Why Snapchat Could Change How Photographers Tell Stories

5 minute read

(Video by Anush Babajanyan)

John Stanmeyer stands at the ready. In his hands are two French presses full of coffee. The National Geographic photographer speaks straight at the camera, detailing what he will be shooting later on: a game of Kokpar, a popular sport in Kazakhstan where men on horseback try to snatch the carcass of a goat from each other.

The scene unfolds over just a few seconds of pixelated video, and it’s just one of the hundreds Stanmeyer has shared on Snapchat in the past month as part of the Out of Eden series, “an epic journey following the path of human migration.”

In the last days of April, the photographer, on assignment for National Geographic, took over the magazine’s Snapchat account to share unprecedented behind-the-scenes accounts of his work. And, though photography is all about preserving images, the App’s disappearing videos have the potential to change the relationship between photographer and viewer.

“Snapchat brings the reader into the story. Each viewer becomes a part of the assignment. They are my travel companions,” Stanmeyer tells TIME. “When millions of readers pick up the magazine each month, they only see 12 to 15 photographs. But so much more takes place while creating these deeply layered stories; moments of success, failure, problem solving, excitement, boredom, hope, terrible hotels, to camping under the stars, eating tins of meat and instant noodles.” And, through Snapchat, National Geographic’s followers saw it all.

Read next: Here’s How Much Time Snapchat Users Spend on the App

In Stanmeyer’s snaps, you see him drive across deserted plains, wait for good light, permission and access. “You see him interact with people, you see him in their homes, you see how he communicates with his subjects, you see him at the dinner table with them,” says Patrick Witty, National Geographic’s deputy director of photography for digital (and formerly of TIME). “But, most importantly, you see how he’s making the photos. It’s a unique window into the world of a National Geographic photographer on assignment. There’s no filter so you see it all, the exciting and exotic and the boring and mundane.”

Stanmeyer has always been an adopter of new technologies. He was one of the first photographers to take Instagram seriously when the imaging industry looked at the Facebook-owned company with suspicion. Snapchat is the next step. Today, the app reaches 41% of all 18 to 34-year-olds in the U.S., according to Nielsen. Despite what Stanmeyer describes as a lack of “intuitive indications” he has found that the work it took to understand Snapchat (which he accomplished with the help of his colleague and assistant Anush Babajanyan) has been worth it.

(Video by John Stanmeyer)

Stanmeyer’s first snaps, which he shared on the National Geographic account as he arrived in Kazakhstan, were hesitant and seemed scripted at times. But, as the days passed, Stanmeyer became more comfortable with the medium, embracing its ephemeral qualities and bringing the viewer into his own vantage point as he worked.

When he switched from the @natgeo account to his own (@stanmeyer), Stanmeyer and Babajanyan started experimenting by combining their two different ways of seeing. “There was an elegant dance that took place,” he says. “We no longer produced the making-of of the story and began to focus on the after-moments of the photography: late nights in sh–ty hotels, odd restaurants, boredom waiting for harsh sunlight to ease.” The result, he says, brought a different level of engagement from viewers than he had previously experienced. He says he has found the response on Snapchat to be deeper and more direct, “more intelligent and evocative,” than with Instagram and Facebook.

Read next: Here’s How Snapchat Might Be Beating Facebook

The fact that Snapchat favors video over text might explain this level of engagement. “There’s an intimacy that takes place that’s not found anywhere else,” says Stanmeyer. “I get to know the person just as the viewer gets to know me.”

(Video by John Stanmeyer and Anush Babajanyan)

And such a level of engagement can only be beneficial for brands like National Geographic—even though, as Witty says, the ephemeral nature of the medium is counterintuitive for journalists. “There’s no permanent record and it’s gone after 24 hours, poof. But that’s also why it’s unique,” he says. “It’s more about the experience. It’s fleeting sure, but can be profound at times.”

Already, National Geographic has rotated several photographers on its Snapchat account, from David Guttenfelder (who took over during a cruise to Cuba) to Steve Winter (who tracked jaguars in Mexico). Each of them has been able to develop his own voice on the app. And today, Stanmeyer is a self-proclaimed convert. “The possibilities are exceptional, wonderfully disrupting, expanding in a beautiful way the entire storytelling experience,” he says. “Snapchat is about to cause such incredible disruption, in extremely wonderful, unique ways.”

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com