Why I believe in Instagram

tl;dr Recently I dove into Instagram’s #worldwaterday2015. I wasn’t sure what I would find but these folks and their work not only inspired me, they changed my mind, too:

@kimi_swimmy, @allisonsarahjoyce, @pedromcbride, @lens_pacific and @azdarya

In a Selfie Sea. Instagram reminds me that it’s World Water Day. The message isn’t overwhelming. Like any other Sunday, my feed is choked with sunlit breakfast tables and cityscapes. (Because of all the heavy XproII, I have to assume the latter were posted mid-hangover.) Still, the message is there:

@natgeo runs awesome #chasingrivers aerial shots of the Colorado and Ganges Rivers. @woodshole_ocean and @nature_org opt for simple reminders. And @huffingtonpost features a couple of @unicef videos.

Constantly arguing with myself about the limits of the medium, today I want to qualify a few questions:

  • Can we focus on short snippets to talk about big ideas?
  • Is social the right space to have a serious conversation?
  • Can we even focus past the gossip while we’re here?

By the time I see what the surfers at @wavesforwater are up to, I’ve already dug in and ditched my plans for the afternoon.

“To bring attention to the world water crisis we are launching the #nofilter campaign. There’s 1 billion people in the world without access to clean water. This is a solvable problem. It’s not a question of technology, it’s a question of access… #nofilter is one of the biggest hashtags on Instagram and we want to change people’s perception of it.”

It’s a good thing they did, too. Have you ever actually searched #nofilter on Instagram? It is a terrible scene.

I know because I just tried it. I had to push through an unending parade of back-focused duck faces, self-congratulating #bikiniselfies, and suspiciously well-defined six packs in high-contrast B&W… This is why people hate social media, isn’t it?

@modfarm didn’t post, but did send me an email pointing out that: “Droughts in the United States in 2012 affected 80 percent of farms and ranches, with crop losses of more than $20 billion [USD].” They offer some action steps, too, including: “Plant low-water [grass] species in your yard.”

After 3 hours of Instagram, I take a break. My eyes hurt and I need to look at something other than a screen. I also need to shower and cook dinner — But should I skip the shower to mark the day and, you know, show some deference? That twinge of guilt quickly dissappears as I step into the hot water. Sorry #tapproject, I failed to turn off the tap or my phone.


There have been some pretty fantastic water stories on Instagram this year. Some of my favorites have been #toiletsofbangladesh and #bangladeshsurfgirls, both by @allisonsarahjoyce.

Allison is a photojournalist and keeps a running photo diary on Instagram. Last year she’d started posting photos both on Instagram and her blog documenting a ragtag band of kids, the #bangladeshsurfgirls. Some are homeless. Others work to help support their families. They hustle at the beach, selling trinkets and snacks, but bond over shared waves when they can.

These girls, who are between 10 and 13 years old, face enormous social pressure. A local surf club got the word out, thanks in part to Allison’s reportage, and raised over 5 thousand USD to help support the girls’ education.


#raisetheriver, by @pedromcbride (Pete McBride), has been an inspiring, ride-along adventure. For years Pete’s covered the story of the Colorado River, stuck between some of the thirstiest cities in America, agriculture and US-Mexico geopolitics. He is possessed by that river.

His images of the dying Colorado have been published in National Geographic and Outside Magazine.

In March last year, Pete was in Mexico with #raisetheriver when water was released from an upstream dam to flow through the dry delta into the Sea of Cortez for the first time since 1998. He shared the celebration on Instagram (and Twitter).


Spear fishing might not seem so marketable for an Instagram story but @kimi_swimmy (Kimi Werner) has over 34 thousand followers. A well-argued criticism she left on a gory photo back during #sharkweek made me curious enough to click-through to her profile.

It’s refreshing to see people share their own knowledge and passion here on Instagram. She says: “You get one breath, one drop and one shot to catch one fish.” Kimi wears many hats — out of the water she’s a trained chef, a painter and a Patagonia Surf Ambassador — but her connection to the sea is palpable throughout her images.

Her story feels genuine in a way that lot of the pretty pictures ticking past me don’t. If you want tell your story on social media, Kimi is an awesome example to follow.

Plenty of accounts are re-posting made-to-spread images and infographics from @water, @charitywater and @wateraid. Clicking through some of these conversations teaches me that water is heavy:

  • Literally. Filled with water, one of those yellow 5 gallon jerry cans weighs over 40 pounds.
  • Figuratively. The World Economic Forum called water resources management one of the top challenges of 2013 and 2014.

I learn that getting clean water for 1 in 9 of my fellow humans isn’t easy. At this point, well over #748million people don’t have access to safe drinking water. This has a major impact on education, health and income. When there’s not enough clean water people die easily — especially children.

Last week, @balazsgardi curated #whpfromthewater for Instagram. And over at @azdarya he curates water-related stories from around the world. His #right2water coverage from Detroit over the winter was a disorienting view of my own country.

Having hardcore reportage occupy the same visual space as inside jokes from my friends sometimes makes my head spin.

Nevertheless, when #cyclonepam tore through Vanuatu recently my first reaction was to check Instagram. To find the country on the map, I had to look northeast of Australia and zoom in. The archepeligo looks like Google just scratched out a minute ‘Y’ on the smooth blue ocean.

@lens_pacific (Vlad Sokhin) managed to post images from Vanuatu of the aftermath. People were largely cut off from each other and the rest of the world. On Efate Island residents were surviving off of stockpiled bananas and taro, Vlad said.

The emotional resonance of images here on Instagram feels very different from when I scan an above-the-fold photo on the current New York Times at the newstand in Starbucks, or when I head over to Youtube for more VICE. It’s a strange bazaar, Instagram.

Fidgety and thinking too much, I boil water in an electric kettle. The auto switch flips off, and I pour the water into a filter over ground coffee and cinnamon. The nectar tink, tink, tinks into my mug as I grab my phone for more Instagram. The sun is dropping into dusk. I didn’t have to walk further than the kitchen tap to get clean water all day.

Why did I turn to social media to see what #wateris? When we hop onto social channels, like Instagram, I believe we’re participating in a fantastically effective kind of communication. No, #regram isn’t a solution. Social media doesn’t solve problems. People who care do solve problems. And people solve problems all the time, in fact.

Skill and smart leadership are needed to overcome the water crisis. It’s a problem that spans cultures, economies, languages and borders. To borrow from @balzasgardi, it’s a #complexemergency.

However, within that problem is a simple idea. I need water to live. When a conversation resonates with people, and when there is an immediate way to participate, guess what? People engage. We start talking back. Maybe we even listen.

So while marketers, photojournalists and yours truly all try to figure out how to win hearts and minds on Instagram — the fact is everyone is on equal footing here when it comes to attention bandwidth.

Don’t underestimate what you can get done with social media.

There’s a lot of hope in that wild rush of images. When I get the opportunity to see other peoples’ pictures, I get to see somebody else’s take on life. Sometimes, like today, those visions hit hard and send me tumbling right out of my own worn routine. That’s magic.

If a hashtag reminds us of something that really matters — if it gives us a chance to listen, contribute and care — I’m in.

About the photo book pictured in the headers: Chris Newbert’sWithin a Rainbowed Sea’ was published in 1984 and won an obscene number of publishing awards. You should check it out. As a kid, I saw his photos in National Geographic magazine. Chris’ images are spooky good. His photos taught me to value an utterly foreign place. I count his images among my own earliest creative inspiration, even though I still can’t dive and will never shoot Kodachrome. #tbh, I don’t think he’s on Instagram.