#LightBoxFF: A Call for Social Change on Instagram

4 minute read

An Alevi woman dances at her wedding. By @nikospilos

Welcome to this week’s edition of TIME LightBox Follow Friday, a series where we feature the work of photographers using Instagram in new, interesting and engaging ways. Each week we will introduce you to the person behind the feed through his or her pictures and an interview with the photographer.

This week on #LightBoxFF, we speak with Annick Shen, the Senior Communications Coordinator for Photography at Open Society Foundations, an organization that promotes human rights and social reform. Shen manages the Open Society Foundations’ Instagram feed, commissioning photographers to share their photographs.

LightBox: Why did the Open Society Foundations join Instagram?

Annick Shen: We started the Open Society Foundations Instagram feed in early May and we have found it to be a successful tool using photography to engage viewers on social justice and human rights issues. The model for Open Society Foundations Instagram feed is not new; we have applied a similar model that editorial outlets have been using for a while: the photographer takes over the feed for a week. But unlike other outlets, we are using it as a platform for advocacy by commissioning independent photographers to bring to light important global human rights and social justice issues.

LightBox: How does it work?

Annick Shen: Our system has been pretty straightforward. Documentary photographers send in two-to-three-sentence pitches that can cover a broader spectrum of social justice topics they are passionate about. Initially, we started out with the network of photographers who have worked with us directly on commissioned assignments or have been grantees through the Documentary Photography Project in the past, but slowly we have expanded our reach to other photographers. It’s been wonderful to collaborate with them and provide a platform to show their personal projects documenting these human rights issues.

Construction worker He Tiejun, from Hunan province, searches for a mobile phone signal — notoriously bad in the claustrophobic and run-down urban village where he lives with four other workers from his hometown while in Guangzhou for three months. Photo by @chiyin_sim / @viiphoto

LightBox: How does their work fit with the Open Society Foundations’ agenda?

Annick Shen: The only guidance we provide to photographers [has to do with] the photo captions. This is the place that enables us, the Foundation, to advocate Open Society Foundations terminology that will hopefully cultivate inquiry, inform dialogue and potentially spark conversation in the comment section. At the same time, we want the photographers to use more common hashtags so that our imagery is included in a wider range of searches. For example, Open Society uses the term “roma” instead of “gypsy.” In the photo caption, we request that the photographer use “roma,” but in the hashtags include #roma and #gypsy. This way our imagery is seen by a far broader audience that may not know about this term or understand why we choose to use it.

Fear of eviction and a rash of thefts in the area have increased Sinamon and Aaron’s vigilance. They watch as an unidentified man approaches their encampment on the outskirts of Fresno. Photo by @mattblack_blackmatt.

LightBox: How do you select the photographers who will take over your feed?

Annick Shen: Our goal is to cover various regions and issues worldwide in order to continue to bring awareness to our audiences, while simultaneously try to be flexible to respond to important world events as they arise. Another endeavor is to align our feed with important reports and events. The best example is our recent commissioned shoot by Benedicte Kurzen of NOOR for Open Society’s Justice Initiative. Her imagery, which has already been featured on our Instagram account, will accompany a report slated to launch in middle to late September and follow a UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva on human rights and the criminal justice system.

We believe a photographer’s independent voice further strengthens the Foundations’ work on important issues, such as pretrial detention. As a result, we follow up with the photographers and ask if they wish to participate in a Q&A so that our audience can gain their individual perspective as well. We did a Q&A with Benedict that will include a slideshow of the imagery. We’ve worked with photographers such as Brandon Thibodeaux, Kim Badawi, Nikos Pilos, Andrea Bruce, Sim Chi Yin, Arthur Bondar and Guy Martin.

Annick Shen is the Senior Communications Coordinator for Photography at Open Society Foundations. Follow the organization on Instagram @opensocietyfoundations.

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