A small sample of the Hurricane Sandy photos shared through This is Now: New York.

On Monday night, I was sitting at home in Melbourne, Australia watching and waiting to see the impact of Hurricane Sandy as it approached the East Coast of America, on the other side of the world.  

The first place I looked was Instagram.  Knowing the app has a massive East Coast user base, I was hoping to find an up-to-date picture from people there on the ground. However, following the #sandy and #frankenstorm hashtags, I was disappointed to be hit with memes and selfies. (At one point, users were posting up to 10 images per second with the hashtag #sandy.) Locating original and verifiable photographs in this gigantic pool seemed useless.

My next step was to head over to the This Is Now site, which pulls in live Instagram feeds from 12 large cities worldwide. Clicking on New York, I was again swamped by images, with only a handful giving me any real  perspective into how those posting were facing the approaching hurricane. 

At this point, I decided that if I couldn’t find a useful Instagram feed, I’d have to create and curate one. I knew valuable photos were out there, they just had to be found and featured. Using Nitrogram, an Instagram moderation tool, I created a customized feed: I could select and track a handful of tags (including #frankenstorm, #hurricanesandy, #sandy and #flood); moderate the photographs as they came through and disregard the memes and fakes; and, finally, embed the curated feed into the Mobile Photo Group blog and share it with interested readers.

Little did I know what I was getting into. Like Alice, I tumbled down a rabbit hole lined with Instagram pics.  Each time I refreshed the feed I would get hundreds of new images, coming through every four to 10 seconds depending on the time of day.  I started selecting pictures, one by one, searching for images that gave me a flash of insight into what was happening on the ground.  They didn’t have to be pretty, or professional, they just needed to be relevant and real.

Trigger-happy to begin with, I soon realised that some photos didn’t look right, seemed a little exaggerated, or appeared multiple times in the feed.  Working on the fly, I developed a rough verification check to weed out less pertinent images, which included:

  • Viewing the photo in Instagram to check for Photoshop manipulation and screenshots
  • Looking for a geo-tag
  • Checking whether there was a caption or story to help contextualise the photo
  • Checking for responses in the comments from friends and family  
  • Checking out the photographer’s other pics for consistency, both in style and location
  • Cross-checking the photo against others coming in at the same time

While by no means a perfect system, I was able to weed out the junk and showcase the most relevant photos. (The next day I saw articles appearing on the big sites, like Mashable and Huffington Post, exposing fake photos which were doing the social media rounds – I’d rejected nearly all of the offenders the night before.)

Amongst the fake Hurricane Sandy photos being shared via social media was this shot of soldiers at the Arlington National Cemetery monument, which was actually shot last month.
This fake image actually comes from the movie The Day After Tomorrow.

Transfixed by the feed, I watched as the rain became heavier, the winds picked up and the sea barrelled first into Atlantic City, then New Jersey and finally New York. I saw people fumbling for candles and cuddling their terrified pets. And I witnessed a few venture into the blackened city night to capture the empty streets. The following morning, I saw the destruction and the shock. 

Instagram users captured flooding as Hurricane Sandy approached landfall (top-left @jdbieberismyhero, top-right @ben_simone, bottom-left @krisjp, bottom-right @c_duds).

Amazingly, while I was selecting pictures, other people found and followed my feed.  In the first 24 hours the blog post received more than 10,000 views (about 9,500 more than Mobile Photo Group gets on a good day).  A re-post on Boing Boing even knocked us offline momentarily, our bandwidth spent.

The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, as showcased on Instagram (top-left @charissaxz, top-right @lillian_brown, bottom-left @koynelaki, bottom-right @andyr_06).

In the past two days, and with the assistance of other Mobile Photo Group members, the feed has featured over 300 photos documenting Hurricane Sandy. The feed is more of a mosaic than a complete picture, but it provides multiple insights into the significance of the event as experienced by some of the many thousands of Instagram users in the hurricane’s path.

In my view, a feed like this – featuring contributions from many photographers, amateur and pro alike – does not rival traditional photojournalism but it does complement it. It gives us insight into an event in real time, and allows for spontaneity and chance.

What do you think?  

You can follow the live feed on the Mobile Photo Group website here.

Misho Baranovic@mishobaranovic, has worked as a photographer for many years and is prominent in the emerging practice of mobile photography. His street photography has been exhibited internationally and in 2011 he held his first solo exhibition, New Melbourne, in Melbourne, Australia. He is a founding member of the Mobile Photo Group, and the author of iPhone Photography.