How can we use Instagram more to support development?

I’m afraid this is a genuine question that I don’t know the answer to – so please help me answer it. How can we use Instagram more to help development?

Earlier today I met with a youth group in Alexandra, Johannesburg to talk to them about the use of images in NGO fundraising campaigns. After the discussion I noticed several of them get their mobile phones out to check for “updates”. I had already taken up a lot of their time, so quickly asked if they used social media on their phones. “Of course we do” one of them said. I asked which social media channels they use the most and it was a unanimous response of “Instagram”. What about Facebook and Twitter I asked, “We use Facebook, but not Twitter, Instagram is much better.” So I asked if they thought Instagram could be used for development. “Definitely – Instagram is a great way of finding out what’s going on in the world and for learning about different things – it’s so easy to share information with friends too.”

I was so intrigued by this response, but really didn’t want to take up more of their time. I’ve seen several semi-successful campaigns by NGOs, one of which I mention in my blog post earlier today. I’ve also written about Instagram accounts such as Barbie Saviour and Everyday Africa, but I’d love to learn more about grass roots initiatives on Instagram that have been successful for development.

Please share any examples you have found.

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New Research seeks to improve imagery in NGO campaigns

Critics have often accused NGOs of using pity in their fundraising campaigns. Negative images used in campaigns to evoke empathy and guilt have been labelled as poverty porn, others accuse positive campaigns of stereotyping, oversimplification of stories or failing to highlight structural causes. Sometimes it seems as though NGOs can’t do right for want of trying.

With NGOs under constant scrutiny from organisations such as Radi-Aid, which seeks to minimise stereotyping in fundraising adverts there has been a gradual shift in narratives in recent years. Save the Children have recently released an informative piece of research called The People in the Pictures. This research is the first time that “contributors” or the protagonists of NGO imagery and stories have been asked about the process of image making and their portrayal in the communications.


The research included 39 interviews and 21 focus groups across four countries: UK, Jordan, Bangladesh and Niger. In total there were 202 research participants. Findings are grouped into three main areas: motivations, process and portrayal.

Informed Consent

I found the section on informed consent particularly interesting, especially that contributors in Jordan, Bangladesh and Niger “only had a vague idea of the purpose” of the photo shoot. Having commissioned photography for a large part of my career I sympathise to some extent, but it worries me that large INGOs who have established country offices and local partners are still unable to successfully implement informed consent.

Is it a language / translation issue or are the people in the pictures simply unaware of the myriad of communications that INGOs are using the imagery for? I was pleased to see in the recommendations that Save the Children are reviewing their guidelines. Surely a simple solution is for photographers to take examples of previous campaigns and for these to be translated so local communities can understand how their images might be used?

The reasons for not contributing were social stigma, fear of reprisal, the permanence of the portrayal, lack of confidence or self-esteem and lack of direct benefits. All of these reasons confirm why stringent implementation of informed consent is fundamental.

Local Photographers

Some of the problems associated with informed consent include the photographer not speaking the language of the contributors and the lack of media literacy. The problems with hiring local photographers is a recurrent theme when I talk with communication professionals in the sector. I have recently encountered similar problems myself. This is one of the reasons I am an advocate of WaterAid’s Voices from the Field initiative which I have witnessed first-hand in both Madagascar and Nepal. I know that other NGOs have considered this approach to gathering images and case studies, so why hasn’t it happened? I can’t imagine that cost is the issue.

Participatory Photography

It is encouraging to see Save the Children have utilised participatory photography in their portfolio of image making. Participatory photography projects are becoming more popular and this is to be applauded, but how successful are these projects in reality? The dissemination of these images is not particularly widespread. Take for example the Inside Zataari project, which has just over 1600 followers on Instagram. In fairness it has received some very positive media coverage which is a different indicator of success. I do wonder which INGO will be brave enough to use images taken during a participatory photography project and use then in a national or international advertising campaign rather than using them on an Instagram account with a relatively insignificant audience?


The recommendations in the report are commendable but how many will be implemented in reality? Giving copies of the images to the contributors is relatively simple with portable printers, but it is not very practical. Who will be accountable for this? The UK office? The Country Office? The Photographer? More importantly how will the process be managed and at what cost? It would be more appropriate to provide the contributor with the image used in its final state e.g. adverts, poster, video. This is even less practical, and whilst I’d love to see this happen I’m not holding my breath.

I’m really intrigued about the proposal to develop location and language specific resources to communicate image use more effectively. This is an excellent idea and something that could be developed collaboratively across the sector. I’ll be bold – is this something that DFID or DEC could facilitate?

In publishing the People in the Pictures and inviting a range of guest from across the sector to a formal launch, Save the Children have reinvigorated a discussion that is often buried in the to-do list of well meaning communications directors. Please don’t let this important discussion fade away – use this research as a catalyst to further improve NGO communications and dignified representations of distant others.

