Instagram Takeovers, and How They Work

June 16, 2016

By Sarah Stacke

In December 2015, Stephanie Heimann, photo director of New Republic, assigned photojournalist Arthur Bondar to photograph daily life in Moscow during the New Year holiday celebrations. His photos appeared on New Republic’s Instagram feed, during a takeover that lasted a little more than a week. Ukrainian-born Bondar used the series, “Postcards from Moscow,” to show “how ordinary people live in Russia,” a perspective on Russia he feels has been lacking in the media. He notes, “Spreading the images [to new viewers] and engagement with the audience are the best advantages of Instagram takeovers.”

© Simone Sapienza.

The Instagram accounts of media outlets have become platforms not only to show, but to debut, photographic projects. Outlets invite a photographer to take the reins of their Instagram feed, logging in to the account and posting two to three images per day plus text, usually for a week. Though their Instagram feeds generate no advertising income, the editors PDN spoke with invest time and small assignment fees into Instagram takeovers in order to reach new viewers who might not read a print or online publication. In the process, they give photographers an opportunity to take editorial control of their stories and put their work in front of a new audience. Molly Roberts, chief photography editor at Smithsonian magazine, says they feel a commitment to expose their photographers’ work to as many people as possible. “The Instagram space seems like an important place to be seen, especially by a younger audience, who might not know the magazine very well.”

Simone Sapienza (@bonsaimon on Instagram), an Italian photographer who debuted a personal project during his takeover of New Republic’s Instagram account, notes, “Many people do takeovers just for promotion, but if you can do promotion and get a payment, it’s the best way to start sharing a project.”

Instagram takeovers generally fall into three categories: photographers post new images as they are shot, existing images pulled from a completed project or a combination of the two. Editors PDN spoke with say that they don’t choose photographers based on the size of their social media followings. Projects with a news hook are nice, but not critical. “The Instagram account is not supposed to be a newspaper,” says Max Campbell, photo coordinator at The New Yorker. Editors say they look for work that suits the style or mission of the outlet, images that fit the Instagram format and, when it comes to real-time takeovers, photographers who can handle multiple daily posts of new work.

For example, Heimann, who assigns two to three takeovers a month, is open to all genres, but is particularly drawn to photographers who tell stories in a conceptual way. She also likes images that read well on Instagram’s small format, which is what led her to feature Sapienza’s series, “The United States of Vietnam.” The images “were really bold and graphic,” explains Heimann. “I thought it was a very fresh way of storytelling.” The series uses conceptual portraiture and still-life, as well as digital collage, to reflect the hopes of Vietnam’s population under age 40 for a capitalist future.

New Republic pays $300 for a takeover that lasts a week, and adjusts the rate if the time period is longer or shorter. Heimann also publishes images from about half of the magazine’s takeovers on the final page of the magazine, in a column called “Backstory.” Photographers whose work appears on both platforms are paid a space rate on top of the Instagram fee.

Maggie Soladay, the photo editor at the human rights organization Open Society Foundations (OSF), says the Instagram audience is “receptive” to documentary work on human rights issues. “They’re looking for good photography, but they’re also looking for meaningful photography.” OSF pays a $500 stipend to photographers who take over their account.

When she’s choosing a photographer for a takeover, Soladay says, she looks for “good work and causes that OSF can relate to.” Generally the projects relate to work being done around the world by OSF. When the photos depict sensitive topics like sex work, drug use or trans rights, Soladay works closely with the photographers to check the terminology they use in captions. “A project could be killed because of the angle of the conversation,” she cautions.

Soladay sees the OSF Instagram account as providing “a place for photographers to share a chapter of a long-term project that aligns with our work,” she says. “I love the idea of having chapters of something.” Typically, a takeover photographer has been working on a story already for an extended period of time and can coordinate their Instagram feature with OSF while creating new work. “Usually it’s a good idea to have something in the can before starting a takeover because your driver, your fixer, you, or your family could get ill,” Soladay explains. “A week-long takeover is a big deal and it’s hard to consistently tell a story seven days in a row.”

Valerie Plesch (@valerieplesch on Instagram), an American photojournalist based in Kosovo, recently took on the challenge, posting images on the OSF account that explore daily life in Kosovo eight years after the country declared independence from Serbia. Plesch says one of the biggest benefits of the assignment was that it pushed her to photograph communities she hadn’t yet explored. There are about eight ethnic groups in Kosovo, a country the size of Connecticut, and Plesch wanted to represent them all during her seven-day takeover. Plesch said she was nervous every morning. To make it work she treated each day like a separate assignment, coming up with a game plan for each day and setting up meetings ahead of time.

“Part of the great thing about Instagram is the ability to look at life as it’s happening,” says Joanna Milter, director of photography at The New Yorker, which has hired photographers both to post real-time, newly created photos and previously unpublished work from an archive.

Takeovers of The New Yorker Photo Department feed have included fine-art, fashion and documentary photographers. Many have explored a single town or community from several angles, providing extensive caption information. Campbell explains, “In terms of what we’re looking for, it’s not just someone who can shoot, but someone who is engaged with the context, able to talk about it, has that serious situational awareness and can translate that into something that works online.”

When photographer and filmmaker Ross McDonnell (@rossmcdonnell on Instagram) did a real-time takeover for The New Yorker Photo Department, he posted images that delve into the lives surrounding the conflict in eastern Ukraine. McDonnell approached the assignment as an opportunity to present a broad travelogue in a conflict zone. “I went from covering the opera one day to covering a live POW prisoner exchange,” he says. The rapid editing needed for the takeover helped guide him in choosing new subjects to explore. “Editing and distributing live helped to contextualize what I was doing and what I could do in the coming day,” he says. Each day, he asked himself: “What can I do next that will not only change the pace of what I’m showing the audience, but will provide them with a greater contextualization of what’s happening here?”

At Smithsonian magazine, Roberts and associate photography editor Jeff Campagna sometimes use the magazine’s Instagram account as “a way for photographers to start working with us: We can see what you do and it’s a way to start building relationships,” says Roberts. The platform also provides a place for photographers who have done an assignment for the magazine to share images and text that didn’t make it into print. “This is their chance to show their edits,” Roberts explains.

Roberts says she regrets Smithsonian doesn’t have the budget to pay for takeovers.  Instead, she says, “I like to think of it as a co-marketing tool,” where photographers who want to promote a project work with the magazine to reach new audiences. The first post is always a picture of the photographer accompanied by text telling the viewer who they are what kind of work they do. Other than this guideline, Roberts tells the photographer to “go for it.”

When Marc Yankus (@marcyankus on Instagram) took over the Smithsonian account in February, he posted images and video he had made on a recent trip to Antarctica. Yankus began the takeover with about 670 personal followers and ended with just over 1,000. Then an email from Instagram arrived, telling him that he had been put on the coveted Instagram Suggested User list. Since that email, Yankus has been adding about 1,000 followers a day to his account. As of mid-March he had reached nearly 30,000.

Apart from bringing him followers, Yankus says, the daily posts allowed him to get feedback from, and respond to, readers. He says, “I looked forward to posting every day. I loved the dialogue, the back and forth. I felt like I took people on a journey and that was a really cool thing to do.”

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