Instagram was launched in October 2010, but it really came of age in fall of 2012. This mobile app allows users to take pictures, apply photo filters, tag friends, map their current location, and use hashtags to connect to collective photo galleries. Like other social networks, it is often used to share snapshots of friends and scenery. But when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, the power of this platform was suddenly apparent. Legions of real people armed with smartphones captured the story of the disaster in real time.
I was there with my roommate in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in Zone A, prepared for the hurricane with a bottle of red wine and red velvet cake (we’re from Kansas.) I immediately snapped a shot of our emergency kit with Instagram and scrolled through to see what everyone else I know was doing to prepare. When the power went out in lower Manhattan mobile phones (if charged) were our lifelines for friends and family, work, transportation and the news.
Social media provided constant news of flooding, destruction and friends drinking by candlelight. Days and weeks after the storm, my Instagram stream showed closed subways, a blacked out lower Manhattan, belongings on front lawns of flooded homes, and iconic ripped American flags. All told, people shared 1.3 million images of devastation, survival and extraordinary acts of human kindness shared everyday, often with a bit of humor.
Instagram became the medium of record for this event, even adopted by Time Magazine. Residents’ candid snapshots told a more profound story than any media outlet could. The rest of the country and even the world witnessed Sandy through the eyes of those impacted, via Instagram and citizen journalism.
Relief organizations and community centers documented their response for months in the aftermath of Sandy, tagging their photos with #occupysandy and #sandyrelief. Instagram connected organizations’ efforts and needs with the people they served and those providing support from afar.
Weeks later, Instagram was used by the New York Times to document Election 2012, and savvy nonprofits and media outlets have been using the platform ever since to solicit images of breaking news and important events since. For ideas about how your organization harness the power of visual storytelling, check out our tip sheet.
And if you have an Instagram success story or ideas or questions, please let us know in the comments below!
–Sarah Rubin, 2013 Summer Fellow