Life in Africa, Unfiltered
For many in the photography community, the Everyday Africa Instagram account is a beacon for mobile photography success. For its creators, Peter DiCampo and Austin Merrill, it’s a concept that unexpectedly blossomed and took flight worldwide. Everday Africa was featured in National Geographic magazine’s October 2013 photography issue and has received other numerous accolades from the photography community. The new Everyday Africa website was launched earlier this week and it offers a re-imagined way to experience the Instagram feed. I corresponded with DiCampo over email and asked him to tell me the backstory behind Everyday Africa.
JANNA DOTSCHKAL: How did you originally get the idea for the Everyday Africa Instagram account?
PETER DICAMPO: In March 2012, Austin Merrill and I were traveling in Ivory Coast working on a story about that country’s post-conflict situation. Austin has lived several years in Ivory Coast at different points in his life, and the same is true for me of Ghana—so even as we covered serious issues of continued violence, refugees, rape victims, et cetera, we started casually photographing the moments we stumbled upon in between our reporting. These felt more familiar to us, and in truth, it was a relief to be able to capture moments that were outside the pre-conceived narrative we had already set for ourselves. I find photojournalism is often very illustrative—perhaps more than we tend to admit—and I think it is this mentality, of going and looking for an (often negative) story and then feeling the need to show only images that adhere to that story, that reinforces stereotypes. Even as Austin and I reported a story we felt the world should know about, we found that we could use the casual nature of phone photography and the immediacy of Instagram and Tumblr to fill in an important gap of coverage: the normal.
JANNA: What kinds of images work well for the feed? What distinguishes them from other images of Africa?
PETER: I tend to not give our contributors too much specific direction, but for myself, personally, I feel nothing is off limits. If I’m photographing in a refugee camp by day and staying in a nice hotel by night, then I want to give those two things equal weight. The same is true for everything in between: people eating, hanging out, doing laundry, playing with their children, etc. Usually, our feed is just that casual. At its best, it gets more intimate—Glenna Gordon photographing her Nigerian friends’ first anniversary, Nana Kofi Acquah photographing his children. The other day, at the home of a family I was staying with on part of this trip to Ghana, I photographed a woman bathing her newborn baby grandson in a basin in her bedroom. These things are so basic, yet so important.
We often seem incapable of telling the good alongside the bad. I’ve noticed this about myself from the beginning—when I first got to Ghana in 2006, it was as a Peace Corps volunteer working in Guinea worm eradication. Guinea worm is a nasty water-born parasite, the extraction of which is lengthy and painful. It was what some people (not me) would think of as a photographer’s dream: young children screaming and crying, with several adults holding them down so that they wouldn’t thrash too much. The pictures I took were all zoomed in on their sobbing faces and the arms coming from all directions to hold them down – because if I had stepped back and made a wider shot, you would have seen that all the adults were laughing through the whole process! Guinea worm is painful, I don’t want to downplay that, but it’s not fatal, and people in that part of the world were used to having it. So why not laugh a bit during a tense situation? But I found it too jarring to show the laughter.
JANNA: How has it morphed or evolved since then?
PETER: We’re now 18 photographers approaching 100 thousand followers on Instagram and have been published in major outlets worldwide. That is, however, the least interesting part. We’re getting heavily involved in education: an Open Society Foundation grant allowed us to create a curriculum and pilot it in the Bronx, with 7th and 8th grade students gathering once a week at The Bronx Documentary Center for 8 weeks. The curriculum had students examine our photography, dissect how news is created, compare our work to news images, discuss stereotypes that affect them in their neighborhood, and then learn practical photography skills as they began documenting their own homes.
We’ve also been doing a lot of classroom visits in Chicago and D.C., test-running miniature versions of the curriculum. Now that the pilot phase is over, we’re hoping to ramp things up considerably. We’re in the process of becoming our own non-profit, step-by-step.
At the same time, with further funding from OSF and Pulitzer Center, we worked with an interactive agency to design our own web platform—www.everydayafricaproject.com. It’s vital that we look at what “Everyday Africa” means from a variety of perspectives, moving beyond the viewpoint of professional photography—while the new website elegantly displays our work, it also displays hashtagged #everydayafrica photography from our followers. This helps us show a far greater range of perspectives on daily life in a greater range of countries.
