The rise of Instagram. Everyone who uses any form of communication should read his story.

As a means to share more insight into this revolving debate on whether or not professional photographers should use iPhones or Instagram — and a whole host of other related debates swirling about — Olivier was kind enough to let me publish the complete email text of our discussions. My responses won’t answer every specific question being bantered about online or in lectures at universities, however I do hope you might be able to garner some insight via the reasons I choose to publish photographs not only on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter but emphatically yes, also via ink on paper.

Some added bits to express before letting everyone dive into my email Inbox — the discussions on whether to use an iPhone or a 35mm camera are completely mute points. Don’t waste your time nor mine on any bit of that dinosaur debate.


Because the iPhone 4s, which is nearly always located in my shirt pocket, produces (albeit for now as jpeg only) images in bright sunlight and shade nearly just as well as my first ever digital camera, purchased nearly 11 years ago in 2001 to cover the war in Afghanistan — a Nikon 1Dx. At the time it cost well over $6000 USD.

If you are into image quality nostalgia, you can purchase a 1Dx today on eBay for less than the cost of an iPhone 4.

It is rudimentary to mention, however I will for the sake of brushing this key aspect not just out from under the rug, but off the cliff of Mount Useless Discussions — a camera (any camera) is a tool, no different than a paint brush, hammer and nail or cooking pots. It is to be used to do something, to create something. Nothing more, nothing less.

Mark these words deep into your conscious — within the next five to tens years (likely less), most professional photographers will be primarily using a camera which is indeed located within something as portable and ubiquitous in our purses/pockets as an iPhone.

I relish the day when the kit used to document the world around me all fits into the palm of my hand.

More so, the power — and the purpose of photojournalism and photography in general — is not the camera, it is what we do with a camera (any camera) in regards to COMMUNICATION.

All the other bits everyone is debating or concerned about are, with all due respect, useless.

Now here is what’s key regarding Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and whatnot; Some of these images we publish, the text we write on various social media outlets, etc, they can be pieces of a far greater, even deeper, more richly layered project which has a commodity element behind it. These images can, for a lack of a better way of putting it, be glimpses, headlines, instant breaking information of a much larger project waiting to be presented. Like seeds, images can be sent out to one or millions, dropping seeds of information into the consciousness of others, nurturing a project to grow, both in marketing and funding. The final product, brought to the consciousness via meaningful bits and pieces, is the entity to be leveraged both as information to an event, as product or as a printed photo essay, as a commodity. This is, until the next leveraging aspect of social media is attained, the greater purpose and potential.

Hope each who reads this garners some element of enlightenment so we can bring these discussions to the level we should be discussing regarding Instagram, iPhones, Facebook, Twitter and whatnot — how we can leverage these publishing outlets even further, rather then wasting our collective time going in circles, missing the greatest potential of communication humanity has ever known.

All my best,



Instagram: @JohnStanmeyer  •  Twitter: @JohnStanmeyer  •  Facebook:


Blind mother carries her malnourished daughter to an MSF outreach clinic in the Yida refugee camp located in Yida, South Sudan. Although there is enough food in the camp for the 60,000 refugees from Sudan now living in the Yida, an extreme high level of deaths from diarrhea and now malaria is spreading through the refugee camp, creating a health catastrophe in recent month. According to MSF, there isn't enough toilets, proper sanitation nor water in the over one year old camp, causing diseases to spread rapidly, creating the worst emergency health crisis on earth.

First Email, 17 August, 2012

OL: Why and how you are using the network?

JS: Rather new to Instagram.

Presumably as others, I use Instagram for communication, no different than other venues of communication such as ink on paper publications, exhibitions, websites, Facebook, and Twitter. I use the word “publishing” because that is what Instagram actually is — publishing/distributing a visual to others.

In the decades (let’s hope far less) to come, the entire discussion of whether to use this thing called social media will be a mute — archaic — point of view, no different than likely it was centuries ago when previous commonly used means of information distribution where invent/debated; Should I write on papyrus leaf or this new fangled material called paper, or a typewriter instead of block type printing presses, etc.

A peculiar aspect of being human rest in the notion that what we do now is it, when in fact every aspect of life — in this discussion, communication (visual and text) — has always been in a constant state of evolution. An evolution most often connected to even greater communication.

