Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
When it comes to Instagram, most travelers focus on filling their feed with photos. But National Geographic’s Neil Shea was more interested in filling his with words. Now, thousands of followers flock to his feed for his uniquely poetic brand of bite-sized travel storytelling.
In 2006, Neil Shea took a deep breath and attempted his first elevator pitch. Literally. He was riding an elevator with an editor from National Geographic, and she was looking for a writer to send to Iraq. Neil had never been in an active war zone before. He was a wilderness guide-turned-journalist, a lecturer, and staff scribbler at Nat Geo. What did he know about Baghdad? Before he knew what he was doing, he blurted out: “Send me.”
That adventure led to others, as Neil journeyed the world for National Geographic—Iraq, Afghanistan, East Africa—reporting on conflict and social justice, and the movement and displacement of people. But it wasn’t until 2013, when he and photographer Randy Olson were traveling through Turkana County in Kenya, that an editor said, “Hey, you should check out Instagram.”
It was a suggestion that would come to help define Neil’s career.
Because Neil doesn’t just write Instagram captions. Supplemented by Randy’s photography, Neil pioneered a new form of social media journalism. To refer to them as captions almost does them a disservice—his contained, beautifully crafted prose poems hurled readers so close into the action , they could hear the flies buzzing. The pair would post these vignettes at the same time each day and often serialize them, so one story would unfold over several days and several posts. Neil and Randy had invented long-form Instagram. And National Geographic’s feed went berserk.
We sat down with Neil to ask him about life, words, social media, and the importance of a good notebook.
James Shackell: How did the Instagram stuff begin?
Neil Shea: Randy Olson and I first worked together on a story in Ethiopia’s Omo River Valley. We spent three months and two trips down in this undeveloped part of the country, traveling through some amazing landscapes. We became really good friends.
The Omo River spills south into Kenya, so we thought, let’s take the story further and follow the river south. So a few years later, we came back and did Turkana [a county in the former Rift Valley Province of Kenya]. My editor at the time said, “Hey you should try Instagram.” And my first thought was, ”Instagram? All those cats and selfies? What am I going to do, take pictures of food?”
Lucky Fire, Idaho — Trees like flares along the meadow’s edge, popping one by one. Crackle, whoosh, roar. A rush of smoke, sear of heat, 50 years gone in a moment. Here a firefighter leans on his shovel and watches with calm approval. In his hand he holds a drip torch, and with it he set this fire, called a back burn, to fight another fire that had been creeping down through forest dry as tissue. What firefighters know is that there are few things so incredible as watching a forest burn, watching trees light up in solitary columns or in whole lots, watching walls of flame move like water through wood. Deer and birds fleeing, rattlesnakes slipping over your boots as they squirm away. Beyond that, there is nothing quite like setting the fire yourself. The necessary burns that will kill a few trees to save acres more. Fires that will clear out the understory. The whole effort making way, we hope, for something better, a forest in tune with itself and more prepared for the world, and the heat, ahead. This photograph is from a story I did a while back for National Geographic with photographer Mark Thiessen (@thiessenphoto). The Lucky Fire is years cold by now, but I’m heading to California this morning, and the west is still burning. It reminds me of all we refuse to learn, and of the men and women who are now working their way across the landscape, seasonal laborers, handling our business of fire. —
Then I looked into it and realized people were doing some cool things on there. Photographers digging through their photos and publishing seconds and thirds [unpublished photos]—stuff people wouldn’t usually see. And I thought, ‘No-one’s using the caption space. Why don’t I start doing that?’
National Geographic wasn’t really paying much attention to Instagram at the time. You know, there wasn’t anybody back in New York watching what we were posting. Randy and I didn’t ask permission. We just started doing it. For a while, we worried … you know, ”What happens if somebody notices? Will they shut us down?” And fortunately they liked it, and they let us keep doing it.
Do you see any advantages to using Instagram as a storytelling platform?
Well I was always taking photos, because that’s good for your journalism. I always take the portrait of someone I just interviewed. And that’s how it began.
