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Photos in the age of the app: launching DFID on Instagram

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Mixing it up - a worker mixes cement for the foundations of a new housing block in Addis Ababa #Ethiopia #EverydayAfrica. Picture: Simon Davis/DFID

Part of my job as the picture editor for DFID is to always be looking out for creative ways to tell our story in images. From reports and publications to humanitarian emergencies and ministerial visits overseas, I think DFID has amazing stories to tell, and, increasingly, sharing our photography online is a big part of that. To this end, I set up DFID on the photo-sharing website Flickr back in 2008. Since then we’ve created an archive of nearly 3,000 photographs about development issues and some of the many people whose lives have been changed by British development aid.

My colleague Marisol has written more about Flickr and how we use it in another blog for this series. I continue to love it. But it was conceived and designed in the early days of what used to be called Web 2.0 – sometime around 2005/6, roughly when Facebook and YouTube also came into existence. People were just starting to talk about creative commons, open source, APIs and, yes, social media.

Then, in 2007, the iPhone came along, and everything changed. The internet became mobile, mobile phones became smart and the age of the app was born. Suddenly you could own a mobile phone that included a pretty good digital camera that was always connected to the internet. People started sharing photos taken on their phones in extraordinary numbers.

Fast-forward to 2011 and an app called Instagram was launched for the iPhone. A piece of software that would apply a retro-style filter to your digital photos (basically making them look like a 1970s-era polaroid photo) and upload them to the web directly from your phone.

People went crazy for Instagram in a way arguably not seen in photography since Kodak launched the Brownie camera at the start of the 20th century. In little more than 2 years, Instagram has amassed more than 130 million users worldwide, who between them are uploading some 40 million images every single day.

And now DFID is one of those 130 million Instagram users – take a look at Why? Well, for us, telling our story has always been about going to where people are spending their time online and putting our stories there. We’re doing it with Facebook, with Twitter and YouTube, and now we’re going to try doing it with Instagram too. We just felt that Instagram has reached a tipping point in the last few months.

For me this realisation came during a visit to Lagos last October, when I met and tried to photograph some of Nigeria’s tech entrepreneurs. After a day or so of trying – and failing! - to make interesting images via my digital SLR, I realised all of the people I was trying to photograph were comfortable taking pictures of themselves and each other on their mobile phones. So I decided to do the same, and posted them to Instagram. You can see the results here.

It isn’t just about numbers though – it’s about the tool, the way people are using it, and the potential for how it might help show where UK taxpayers’ money is going. Many of our staff are based around the world in the countries that we work in. Many of them have smart phones, and many of them take pictures on them of the people and places that the UK is helping when they’re out and about monitoring and evaluating the work that we do.

So I’m interested to see if we can harness some of those photos, as instantly as possible. Can we get some of our staff to upload what they’re seeing directly from the field? And as those smart phones and mobile internet access become more widely available to the people in the countries we work in, can we use Instagram as a way to see what they see, from their perspective?

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  1. Comment by quotes posted on

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