In recent months, a number of writers and photographers have begun to utilize Instagram beyond its common use as an application that enables the creation, stylizing, and sharing of personal photographs to a particular group of friends and acquaintances, and rather as a journalistic tool. In particular, writers like Jeff Sharlet and photographers like Neil Shea have paired their photos with short narratives, constrained to 2200 characters by Instagram’s caption limit. The effect is similar to that of “Flash Fiction”—short, impactful self-contained stories—except that these stories are true and paired with a photograph of the subject.
The first example happens to be the first of this emerging genre that I encountered. It is from a series by Jeff Sharlet that he called #Nightshift. Sharlet is a writing professor at Dartmouth College and a journalist whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Harpers, GQ, and many others. He’s also an author of several books including The Family and Sweet Heaven When I Die. Sharlet started using Instagram to tell stories shortly after he joined (and after a few weeks of using it in the traditional way) by taking photos at an all-night Dunkin Donuts where he often goes to write. Typically, Instagram essays are not named—Instagram doesn’t have a place to title a picture—but Sharlet indicated that this is 4 of 4 of his #nightshift series.
Jeff Sharlet's #NightShift
Jasmine holds up her necklace. Number 10. “You can take a picture,” she says. Steve wraps his arm around her. His daughter? “No,” he says. Just, “no.” Jasmine poses. “She’s, uh, my friend,” he says. He used to be a baker here. Now he has a lawn business. Donuts were a transition. He used to be a trucker, too, and he drove a bus in Brooklyn, and he lived in Staten Island, where he’d lived his whole life, but then he got divorced, and—“my brother lives in Bradford.” Country life suits Steve. Can’t get used to the hours, though. He feels comfortable at night. “What brings you out ?” I ask. “Business,” he says. I don’t ask. “I’m a mother,” Jasmine says. She means that’s her job. She has a boy, 15-months-old, Joshua. “I named him for my cousin. He got killed in a car crash. In Queechee? He was in the service. That’s why I wear the number ten.” Steve squeezes her. Ten. The service? A football number? “That was the year he graduated,” she says. “He was a nice person.” Ten. “That’s my necklace! that’s my son!” Steve says, “You got your picture?” #photoessay 4 of 4, #nightshift #insomnia #countrylife #shesmyfriend #mother #truestories #blackandwhiteportrait
Sharlet began thinking about composing Instagram essays after seeing the work of Neil Shea, a National Geographic photographer who, just a few weeks before Sharlet, began using Instagram to share pictures and tell stories that weren’t going to make it into the magazine. This one is from a series he called #watershedstories and was taken in northern Kenya, along the border with Ethiopia.
Neil Shea's #WatershedStories
You have some money, not much, a roll of small bills folded in your palm and marked with the faces of men and birds you have never seen. They’re worth only few dollars but that’s still something and you don’t like giving it away. You tuck a ball of tobacco behind your ear and stand watching while your sisters and cousins line up and lay gifts on a blanket before the men. They bring whatever they have, bracelets and earrings, knives, silver watches with blank irrelevant faces. One more ceremony in a stream that flows forever men-ward. Most days you don’t mind. You sit with your sisters in the shade making beer, feeding children, and teasing the men for wasting their time in gossip and sloth. Someone always tells the old joke of God’s first mistake and how He fixed it and everybody laughs. “Napuli!” Your aunt is calling. She sees your sharp elbow, your reluctant shoulders. “What are you waiting for? Give the boys some money.” The women singing now. Why does song come easy for them? How can they give so freely? “Napuli!” Yes, yes. You will. You just want to hold the bills a moment more. They are bright white, bank-crisp. Dry as leaves and whispering between your fingers. The problem is, you have been listening. Money tells a good story at night after the fires go out. The newlyweds, your neighbors, laugh and grunt in the darkness and you can hear them too through the stick walls but the money is louder. “Anything,” it has told you. “Anything.” And in the morning this story becomes the daydream. What you might do if you could keep it. #omoriver #kara #women #watershedstories #truestories #natgeo with @randyolson @thephotosociety @natgeo @natgeocreative A photo posted by Neil Shea (@neilshea13) on
A number of other writers were inspired by Sharlet and Shea’s work, and began trying their hand at Instagram essays. This one is by a writer named Blair Braverman and tells the story of disposing of the bodies of dead sheep. Jeff Sharlet commented that it was his favorite Instagram essay.