You’d come home with these stories and most of them never make it into the magazine. In a long feature, you’re always fighting for space. Stuff gets cut all the time. These anecdotes in your notebooks, you’d have 50 or more just sitting there, and I was feeling frustrated with that. I’d blow off steam by writing emails and dispatches to my editor—short little stories written in the body of an email. And that was one way to stop these little stories from vanishing.
How would you categorize your style of journalism?
I think Instagram is mostly influenced by poetry for me. I read a lot of poetry. That was certainly the model.
When I was thinking about the posts, way back at the beginning, I didn’t want it to be standard journalism. I knew they had to be a different type of storytelling. But it’s not like I invented anything – the poets were already there.
At the start, people wanted to call them ‘Insta Essays’. But that’s awful. It just didn’t work. I’m not gonna try to come up with a name for this stuff. If you look back at the early stories, we tried different hashtags like #instaessays. But they were all terrible.
The tough thing is that no-one is making any money off this. You do it because it’s fun. You’re doing it because you want to share the stories you find and help them reach a wider audience.
photo by @lynseyaddario | words by @neilshea13 — A lifeboat, a lifejacket, a lifeline—here are scenes from the middle passage, in which African migrants, after crossing the brutal Sahara and surviving the chaos of Libya, attempt to reach Europe and start anew. In this case, and most others, there is little chance of their navigating the Mediterranean alone. After all, the boats they have paid for, with money sewn into coat-linings or hidden in little beaded purses, are hardly more than toys, thin-skinned and pushed by slurring motors. They were never built to outlast waters that nearly drowned the apostle Paul, and the hero Odysseus. Migrants know this. The Libyan smugglers who take their money and launch them into the waves know it, too. But it’s big business, supply for demand. Every African who comes by this way has heard of the storms, the leaks, the killing thirst. Bodies blown onto the beaches or nibbled to nothing by fish. Still, they come. For if migration is a business it’s the business of hope, and in both there is risk. Any passenger aboard the fleet of rafts now aiming for Italy will tell you—Yes, it’s worthwhile. If the passenger has made it this far, consider that his journey was, at least, long and full of trouble. Consider that few people leave home for such adventures unless they feel hope dying. And yet, Europe does not seem to understand it. How this man, photographed at the moment of rescue, would probably endure everything again. For a long time he has been dreaming. Thousands more like him are gathering along the shore. — This is the first post in a six-part Instagram series on African migration toward Europe. In June 2015, writer Neil Shea and photographer Lynsey Addario sailed with the Belgian naval ship Godetia as it patrolled the Mediterranean, rescuing migrants who’d begun the dangerous crossing. Join us @neilshea13 and @lynseyaddario as we share stories from our coverage of this journey. — #2015 #italy #sicily #mediterranean #belgiannavy #godetia #refugee #migrants #migrantcrisis #middlepassageNG #nigeria #eritrea #ghana #thegambia #senegal #journalism #makeportraits #documentary #natgeo @natgeo
How do you capture a story on the ground? What sort of gear do you take?
Before I go into the field, I do a lot of research about where I’m going. I try and get a sense of the issues playing out.
I also try to read a lot of the history of a place. I recently traveled to the Arctic, and before leaving, I read a fascinating book called Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez, who spent two years traveling there in the ‘80s, a time when the Arctic was like another planet. I try to find voices like that. Anything that inspires me.
On the ground, I just have my black notebook (I’m constantly scribbling). And I have my iPhone in my pocket all the time, ready to take portraits of the people I meet. I’m looking for anything that’ll help me remember the place. In the Arctic, I couldn’t write as much as I wanted to because my hands were so cold all the time. I’d take notes during the day and ask guys to repeat themselves, and put it all together in the warmth of the tent at night.
You lecture in non-fiction too. Do you have any tips for young travel writers out there?
One of the biggest things I remember from my teaching days was, in a lot of students, there’s this desire to be a Really Great Writer™. So they write the shit out of it. You know, they crank the dial right up to 11. They go all the way. And it’s too much. Their writing starts to crowd out the story.
