Neil Shea stepped into an elevator. It was an ordinary afternoon at the National Geographic Magazine office, where he’d been a staff writer for nearly two years. There was an editor standing inside the elevator. He said hello, asked how her day was going. It wasn’t going well: The freelance writer scheduled to travel to Iraq in a few weeks had dropped out of the assignment. She had to find someone else to go.

Before he could fully process what was happening, Shea launched into an elevator pitch – an actual elevator pitch. He started simple. “Send me,” he recalls saying.

As they rode from floor to floor, he blurted out all of the reasons why he was right for the assignment, even as a voice in his head questioned whether he should really be asking to go to an active war zone. He ignored the voice. Iraq was his generation’s war; a war his friends were fighting. It was something being done in his country’s name, and therefore in his name, he said. He felt compelled to bear witness to it, to understand it, to bring home a shred of truth. It didn’t matter that his only international assignment to date had been in Canada, covering climate change. By the time they left the elevator, the editor agreed to consider him. The next day he stopped by her office to again make his case. She eventually agreed.


The assignment led to many more for the magazine, most with a focus on conflict, displacement, and other aspects of social justice – topics rarely touched in NGM. Shea has covered the war in Afghanistan and the drug cartels in Mexico, illegal tourism in the Paris underground and conflict in East Africa. He often spends two months or more in the field on single assignments and returns with more stories than NGM could reasonably print. He started penning dispatches for his blog, sharing details cut from his stories or glimpses of the reporting process, but there was always more to share.

In 2008 he left his full-time role at NGM in order to freelance there and elsewhere, and is now a contributing editor at Virginia Quarterly Review and The American Scholar. Since 2011 he has been teaching journalism classes at Boston University and creative writing classes at Sewanee, the University of the South. His work has been recognized with gold and silver Lowell Thomas Awards, among others, and he was a finalist for the National Magazine Award and Overseas Press Club Award.

Even as his opportunities accumulated, Shea continued considering new ways to share stories. Eventually an editor convinced him to try Instagram, to share the photos that he was always taking on assignment. His first series is filed under #jadeseaseries2014. He and NGM photographer Randy Olson later collaborated on a joint series, with Shea writing captions to Olson’s photos. The stories depicted the watershed linking southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya.

“We originally thought that creating one hashtag for this project would essentially build a mini-magazine of our posts, something that complemented our work in National Geographic but also transcended it,” said Shea in an email. “[Our posts] have been picked up and passed around, reposted, re-touched, edited, stripped, cut. This was a fascinating—the project took on a life of its own.”

Their collaboration showed that Instagram provides the opportunity to share non-fiction stories as widely as those shared in the pages of any magazine. The challenge is in setting the stories apart from the general cacophony. “There are so many stories out there now,” said Shea. “How do you tell one that is not just lost immediately under the bubbling froth of storytelling… How do we make stories better and how do we actually make them meaningful and larger than ourselves?”


Shea will explore these questions with the Passport to Asia crew in Hong Kong and Siem Reap next week, as Passion Passport and Cathay Pacific kick-off our latest partnership. As a mentor on the journey, he plans to focus on the elements of a story; to discuss the ingredients of a short form story and how we can utilize various platforms to reach wider audiences. He’s offered similar mentorship in discussions at the Instagram headquarters and in presentations at universities and conferences across the U.S., in Iraq, and Italy. Passion Passport is honored to have him joining this journey.

Beyond the elements of storytelling, Passport to Asia’s participants will likely walk away with another lesson from Shea: Follow your instincts.

Instinct inspired Shea to ask for the assignment in that elevator more than a decade ago, an assignment for which he was paired with legendary war photographer Jim Nachtwey. Several weeks in, Shea, the rookie reporter, said he needed to go to Ramadi. The city in central Iraq had only recently been reopened to journalists and was considered the most dangerous in the world. Nachtwey, who had been everywhere, said he wouldn’t go. He advised against it. Shea considered his advice. He stayed up all night debating. Eventually, he went.

“I got my story or what I thought I wanted out of it and it changed my life,” he said. “You have to sometimes ignore what your idols say.”

While most of the participants he’ll mentor in Hong Kong will never face a decision as serious as entering a war zone, any journalist or creative can apply his advice to their work: If there’s a story worth telling, find a way to tell it – and whether you tell it in the nation’s most prominent magazine or on the latest social media platform, tell it well.

Featured photo by Stephen Alvarez

Coming up next on Passion Passport, an introduction to fellow mentor Pei Ketron, who will be joining Passion Passport and Cathay Pacific in Hong Kong.