With all due respect to the topic you’re writing about, I find such discussions to be healthy but a rather mundane, where the evolution of time will dilute any notion of why or why not to use Instagram, or who knows what else in the future.

As to how I use Instagram, I use it both through my personal account (@JohnStanmeyer) as well as through National Geographic Magazines account (@NatGeo). VII has also begun an Instagram account (@VIIPhoto).

Malnourished children have their weight checked on follow-up visits to an MSF outreach centre in the Yida refugee camp located in Yida, South Sudan.

OL: What kind of photos you publish?

JS: Interesting timing to this question, making it important to discuss in detail…

At the moment I’m in South Sudan, along the South Sudan/Sudan border. There’s a dreadful health crisis occurring right now in Yida. Over the past 8 months, 60,000+ Sudanese have fled fighting/indiscriminate bombing around the Nuba Mountain region of Sudan. In the last month, health conditions have deteriorated to catastrophic levels. Death rates due to acute malnutrition among children has reach more than double the typical crisis level — the problem is not the lack of food, it’s sanitation and clean water. With the beginning of rainy season in recent weeks, malaria is exploding.

I was already coming to South Sudan on a joint VII/MSF health story project. MSF had the smarts to have me arrive early, first spending 4-5 days in the north helping raise awareness to the crisis, using the duality of VII and MSF’s reach to spread awareness.

A few days before leaving home I had a chat with Jason Cone, head of communications with MSF USA, to discuss the option of going as far and wide as possible via both print and social media. He supported the idea wholeheartedly, taking an important social issue well beyond the printed page/website, in turn reaching an additional quarter of a million via MSF’s Twitter readers, tens of thousands on Facebook and even more on Instagram. While on layover in DC, I wrote assistant director of photography at National Geographic, Ken Geiger, asking if he wouldn’t mind if I published about this crisis on National Geographic’s Instagram account (@NatGeo). Once in Nairobi, his email arrived with an emphatic yes, allowing this important issues to reach over 200,000 more eyeballs/minds.

In what would have been considered meaningful issue awareness in print magazines is now amplified, spreading the message of the crisis in South Sudan to well over half a million more.

Incredible power of communication.

As for other photographs I publish (noticed only now your own wording of “publish” in your question instead of post…well done), I only publish moments of meaning, or at least try. In recent months, I’ve been in studio working on projects, exhibitions and most important, trying to spend some time with my family. Living on a farm in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts often means the photography being published is on my family — also part of a year long project VII is producing termed mile square, photographing within a mile or less of our own homes. Not having many neighbors, my family became the reportage, photographed using an iPhone with Hipstamatic and a specific minimal effect filter/lens combination.

There has to be some purpose in what I publish on Instagram. I consider each (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter) to be no different than various publications.

BTW, I only use Instagram as a means to distribute/publish. Prefer to use specific minimal manipulating Hipstamatic films/lens. The endless tweakery of Instagram filters are too much for me to deal with, preferring the approach of choosing a film/lens (no different than analog film), photographing and when the image develops, that’s the final print, with the only potential post production being conversion to b&w, maybe burning/dodging. When I first tried Instagram a few months ago (via inspiration/nudging from National Geographic Photo Editor, Pamela Chen), I was overwhelmed with the options, most of which manipulated the photograph far further then felling comfortable with.

In the future, I hope to distribute more on Instagram. Most of my work in recent years has been with National Geographic, where stories we’re working on are not often openly shared until published. Months, even a year or more passes before the final story is seen in the magazine. Fortunately, all that is changing at the magazine. With the advent of NGM Instagram feed and the importance social media is playing in pre-story interest building, NG is embracing Instagram in a big way, allowing us to publish aspects of stories we’re working on as we’re producing them, reaching a large visual audience.

Exciting times indeed for communication.

The grave of Hassan Kako, 13, being covered with dirt by family members in the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan. Hassan died of acute malaria which is spreading among the 60,000 Sudanese refugees now that rainy season has arrived.


OL: What does it bring you?

JS: Communication.



