A Thousand Words

The following was delivered at #ngage 4.0, a free and open forum of tech and social media enthusiasts who come together to share knowledge, exchange ideas and discuss emerging trends in technology and the internet. I spoke on storytelling using Instagram, looking beyond Likes and curated feeds. 

This was first published online on Groundviews here and is directly accessible on Adobe Spark here.


Sri Lanka loves its stories. The kinds that keep kids entertained with kingdoms past and the kinds that keep aunties talking for hours after saying bye. While we do love our stories, we’re also very smart about how we tell them. And by that I mean we’re masters of keeping out details that compromise us.

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We hide the systems that bring about the appalling treatment of women, we hide our lack of respect for the environment, we hide the struggles of vulnerable communities that we disadvantage even further – all under curated feeds of scenic landscapes, shiny urban lifestyles and artfully placed food.

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Why am I on this tangent? If you’re not missing out on the whole story, you might end up misinterpreting something, and that could have disastrous consequences on the people around you and those you interact with. This is why there’s distrust towards mainstream media today, because they’re notorious for cherry picking what makes a catchy story as opposed to what makes a meaningful story. For example, we see photos of the Colombo skyline as it changes –  how often do we talk about the people who lost their homes for someone else to gain a shiny high-rise apartment?

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We see tourist board promotions of these miraculously pristine beaches – which we do have, to be fair – but do we also know that the rapid developments we’ve seen in the tourism industry over the last few years have adversely impacted communities in some of these areas, especially in areas that are marketed as ‘previously untouched due to the conflict’?

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Who does the responsibility fall to then? All of us. This is where social media comes in and in this case, Instagram. In a time when the language of our immediate environment is confusing and divisive, it comes down to all of us to show firstly each other and eventually, hopefully everyone else the layers in all these frames. This is something we hope to do through the Instameets, the latest instalment of which will be happening this Sunday in Negombo, to encourage local Instagrammers to use their creativity and unique perspectives to do justice to the Sri Lankan story.

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I said before that I’m not going to give advice or tips but I’d like to share a thought with you. Note that I’m not saying I execute these perfectly always, I’m learning everyday from the people I meet and from the people whose work I see on the app.

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Seek out these stories that matter beyond just the photograph and the Likes you’ll get on it. It will contribute to your understanding of your fellow man, of a side of your country that not many take time to look at and instil a deeper sense of empathy in you and subsequently all of us who’ll see and absorb it.

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I was told that in the midst of this harangue I should share my process of framing stories for Instagram and it was then that I realised that I didn’t have one as such, not in a technical sense. It all comes down to the place you are in, your relation to it and what the people there are comfortable with. This is the most important thing for me – it’s why I use my phone and not a camera, because it tends to throw people off.

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We see, almost annually now, initiatives that use the backdrop of these hidden stories for artistic effect. We can’t get away by saying something is better than nothing in this case because if there isn’t meaningful exchange happening, you’re being rather unfair on the people you’re photographing or using as subjects. I guess it comes down to what you prioritise, getting the photograph or getting the story, two different things.

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I’ve been told that many of the stories I post are sad and in a few cases, will keep people from visiting the country, that I’m jeopardising the tourism industry that contributes so much to our GDP. While I do agree that some of the stories are not particularly rosy, I do believe in capturing life as it is and more importantly the hope that persists despite difficulties, despite the hand that some people have dealt to them. And in that vein I’m extremely thankful when people tell me that something I’ve shared or spoken about helped them see things differently, helped with some perspective.

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There are so many people I’ve met – not just in far-flung places across the island but even right under our noses – who’ve been so grateful that others even took the time to come and listen to them. To record, to take their photos and to even just have a chat. They are extremely grateful for that time you take, to visit and listen to what has been bothering them, sometimes for years and decades, they want to see the photo you take and always ask you to come back. This is because they feel their voices aren’t being heard on the regular or that in the whirlwind of local politics and the bitterness in international affairs, their stories have been forgotten. And I wouldn’t exchange that experience for anything.

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