Teru Kuwayama: From Battleground to Instagram
The Jakarta Post
Teru Kuwayama left the thrill of jumping out of a helicopter and snapping the wars in the Middle East to share his passion for photography and journalism with the Instagram community.
At a glance, the Instagram community manager hardly fits the clichÃ© of the hard-boiled war reporter.
But Kuwayama dedicated a decade of his life to documenting the conflicts and wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kashmir before managing the community of storytellers on the photo-and video- sharing platform.
Born and raised in New York to a Japanese father and an Irish-American mother, Kuwayama built his career as a photojournalist, spending much of his time in India and Nepal. He became interested in capturing events in conflict areas after traveling to Afghanistan in 2002.
'I was traveling on my way from India to Tibet and I thought the war in Afghanistan had just ended. It was the spring of 2002 and they were just opening the airport in Kabul again. So when the plane landed in Abu Dhabi I bought a plane ticket [to Afghanistan],' the 44-year-old told The Jakarta Post.
Mesmerized by the country, Kuwayama extended his travel from the initial plan of two weeks to two months. 'Once I got to Afghanistan, I fell in love with the country. It was so beautiful, the people amazing.'
Kuwayama was in Afghanistan at the time when the new government under Hamid Karzai was struggling to clamp down on Taliban insurgents, who committed bombings, assassinations and ambushes to regain their control of Afghanistan.
From that moment, he became unstoppable ' risking his life to photograph the standoff between India and Pakistan over the disputed Kashmir region, as well as the US invasion of Iraq.
'I just thought that whatever was going to happen was going to change the course of history, and I wanted to see it and understand it. So I went to Iraq and ended up spending the next year or so, on and off there and back to Afghanistan,' he said.
Aside from working independently, Kuwayama was also embedded with the US and coalition forces.
'I just wanted to be able to travel to places they were going or to get into the regions that are so remote that you could only go with helicopters or they were so hostile that you need to basically find the guys with the most guns and travel with them.'
While continuing to provide snapshots to be featured in newspapers and magazines, Kuwayama explored the possibilities of using social media for journalistic purposes.
He is a cofounder of Lightstalkers, an online forum for journalists, filmmakers, photographers and professional travelers. In 2010, he conceived a Basetrack project that utilized social media sites, including Facebook, to chronicle the deployment of a battalion of US Marines in southern Afghanistan between 2010 and 2011.
'In the US, people [and] a lot of journalists are saying, that American public is not interested in Afghanistan because it has been going on for so long,' said Kuyawama, a 2009'2010 Knight Fellow at Stanford University.
'I actually didn't believe that. And I know that there is a group of people who care about this a lot and that is the families of these marines.'
Kuwayama collaborated with two other photographers to snap and post the battalion's daily activities to Basetrack's Facebook page. The project grew into a forum for the soldiers to communicate with their loved ones at home.
'We could insert other kinds of information so that when these family members came to see pictures of their kids, they would also read news articles, or understand more about what was happening there.'
The project inspired Basetrack Live, a documentary multimedia theater piece that debuted last year in the US.
His experiments with social media captured the attention of Facebook, which then reached out to Kuwayama when he was still going back and forth to Afghanistan.
In late 2013, Facebook hired him in a newly created role, photo community manager, where he works to improve Facebook features to suit photographers' needs and tastes. The job paved the way for Kuwayama to land another role as community manager of Instagram, which was acquired by Facebook in 2012.
'It was another world that I didn't know anything about that I found really fascinating.'
Everyday, around 70 million photos and videos are uploaded on Instagram, ranging from snapshots of ravaged lands to the selfies of big-time celebrities.
In spite of leaving Afghanistan, Kuwayama, on Instagram, still keeps two things near and dear to his heart: journalism and photography.
'I care about Afghanistan and if I can help them ['¦] to use a platform to get their information out, if I could do that with a hundred people or a thousand people, it is much more than I can do by myself.'
Through Instagram, he sees the world ' from the war-torn country to hidden paradise ' through the lens of Instagram users.
'Hundreds millions of people are essentially sharing the things that they are seeing and experiencing around the world. So this is a time where there is more photography happening than ever before,' he said.
'It becomes a question, what do we mean by journalism, in a way. Journalism as something that people only do in newspapers and television stations, or journalism as something that is happening constantly, like when somebody who is a taxi driver or student, or a teenager in school, is recording the things around them.'
The 2010 Ochberg Fellow at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, however, admitted that he missed the action of dangerous adventure alongside the armed forces.
'I miss jumping out of helicopters. I enjoyed that a lot. But I kind of feel like it is a little bit selfish. It's more for me in many ways.'
In his role as Instagram's Community Manager, Kuwayama participates in the World Wide InstaMeet (WWIM), a meet-up event for Instagram users held several times a year.
'InstaMeet, in a way, is a kind of real world manifestation of these relationships that people create online.'
There are a thousand InstaMeets a year across the globe, and this year he chose to celebrate it on Kanawa Island off Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara, with around 50 Instagram users last month.
'We are on this island and its spectacular, probably the most beautiful beach I've ever seen too. Amazingly hospitable and friendly community. This is the second time I have been in Indonesia. The last time was after the tsunami in Aceh. So I didn't really experience Indonesia in a normal sense,' he said.
'I get the sense that the Instagram community in Indonesia is really reflective of Indonesia. So it's really a warm community of people.'
When asked about his vision for growing the Instagram community, Kuwayama said 'Basically, the community created itself, in many ways. I think a lot of it depends on what people do. But it definitely seems to be growing very rapidly. The community grows itself.'
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