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How can NGOs use Immersive Storytelling to further their cause

Last week I attended the Orama Festival in London, which explored the future of immersive journalism and storytelling. Several NGOs were in attendance and there was a panel discussion on Immersive Journalism content for Social Impact with Charlotte Mikkelborg, Peter Speller, Mary Matheson and Marisol Grandon. There were also content demonstrations of WaterAid’s Aftershock, Plan International’s Mamie’s Dream and Born Into Exile.

A lot of the discussions were based around the technical issues of filming in 360; where do you place the camera? how do you use sounds to prompt the viewer to turn around;  lighting issues; flow of action; proximity and the ethical dilemmas of not knowing what’s behind you when filming or the fact that many people are unaware of what a 360 camera looks like. There were also a lot of discussions around distribution outlets – how do you get people to watch your films once they have been made?

Producing 360 films is getting cheaper, but I did overhear someone say they produced a film for around $35,000 which is cheap. Is it cheap? What is the return on investment? Maybe it’s more to do with training opportunity cost as I genuinely don’t believe that NGOs will recoup the costs of producing a 360 film with donations. One of the panellists claimed that VR increases the conversion rate for NGOs by 100%, another panellist estimated 80%. I didn’t challenge this or ask what they meant by conversion rate – I should have done. Are they talking about donations? Are we due to see an army of street fundraisers armed with VR headsets in the future? Scary thought. Marisol Grandon from Unfold Stories highlighted the impact of VR as an advocacy tool. I expect she was referring to the apparent success of Clouds Over Sidra and it’s launch at DAVOS.

Apparently the VR headset market was worth $5.2 billion in 2016 and will rise to £162 billion in 2020. There was discussion around whether there will be VR fatigue in the not too distant future, but it was agreed that is is extremely unlikely. As technology improves and the cost of headsets fall, 360 video and VR is likely to grow and grow. One speaker said that  “360 video enables us to step into the facts and engage with them” – I’m sorry but I really do not agree with this and it scares me somewhat. There is a great academic paper which debates the ethics of immersive journalism, which is a must read for all journalists/NGOs experimenting with 360/VR. I worry about people describing VR as “transportive”, “emotional” and “evoking empathy” – the stories we receive as viewers are very much down to the orchestration of the director/producer.

At the moment VR is a solitary rather than a community experience, although in China there are already hundreds of VR arcades. One participant at the conference asked whether VR is a backlash to the “light touch” aspects of social media. Very possible – or is it a ethical timebomb just waiting to explode.

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Save the Children – Syria Six Year Anniversary Photography Project

Award-winning photographer Nick Ballon and conceptual artist Alma Haser have partnered up to produce a series of conceptual, photographs and animations, visualising the mental health impact of conflict on Syrian children, to mark six years since the war began.

Commissioned by Save the Children, the artists worked with six refugee children now living in Turkey. The initiative coincides with a major research project by the charity, Invisible Wounds, which found widespread evidence of ‘toxic stress’ and mental health issues among children still living inside Syria.SAVE-THE-CHILDREN

In order to visualise the invisible, psychological pain these children suffer, Save the Children worked with the two artists to produce a powerful photography and animation project – the first collaboration of its kind. All of the images, photographed by Nick Ballon near the Turkey-Syria border where these children now live, have been physically manipulated and art-worked by Alma Haser using a variety of creative techniques, including ripping, folding, crumpling and origami – each one selected to suit the story the children told.

Alongside the images, Save the Children has also produced a series of short animations which combine video of the portraits being manipulated with audio testimonies from the children and their relatives. In contrast with the now familiar news imagery of Syria’s war, this project offers a different visual perspective, bringing to the fore the brutal psychological scars of war which usually remain out of sight.

For the Invisible Wounds report, Save the Children and its Syrian partners interviewed more than 450 children, adolescents and adults inside Syria in the largest study of its kind conducted during the course of the conflict. It found that children are living in an almost constant state of fear, terrified by shelling, airstrikes and ongoing violence, with devastating psychological consequences.


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#MosulOp – Live Streaming the Battle of Mosul on Facebook

I was shocked to say the least when I was alerted to the fact that major news outlets are live streaming the military operation by the Iraqi and Kurdish forces to retake the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, back from ISIS.

Both Al Jazeera English and Channel Four both have live feeds on Facebook where anyone with access to a computer can watch the war unfold. This is incredibly disturbing – what are the ethical and moral issues of watching the consequences of war live in our social media streams?

Like most Facebook feeds, viewers are able to like, share and comment on the proceedings. The Al Jazeera feed had over 13,000 comments when I took the screen grab below.


The Channel 4 coverage had a live press conference being translated into English


Photojournalism and more recently user generated content have been accused of desensitising the public to the graphic images of war.  We have become accustomed to ‘live news’ from the likes of the BBC, Guardian etc, where the viewer receives curated and edited content in near to real time, but what are the ramifications of live, uncensored media coverage?

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