Instagram also support numerous aspects of photography — the marketing of books, exhibitions, workshops, lectures and interest in stories that are in progress, allowing for greater connectivity with the general public, both immediately and down the road.

Decades ago, I often thought how brilliant it would be to publish photographs of issues I’m passionate about, placing them on roadside billboards to scream what mattered to me. Almost did just that till discovering how expensive physical billboard space cost. Instagram (and again, other social media) does just that, reaching the potential consciousness of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. Even more.

And it’s free.

We all have to put food on the table. Publishing to Instagram doesn’t directly (emphasis on directly) pay the bills, however it does add information/marketing value in a huge way. It also seems to play a significant aspect for new photographers to be seen. I’ve read some photographers are building their careers by leveraging Instagram. Well done.

It’s about communication.


Second Email, 22 August, 2012

OL: Why did you choose to join Instagram?

JS: Answered in previous notes.


OL: What use are you making of the network?

JS: Answered in previous notes. Let me know if I wasn’t clear.


OL: What kind of images are you looking to share (behind-the-scenes, etc.)?

Answered in previous notes but I’ll try to expand more because it’s relevant to the greater purpose of why I do this — communication.

While in Yida, I used Instagram (and other social media) as loud as possible, trying to spread awareness of the crisis. Nothing behind-the-scenes. Only frontline, what was happening, doing so more rapidly then I could with the other (similar) work I was producing with a 35mm camera. Hopefully what we did in Yida — my direct social media connections in addition to MSF social media/newsletters and VII’s distribution/social — helped raise awareness.

Too exhausted to stand after walking with his mother to the MSF clinic, Yasin, 7, weighs only 13.6 kg (30 lbs) yet should weigh 18.5kg (41 lbs) for his height. Acute malnutrition is running rapid among thousands of Sudanese children at the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan with a death rate from acute malnutrition two times the crisis level.

OL: With MSF, how did Instagram come into the mix?

JS: As I believe mentioned in my previous email…While on a phone briefing before leaving, I bridged the idea with MSF on leveraging social media, most specifically due to the scale and importance of the health crisis in Yida, the first part of this multi-week visit to South Sudan. There had been some discussions on MSF’s end to Tweet/Facebook at times while in Yida, but I asked if I could ratchet communication even further with my own Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feed, additionally publishing 1-2 photographs a day to the National Geographic Instagram account. MSF agreed and so it went.

Oh a bright note…photographs which I published in my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts seemed to have been felt — photographs were shared widely on all social media outlets. NGM’s Instagram feed seemed to have spread extremely wide with thousands of likes (difficult to like photographs of sick/starving children. There needs to be a stop this madness button). Even more interesting — comments. Where most photos on the NGM Instagram feed seem to receive hefty 100-200+ comments, a photograph of a young boy suffering from acute malnutrition generated over 800 comments, most discussing how they can help.

I am extremely grateful that NGM agreed for me to post frontline issues of the health crisis in South Sudan to their over 200k followers. What a powerful reach of communication.

When you combine the potential viewership of MSF, VII, National Geographic and personal viewers/followers, the collective reach through Instagram, Twitter and Facebook was well over 500,000.

Powerful means of communication.


A respite from the heat, children enjoy the rain which fell today in the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan. With the start of rainy season, cases of malaria are skyrocketing in the camp of 60,000 Sudanese.

OL: Are you using your own account or MSF?

JS: My own and National Geographics.

Seems MSF USA (@MSF_USA) is somewhat new to Instagram with a decent but not broad Instagram following, however their Instagram viewership does seem to be growing. MSF does have a massive following through on Twitter and Facebook. I made certain to send photographs through Twitter as often as possible while in Yida using @MSF_USA on all photographs and text comments, reaching and additional 225,000+ direct twitter followers.


Arriving mid-Sunday, an extremely malnourished elderly man suffering from severe diarrhea is placed in the isolation tent at the MSF hospital in Yida, South Sudan.

OL: Do you use filters?

JS: No.

Instagram filters (boarders and whatnot) are just too much, too many to choose from. Feels like walking down the breakfast isle in an American mega-supermarket, trying to choose a cereal box after spending three months on the road where your choices each day were one or two options, and you were happy.