Blair Braverman 10/16
If we didn’t find the lambs fast enough, then the crows got them. The first time they beat us, they left a lamb with red holes for eyes stumbling in the mud, bawling for milk. There were live lambs everywhere, yellow and bloody, and this one seemed no more grotesque than any other. A killed it fast with the back of an axe while I waved my arms to distract its mother. // We'd lost three ewes that week, birthing. The last one we got to in time to call a vet, and I held its neck while the man shoved loose, dangling organs back inside her. She didn't moan, just huffed her breath, her eyes wide and white and her head sinking ever lower. He threaded a shoelace under her tail, tied it in a bow, and said to untie it in a few days. She was bleeding like a faucet. It'll stop, he said, but it didn't, and the next morning the barn was full of crows that filled the air when I walked in, and smacked all at once against the windows, and the sheep was dead and her eyes gone too. A and I dragged her body out on a feed sack, heaving in unison. We had to heave twice over the door frame. "Some people have cows," A said, panting, and we both laughed. // Two days later, another lamb, worse: its flesh and bone pecked out through a neat hole in its belly; its fleece still so clean and white. It was a bag of lamb, perfect but for its hollowness, and when A lifted it up I felt sick, the crows all around, watching. Even that morning, A had fed them bread behind the barn when no one was watching. It was his compulsion: he had to feed everything. Now he dropped the empty lamb into another empty sack. F leaned out the window with his father's rifle and shot twice, and nobody jumped but me. #TrueStories #NatureWriting #arctic #wordsandpictures #InstaEssay #farming #babyanimals
And one more, by Nicole Greenfield. I’m sharing this one because she directly attributes Sharlet as an inspiration for her “first go” at what she refers to both as “#wordsandpictures” and “#picturesandwords.”
Nicole Greenfield #GreenPointStories
Inspired by @jeffsharlet, a first go at #wordsandpictures, #picturesandwords. // How you doing, honey? You play? Nope. You sing? Definitely not. You dance? Eh. Well you're just full of talents, aren't you? So it seems, I say. I'm Joey, he says. // You live in Greenpoint? I tell him I do. I was born and raised here, Joey says, back when it was something. Now I don't get what's so great about it. All these kids moving here? Why? I point toward the river, suggesting the skyline view. Fuck that, he says. I had two huge rooms on Java Street. I was paying eight dollars and fifty cents. Two rooms, two huge rooms. When was that? 1959. Now you don't get shit. Imagine in my day I could take my girlfriend out. Two bucks. Go to a picture, have coffee and cake on the way out, buy cigarettes, and have forty cents left over, easy. And that's when I was splurgin'. And down here, West Street, it was all industry. Everyone had a job. You lost your job, you had another in two days. Now it's all apartments, nothing here. I really don't get what's so great about this place anymore. // So what kind of music you into, honey? A bit of everything, I guess. What do you play? You like country? Cash? You know anything by Cash? How about Ring of Fire? Well, I don't do that cause I ain't got nobody to accompany me with it. I Walk the Line, he asks. Sure. "I keep a close watch on this heart of mine..." Joey sings the whole song for me, slowly, vowels long and drawn out. // Be good, honey, he tells me as I'm leaving. And if you can't be good, don't get caught. #greenpoint #greenpointstories #truestories A photo posted by Nicole Greenfield (@nmgreenfield) on
In recent weeks, media outlets have begun to pick up on this trend and locate it within the scope of literary journalism. The website “Longreads,” which typically syndicates long form reporting, collected Sharlet’s #nightshift series and included an essay by Sharlet on the work. There he refers to Instagram essays as “Snapshot Journalism” and locates its lineage within the frame of comic books, which use words and pictures, and snapshots, which, he points out anyone can take.
I’ll conclude with Jeff Sharlet’s conclusion from that essay. He writes, “It’s not the news. It’s not journalism in any conventional sense. It’s, Look at this! It’s, I saw these people, and I wanted you to see them, too.”