Pianists explain this best. The music—or the story in our case—passes through you to get to everyone else. You’ve got to get out of the way so the music—the story—can blossom.
A lot of people come to college and they think they’re a good writer because their parents have probably been telling them for years they’re a good writer, but they’re not used to writing for a total stranger. One of my greatest writing professors told me, ‘You won’t be a great writer until you go out into the world and start to experience things.’ So some version of that is what I tell my kids. If they really want to do this, they should get out of here.
photo by @randyolson | words by @neilshea13 — It had been a good season, despite the drought, and everyone agreed that Arabo Chiere should throw a party. He was a rich man, owned vast herds, and was widely thought to be a sorcerer, able to transform himself into any animal he wished. It was also the case that Arabo’s daughter had turned 12, or nearly so, which meant she was becoming a woman. All these details produced a ripeness that Arabo could not ignore, though he had tried for a while, before the elders finally chided him into accepting his duty. Now it was on: he would host a huge celebration, one of the most expensive and exhausting events of his life. The celebration, called a Guol, would nominally honor his daughter. More practically, it would provide what anthropologists call redistribution, in which wealth is spread through a community, binding its members in a great burst of ritual sharing. The Guol would draw relatives and friends from across the desert. They’d camp in Arabo’s village for days or even weeks. In the mornings there would be songs and dances, and in the evenings more would follow. By custom, Arabo would make all the arrangements. He’d slaughter his cows and goats for feasting, empty his pockets buying coffee, sorghum and tobacco. What seemed worst to me was that no one could say exactly when the Guol would end. About a week into the festivities, Arabo told me he was leaving, heading into the mountains. I thought he’d finally snapped. More guests were arriving every day. Had enough? I asked. He laughed. It’s not that, he said, wearily. It’s just—he waved a hand at a crowd of young men leaping and dancing nearby—they eat so much! I have to fetch more goats. — These Instagram pieces are part of our ongoing project, #NGwatershedstories, and they’re linked to our feature article on Kenya’s Lake Turkana in the August issue of @natgeo magazine. Join us @randyolson and @neilshea13 as we follow water down the desert. #2014 #africa #kenya #laketurkana #jadesea #daasanach #celebration #tradition #joy #documentary #everydayeverywhere #everydayafrica @thephotosociety
With the magazine, you write a story and send it out into the world, and I’d be lucky if I got a single letter back from a reader. And usually it’s something like ‘You spelled Omo wrong,’ or ‘You added two feet to Mt. Everest’.
But with Instagram, the reactions were instantaneous, and thousands of comments were flooding in. Some people were clearly moved, and wanted more, and sometimes they would ask us questions and we’d have a dialogue with them. We’d try to post one every day at the same time. And when people realized it was a serial narrative, they’d come back every day. The response was amazing.
Why do you go where you go? And cover the stories you do?
It would be remiss of me not to admit to the allure of covering conflict. With Iraq, it was my generation that was fighting and picking up the pieces. I had friends who were in the military. I felt like it was the story of my generation, and I didn’t believe what my government was telling me. I wanted to see it for myself.
I was, like, 30 at the time, and sure there was a small part of me that thought, ‘Yeah this is gonna be cool’.
But I always feel like an asshole when I talk about this stuff. The danger isn’t why we do it. Yeah you get shot at sometimes. You get blown up. A polar bear chased me once. You’re not sure what’s going to happen next. I’m not unusual in that way—I’m not a conflict reporter. There are plenty of men and women who’ve done much crazier stuff than me.
Now that I’m older, I pick my destinations more carefully. Like Kurdistan. I admire the Kurds. Their landscape is so ancient, filled with history. The Kurds are people who, in my opinion, deserve their own homeland, but they’ve been denied it. There’s drama, there’s a sense of longing, there’s a deep past that goes back as far as you can possibly go. I think that’s an important story.
James Shackell is a freelance journalist with words in The Huffington Post, Red Bull, Canadian Traveler and Smith Journal. One day, he'll be bumped to business class, and you'll never hear the end of it.