Only photograph with a very minimal (if any) manipulating Hipstamatic film/lens set, then if wanting B&W, desaturate, only doing basic burning/dodging.

Analyzing this workflow while writing, it seems as though I work in three realms…A camera with a specific minimal evasive lens/film combination, Aperture if on a laptop (Snapseed on an iPhone), then using Instagram, FB and Twitter as the publisher.

I’ve seen some rather non-manipulated photographs on Instagram posted by friends and colleagues, especially in B&W, sometimes even in color. Presume it’s all done in Instagram however no idea how.


Malnourished child are measured at the Ambulatory Therapeutic Feeding Center run by MSF in Yida, South Sudan.

OL: Do you interact with your followers and their comments?

JS: Try to.

With Instagram, it seems a bit odd to interact when people comment with repeated one word notes such as “brilliant”, “awesome” or funny looking thumbs up and hand clapping icons. What’s there to comment about unless being asked a question?

On the NGM Instagram feed sent while in Yida, there was actual issue discussions taking place on Instagram. But as mentioned, there was so much dialogue (specifically on one photograph) it becomes next to impossible to read them all. If Instagram was interactive on a computer and not just a small screened iPhone, maybe one could manage reading more than the first few notes. Also didn’t help in Yida that Internet access was extremely limited, only at the UN compound and with a 7PM curfew, leaving not much time left in the day post photography to read tiny print.

On Facebook and twitter, I do try to interact. With Facebook, there’s more space and easier ability to read. Twitter as well. Twitter and Facebook feels to be more a venue for word communication in collaboration with visuals or at least that is how it seems to me.


OL: Do you gain anything from it?

JS: Communication.


OL: Do you see Instagram as a marketing tool or a social tool?

JS: Both.

There are success moments in Yida ~ Islam, 2, is eating well and gaining weight after 3 days at MSF hospital in Yida, South Sudan. He arrived at MSF acutely malnourished.

OL: Would you want to financially benefit from this community of followers you’re slowly building? And if so, how would you approach this?

JS: This indeed is a question often asked.

We’re likely all asking this same question, with no definitive answer.

Sure, the time it takes to interact with these various tools of communication can cause a significant time vacuum. I do not sense financial benefits can/will come directly from posting images to Instagram. Lateral income potential is very possible, both presently and surely more so into the future as people likely far smarter about social media than I am figure it out.

Examples I see happening now (regarding financial benefits) are when you have a new book coming out, or an exhibition, workshops, speaking engagements, etc, and you have a relevant image which can be published, connecting thousands of people directly to X, Y or Z project you’re creating or a part of.

So yes, there are already potential financial benefits available. I feel them and have noticed an increase in various aspects of my entire photographic business portfolio (meaning, connective work aspects). They just are not immediate — i.e., not a view-read-buy-consume commodity item which brings to the photographer a tangible (immediate) returning financial benefit. The financial benefit aspects are again more laterally dispersed, dimensionally layered.

At a time where everyone is a photographer (whose ranks will grow by the number of births on this planet), the former commodity of a photograph or series of photographs that had a direct (tangible) financial returns based upon a resale to an ink on paper publication (or online), that avenue of income is going to dwindle even further than it already has. Example, resales at VII are not dreadful. They are still ok, however as all agencies and photographers have been noticing in recent years, resales — how we actually pay our bills between assignments — are dramatically lower than say 3-7 years ago. This declining bell curve isn’t likely to change. However the act of self publishing via Instagram (or Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, blogging, etc) will, likely over time, create an even greater potential for economic return, IF the photographer has a commodity to offer (books, prints, their time, etc) which is either lateral or directly connect to the photography they are publishing. It’s happening already. This process of lateral income potential from social media will only grow, just as it has in the last few years.


You bet, because we’re still at the infancy of where this road we each paving is taking us.

Exciting times with limitless potential?


Once again, thank you to Olivier Laurent, who agreed to letting me share the email correspondence I had with him while in South Sudan last month, making a much belated update to this blog far less daunting then penning it all from scratch.