JANNA: What photographers have been involved and what have they contributed?
PETER: We have 18 photographers from various backgrounds. They contribute diversity: Charlie Shoemaker shoots a mix of news, features, and his own semi-hipster lifestyle in Cape Town; Nichole Sobecki is criss-crossing the continent on freelance video assignments and contributing daily life images to us along the way; Jane Hahn shoots city life in Dakar; Andrew Esiebo is on assignment all over Nigeria; Jana Asenbrennerova photographs intimate stories in Democratic Republic of Congo. The list goes on—they are all great photographers, all dedicated to the issues they photograph while simultaneously seeing a need to distribute images that go beyond issue-based reporting, and most important, all very unique. Chances are, I could glance at the feed and very quickly tell you whose image is whose—they all have their own visual style and fingerprint.
JANNA: What is it about Africa that interests or compels you?
PETER: To be honest, I never planned to travel to Africa. I joined the Peace Corps coming out of college, and I was willing to go wherever they sent me—but I fell in love with West Africa very quickly. Ghana forced me out of my shell—you can’t walk down the street here without interacting with nearly everyone. The sense of community I feel when I return to the village I lived in as a volunteer is something I can’t find anywhere else.
I keep coming back to the continent because it always surprises me—the innovations, the constant change. And really, I’ve still barely scratched the surface. I’ve been to more than a dozen African countries, and that’s not comparatively very many.
JANNA: How did the new “Everyday” accounts get launched? Are you interacting with the people who run them?
PETER: There are several “official” new accounts: Everyday Asia, Everyday Middle East, and Everyday Eastern Europe. Those were all started by people who reached out to me and expressed an interest, as the regions they work in have similar issues of media stereotyping. We gave them some advice on getting started, choosing contributors from across their region, etc., and then promoted them together when they launched. There are numerous additional feeds that were launched by people we haven’t met, most of them country-specific (Brazil, Iran, Somalia, etc.), and these seem to range from professional photographers to people who simply liked our idea and ran with it despite being amateur photographers. I find it heartening—we’ve become a movement, and we love seeing how people want to change the representation of their region.
JANNA: What is your vision for Everyday Africa, moving forward?
PETER: The key word for the future is ‘scaling’. We want to refine the education program and bring it everywhere we can—at the moment, we’re considering models that would allow us to accomplish this. One may be to identify interested schools (we can already list many!), and then identify interested local funders. Another possibility is to hold teacher trainings, so that we don’t physically have to attend each class across the nation (and hopefully beyond). We’re in an experimentation phase, and it’s all very exciting.
The web platform will also grow: eventually we’ll need our own mobile app, of course, and more features that we couldn’t cram into version 1.0. I’m also editing a book of our work at the moment, and in doing so I’m trying something I haven’t yet seen done in book form. It’s been an incredibly fun way of revisiting our large archive—but I don’t want to say more and ruin the surprise.
JANNA: Why do you think this idea has been so successful, as shown by the many new iterations?
PETER: I think there was a need for this type of imagery—and not only that, a need for the imagery to reach a wide, engaged audience. From the moment we announced what we were doing, the response has been tremendous: the followers pile on and stay engaged in conversation, the editorial world was on it immediately, and the potential is endless in both education and innovation. It is, again, that rare marriage of simplicity and depth: everyone we speak to about the project is immediately struck by how simple it is, and yet how far the implications reach.
Truthfully, our metric for success is to see ourselves become irrelevant – not because we’ll feel the project is complete, but because eventually people won’t need to look to our feed to see these types of images any more. The beauty of the Everyday Africa project is its simplicity – this isn’t a project that will teach you any great deep truths about Africa. It’s a project with a specific goal of showing the normal, familiar, mundane, everyday moments that commonly go unphotographed and unshared. But in the end, I hope our simplicity is what makes us obsolete, as there is, gradually, an increased variety of the stories told in traditional journalism, and even more important, increased awareness and connectivity through social media. There are enough African photographers on Instagram doing what we do on their own. We just happen to be a project, a collection of many people’s work, African and non-African, and as a project we are easy to find.
Experience Everyday Africa on the web and learn more about the project here.