Facebook’s Teru Kuwayama on How To Use Social Media for Documentary Storytelling

Long before he went to work for Facebook as the social media giant’s liaison to the photo community, photographer Teru Kuwuyama saw social media as a tool for photographers “to eliminate the gatekeepers and the editors, and to be our own operators,” he told a standing-room-only crowd at the Aperture Gallery in New York on Tuesday.  Old media models formed in “an analogue era” no longer exist, but he said many photographers who have been “adaptable” to social platforms are using them to reach and engage audiences.

Kuwayama spoke along with Lev Manovich of the Software Studies Initiative at “Documentary, Expanded: Interventions in Social Media,” a panel moderated by photographer Susan Meiselas, executive director and board member of the Magnum Foundation, which organized the talk as part of its Photography, Expanded program. Photography, Expanded held its first conference, in collaboration with the Open Society Foundations Documentary Photography Project, in April 2013, Meiselas said, to encourage photographers to expand their storytelling beyond the still image at a time when “we all felt the ground shifting beneath our feet” due to a shortage of assignments and production budgets from traditional media. Kuwayama shared work by photographers who are using Instagram to connect with audiences — though not, in most cases, to make money with their images.

He began by showing his own social-media-based project, Basetrack. After having worked in Afghanistan as an embedded photojournalist, Kuwayama won a James S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford, where he came up with a plan to gather a small group of embedded photographers who would post images and information about a Marine battalion in Afghanistan for their families back home. Launched in 2010, Basetrack was “basically a tricked out blog,” he said, with a map and a countdown clock to the end of the Marines’ deployment, but equally important was the Basetrack Facebook page, which “became a rallying point for the community.” Basetrack was never intended to reach more than about 1,000 viewers. “Who cares about this 20-year-old Marine who was 8 when this war started? It was clear it was his mom, his sister,” Kuwayama explained.

The US military was uncomfortable with the information shared, Kuwayama says. “People were talking about their kids having their legs blown off. They had not previously had these conversations in public.” He and the other photographers were asked to leave Afghanistan shortly before the battalion’s deployment ended, but the Basetrack families continued to share news on the Facebook page, and posted their own photos of the Marines’ homecoming.

By the time Kuwuyama next returned to Afghanistan, Instagram had taken off, and internet access was more widely available around the country. A photo of a Marine he posted on Instagram was found by the Marine’s wife within days.

Kuwayama compared “the inversion of power” in the media to the transformation he’s witnessed in the military’s special operations units. Once a “small tribe without high tech toys or funding,” special operations have grown in importance to become “a military within the military.” Similarly, he says, “the pajama bloggers” who once seemed like renegades outside the media have established the paradigm for creating and distributing content.

Continuing his military metaphors, Kuwayama said working at the Menlo Park, California office of Facebook is “the weirdest embed of my life.” In his new job, he supports “forward operators”: Photographers who are using Facebook and particularly Instagram, which Facebook owns, in new ways. He cited several photojournalists who are posting issue-oriented work on the platform: Balasz Gardi’s coverage of conflicts over water in Africa, Camille Seaman’s work on climate change, Asim Rafiqui’s “Pakistan Justice” project which includes portraits of testimonials by people who have family members detained at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan. Patrick Brown had sold about 3,000 copies of his book  about endangered species, Trading to Extinction, but Kuwayam asked, “How many more people is he reaching through Instagram?” He noted that in addition to spreading messages of advocacy, social media can also promote commercial enterprises. Peter Turnley, he said, isn’t on Instagram, but each of his Facebook posts contain “a smart marketing message” to buy his book. He’s sold many copies of the book himself thanks to Facebook marketing, Kuwayama claimed. (A topic that didn’t come up during the panel: How much Facebook charges users to “boost” their posts in news feeds, and whether Instagram might institute similar charges.)

Meiselas asked Kuwayama if Instagram can help photographers inspire audiences to action, or if “we’re just having trails of people following us nowhere.” He noted, “There is this inordinate preoccupation with numbers and the crudest metrics” such as “likes.” He said there should be more emphasis on “the strength of connections” social media can build. Those connections “start to deteriorate as the site scales up,” he said. In social media’s network of referrals, he noted, “Individuals have more traction than companies.” Meiselas noted that when mass media outlets supported photographers, “we could reach millions.” Kuwayama responded that mass media was “an inefficient way to reach an audience.” Again with the military metaphors, he compared mass media messages to carpet bombing; social media, he said, enables more specific targeting, like a drone strike. (This inspired some uneasy laughter from the audience.) He said that when Michael Christopher Brown was sharing images from the Democratic Republic of Congo, he could use hashtags to help people curious about specific topics find his feed.

An audience member asked how, without funding from magazines or newspapers, a photographer can afford to travel or produce work on location. “It hasn’t gotten easier,” Kuwayama said, but Instagram has “opened new opportunities.” Every brand wants to be on Instagram now, “They need visual communicator to work for them,” he said. “Instagram could become the greatest job creator in the history of photography.” Meiselas countered that most of the photographers who have been hired by commercial brands to shoot and post to Instagram are hired because they have already built a large following on Instagram, and are not working on long-term documentary projects.

A photographer in the audience asked what makes a good Instagram feed. Text, Kuwayama said. “This may not be convenient for photographers, but what you say about your photos may be as important as the photos.” He noted that street photographer Ruddy Roye, whom he calls the “Studs Turkel of Instagram,” quotes his subjects’ stories at length, a practice many other photographers are now emulating. The audience member then noted that Roye is mining the streets of New York City for daily updates, but how can a documentary photographer working on long-term projects keep up a daily feed? Kuwayama said that when Patrick Brown began using Instagram, he uploaded his ten-year project, “Trading to Extinction,” in a single night. Kuwayama advised him to release images gradually and think strategically about “the duration of the campaign,” the time of day his audience would be online, what text links to include in his captions.

Brown shot the images on film, and Kuwayama noted that others, like Josh Wool, who posted iPhone images he made of tintypes, have used the platform as a “hybrid of digital and analogue” technology.

“People ask me: What does Facebook want?” Kuwayama said. “I tell them that Facebook is not a person, it’s a platform. Use it.”

The “Documentary Expanded” panel was introduced by Michael Famighetti, the editor of Aperture, which has devoted its latest issue to themes discussed during last year’s Photography, Expanded project lab. Applications for the next Photography, Expanded lab, are due today; applications for the second lab of the year, on “Visualization, Mapping and Photography” can be submitted up to March 26.

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