Photo courtesy Amalini de Sayrah

On March 26, a group of 13 or so created some confusion among the vendors at the old market on Sea Street in Negombo.

“Where are you from?” was an often-repeated question. Armed with cameras and smartphones, perhaps the group did look like tourists.

In fact, the group was participating in Instameet – part of a global event where users of Instagram in  particular country or locality connect. There are usually two Instameets held a year, and across the world, Instagram users organise their own meetings on that date.

Yet while the group might have looked like tourists, the participants of Instameet all had something in common – a desire not just to meet the people they otherwise would only know of from scrolling through their timelines, but also to explore and document the chosen location – Negombo.

“I personally think Negombo is a great place [to have an Instameet] because it’s very diverse. The architecture and its landmarks are testament to its rich culture and history,” said participant and resident of Negombo, Aadil Marzook (@aadil.marzook).

Some of his asides during the walk revealed much about Negombo’s culture and history that wouldn’t be found in a guidebook, and would often go un-captured by the tourist’s lens.

The front of St. Mary’s College for instance, was emblazoned with the words ‘No Hair Cuts.’ This was actually retaliation from students, Aadil explained.

“A lot of students who attend this school are from the fishing community. They are reacting to the strict rules on uniforms. The school doesn’t allow spiked hair or pants that are too tight – sometimes they cut the student’s hair as punishment,” Aadil explained.

Snippets of information like this are what make Instameet unique. The participants take care not just to capture iconic landmarks or sunsets but also slices of the area’s culture and the daily lives of residents.

A vendor at the market on Sea Street, for instance, commented on the increasing prices of foodstuffs. “Things are a lot more expensive now, compared to Mahinda Rajapakse’s time,” he said. He asked, however, that participants refrain from capturing his stall, as he had not marked the prices of goods, as per consumer regulations. “If they see, they will come and confiscate produce worth thousands of rupees,” he said. “They have done this to us before.”

These conversations have long been a part the Sri Lankan chapter of Instameet, which began when Abdul Halik Azeez (@colombedouin) floated the idea to people attending, ironically, another event based around a social media platform – TweetUp, for Twitter users.

“Sri Lanka has a tradition of online communities meeting in real life… such as the open mic events for users of blog aggregator Kottu,” Halik said. “I saw people hosting meet-ups all over the world on Instagram, and I thought it would be interesting to have one here too, so I asked people whether they would be interested.” The answer was yes.

The initial Instameet began at the Maradana railway station, with participants nervously loitering outside at the agreed meeting point. The plan at the time was to walk along the rail tracks to an abandoned railway yard. While this was partially successful, the railway station employees said permission was needed to photograph there. As a result, the participants decided to re-route to Pettah, where half the group decided to photograph the colonial architecture, while the other half gravitated towards the market.

Photos from the first Instameet 

The meet ended up being not just a chance to meet the users, but also a learning experience for many. “In my case, I was at the time just a photographer. I would take photos of the buildings, and the landscape. I didn’t take pictures of people. Yet during that first walk, looking at how other users like Halik spoke to people and captured the emotion of a place, it gave me an opportunity to explore more of [that type of photography],” said Nazly Ahmed (@nazlyahamed), who incidentally was one of the organisers of this year’s Instameet. “The other positive is that Instameet hasn’t been commercialised. Brands often try to hijack an event, but here we just try to keep it simple – it’s about connecting with the community and exploration. You can try much more things together as a group than if a brand was involved,” Nazly added.

Since that first meetup, there have been changes, not just in terms of participation but also in the way Instagram itself has been used.

“I’ve noticed any time there is an Instameet outstation, the participation has been a bit less. That was the case this year too,” Nazly said. While the first Instameet had 30 to 40 participating, and subsequent ones in Colombo have had similar turnout, this year’s event had around 13 to 14 participants in total. This was not the first outstation Instameet – in 2016, the participants travelled to Galle.

Another change was the shift from using smartphones to cameras to take photos. The result meant that there were fewer photos instantly uploaded using this year’s hashtags. “I think when people are on the move, it becomes cumbersome to stop and upload photos. Also, it’s about what each user is most comfortable with. Personally, I try to capture emotions. I like to get close to my subjects – and a DSLR helps me capture that,” Nazly explained.

Hashinika Abeygunasekara (@hashiabey) said that it was actually after attending an installation of Instameet, held in Kompannaveedya, that she was inspired to buy a camera and more seriously pursue photography.

From the Instameet in Kompannaveedya

“When you’re an introverted person, it is great to meet people who share the same interests, and who are as enthusiastic about the platform and capturing moments as you are. After the first Instameet, I made many friends and we now do photowalks of our own,” she said.

“I find that using a camera gives a better framing and perspective. You can do much more with focusing too. Sometimes I find people feel a bit alienated or scared when I use my phone to take photos. Yet now when I walk around Pettah for instance, I find people are happy for me to take their picture when they see my camera.”

More people also used the ‘Stories’ feature to upload moments on-the-spot – which was a problem as stories were temporary and couldn’t be tracked using the event hashtag.

Instead, most of the participants chose to upload their photos subsequent to the event. “People are still posting on the hashtag. And I don’t think that’s a problem. The way people use social media is constantly shifting, and we need to adapt to those trends too. It’s all an experiment,” Nazly said.

While there have been shifts in the way people use Instagram, one aspect hasn’t changed – and that is the participants desire to  capture the essence of the locations they visit. Beyond Instagrammers connecting with each other, the participants also connected with the environment and the different people they met along the trail.

“There are very grey areas when it comes to street photography, especially those that involve groups of people making their way around a particular area,” said Amalini de Sayrah (@amaliniii) an organiser of this year’s Instameet. “In this edition of the Instameet, we were lucky to have a small crowd that understood the importance of meaningfully engaging with their surroundings, who stopped to talk to the people they photographed – we could tell that these exchanges of stories and the laughs shared were appreciated by both parties, and for the Instagrammers this added value to the pictures they took, beyond what you will see on their feeds or on the hashtag.”

“Instagram is meant for people to express their creativity. The beauty of the platform, and of Instameet itself, is that it is a window into many different perspectives. When we first put out word of this Instameet, we had several people ask us if it was for professional photographers only – the meets and the app itself is for everyone and most of those who use the app are simply people who have a passion for photography, self-taught and curious to explore. Instagram allows people a place to tell their story, regardless of the device you use, or can afford to use,” she added.

Photos from this year’s Instameet

This year’s event kicked off from near the Negombo lagoon. The participants visited the old market on Sea Street, St. Mary’s Church and the fish market before looping back to walk along the canal, ending up by the beach for sunset.

The rest of the photos from this year’s Instameet can be viewed through the hashtag #wwim15srilanka.

Readers who enjoyed this article might find “A thousand words: seeking the story beyond the photo” and “Paradise Lost: the Hidden Costs of Tourism Development in Sri Lanka” interesting.