NOTE: If you wish to limit the illegal usage of your Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc, images being used as ads or uncredited on websites, I strongly suggest you watermark your images before publishing. Thanks to photographer, Yunghi Kim, who turned me on to the brilliant iPhone app, iWatermark. It’s super simple to use, just make sure you buy the Pro version because it allows for full-size saving of each photo imbedded with a watermark — the app is less than a tall latte at Starbucks. iWatermark won’t put at end to the rampant illegal use of photographs, however it might make someone think before posting your photographs as their own, or have those running Facebook rethink before using your photographs as ad space images along the right side of the FB page — read the fine print in Facebook’s Terms & Conditions, each image you post has the ability to potentially be incorporated into an ad, without you being paid for it.


1 Instagram — It’s About Communication — John Stanmeyer — RetortaBlog { 09.11.12 at 12:36 }

[...] on Cancel [...]

2 David W. Sumner { 09.11.12 at 13:35 }

John I appreciate your sum up at the top of this post. I’ve been following the various commentary on the BJP article as they have been popping up here and there. It’s all interesting and I agree with you that this “tool” can be extremely efficient.

While you were recently working with MSF I followed you via your Twitter and Facebook posts which almost always includes Instagram images. I kept up with your work and mentioned it to others through “Likes” on Facebook (which will show up in “newsfeeds” of many who follow me on FB) and re-tweets, etc.

The fact that you included personal asides, such as morning coffee at road side stands, not only gave insight to the day to day of your work on assignment, but they also provided more information into the local economy and a broader perspective of the culture and society of the region. It all helped to provide a broader context, which I believe is very important.

Using the current digital and social media in this way helps drive viewers to the bigger picture, which is the completed project. Nothing is given away or compromised by using Instagram and social media to communicate in real time, as the work is happening, behind the scenes. It provides a perspective and context that polished photojournalism lacks. It humanizes rather than romanticizes. That, I believe, is one of its greatest potentials.

3 Gerry Coe { 09.11.12 at 14:46 }

Really great article, makes you wonder where we are all heading. Can I ask? At the beginning of the article you wrote Why? Can I use some of your words for some talks I am giving to some young people about iPhonography and Photography in general. G

4 John Stanmeyer { 09.11.12 at 15:18 }

Gerry, thank you for catching the lack of the word, “Because”. The Why? relates to the next paragraph which should have gone as follows: Why? Because the iPhone 4s…

And thank you for asking on sharing some of my words with others. Most just use — it’s difficult to watermark words ;-) — however this is a public website so sure, feel free to express my thoughts to others.

Do keep in mind these discussions about Instagram, cameras in phones, etc, have no quantitative answer. The points we should be discussing should be on how we can leverage this powerful means of communication towards a pro-active goal.

The debate of whether the quality of the image from an iPhone or the integrity of images is up to snuff, analogue or digital — along with a whole host of other potential elements to debate upon — will continue, going likely no further than ones personal opinion…which is all that most of these discussions are actually about.

Most important — make great pictures, no matter what camera you use.

All my best,


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[...] Ich sage, dass das maximal noch drei Jahre dauert. Aber egal. Wenn ihr schon wieder über den Kauf der vielleicht doch noch besseren Kamera oder des nächsten Objektives nachdenkt, das endlich bessere Fotos macht: bitte den ganzen Artikel lesen. [...]

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9 Erik Hess { 09.18.12 at 01:41 }

Thanks for taking the time to share your take on Instagram, John. Even many of us emerging photographers have been struggling to keep up with social media like this and it’s quite enlightening to have your perspective.

I’d like to note that there’s an inexpensive app for Mac OS called Carousel that allows browsing and interaction with Instagram. I believe it’s available in the Mac App Store. Using it helps me to interact with my followers and those that I follow without being limited by a tiny iPhone screen.

10 John Stanmeyer { 09.18.12 at 12:52 }

Yes, Erik, Carousel is indeed a good desktop app for viewing Instagram images. All the best, John

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12 Davin { 10.03.12 at 18:06 }


Great post, but somehow nobody is doing work these days on par with Koudelka, Webb or Eggleston. There remain very few photographers actually doing ground breaking, original work. Instagram will not change this.

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Looking very nice, I think that blog post is great here are easily know that how we can get more and more followers…

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19 Bibliography « Sean Carroll's Blog { 02.11.13 at 05:47 }

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