Photograph by David Guttenfelder
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''Broken flying things are a special sadness.'' A stunning waxwing died in the yard last night. They have unmistakable red tips on their wing feathers that look like sealing wax.
Photograph by David Guttenfelder

Everyday USA: America the Photogenic

The United States of America is big. It’s the third most populous country in the world, and it ranks in the top five for largest countries by total area. From economics to home economics, its 50 states are anything but carbon copies. That’s why Everyday USA, a newly instituted Instagram feed chartered by photographer David Guttenfelder and run along with 12 other photographers, is so necessary. How many Americans are guilty of adding foreign countries to their travel bucket lists over un-visited states in their own country? How much understanding could we gain from seeing a wider edit of life in the United States? Inspired by the other place-focused Instagram accounts like Everyday Africa and Everyday Asia, Everyday USA is a place for a diverse group of visual record keepers to collect and share their documentation of contemporary life in the U.S.A.

I was able to catch up with Guttenfelder over the phone (he was on assignment in Yellowstone for National Geographic) about the new feed, which debuted, fittingly enough, just over a month ago on the 4th of July.

BECKY HARLAN: When did you first have the idea to begin an Everyday USA Instagram account? What inspired you?

DAVID GUTTENFELDER: I was in North Korea sitting around in my hotel when I registered the name “Everyday USA” on Instagram. I didn’t do anything with the account for about a year because I wasn’t living in the U.S. at the time. The name was inspired by the Everyday Africa feed that Peter DiCampo started. I felt that Everyday Africa was an innovative way to use Instagram, and that what they were trying to do was very much a public service. I had already thought about creating a collective of like-minded photographers on Instagram, but I registered that name specifically because I thought of the “Everyday” idea as being larger, that there could be an “Everyday” feed from all over the world, and that the U.S. would be the next great place to do a similar kind of project.

BECKY: You’ve spent your the last 20 years of your career as a photojournalist working outside the U.S. in Africa and Asia. What was the draw to working on a U.S.-focused Instagram initiative?

DAVID: I had developed a real, certain purpose for my international work, and Instagram had become an important part of that. I just moved back to the U.S. in July because of the opportunity I had to be a part of National Geographic’s new photography fellows program, and I decided to launch the account on the 4th of July. So now I’m here, and in many ways I’m starting over. I hadn’t really ever photographed in my home country. I’m re-defining myself as a photographer in America and this is part of it.

“I don’t necessarily seek situations out to photograph. Usually, I’m just out in my regular life, and then I’ll suddenly come across something that strikes me as either funny or beautifully quiet. Usually they’re tiny moments that have to do with light, gestures or juxtapositions. I get a lot of joy out of getting to see these. I suppose that’s the thing that makes me want to take a picture. It’s like I get to keep it and then share it.”—Miki Meek

BECKY: Who are some of the people that are contributing? What’s special about what they’re doing?

DAVID: What we’re really for are serious documentary photographers in America who are using Instagram and social media in innovative ways as part of their work. We’re also trying to find the most diverse voices we can to represent how diverse the country is. We’re working to add more photographers so that we can reflect the rich mixture of people in America.

There were some really obvious people. Ruddy Roye is one of them, he’s a Jamaican-born photographer who lives in New York, and he has done groundbreaking work on Instagram. He writes these incredible, very personal essays about people he meets in New York City. He photographs people that most of us would never be willing to walk up to and talk to, and he forces people to look them in the eyes and to understand their story. He does it with Instagram, which is creating a community and reaching people in a way that he can’t do in any other way. He’s been doing this for a long time.

“I am motivated by the different way I have to live in America. It is a different culture, so for me to fit in I have to learn how to fit in. Finding people who are just like me, or who have stories similar to my upbringing, is how I go about telling their and my tales.”—Ruddy Roye

Then there are others who are kind of new to the medium who have picked it up and just run with it. One of them is Jon Lowenstein. He’s a photographer based in Chicago, and he’s been photographing life in the South Side. He’s been a part of that community for years. His Instagram is like a community newspaper—it’s a way to tell the world what’s going on in the neighborhood.

“In many ways the United States is progressing. Yet the country is still facing many of the negative forces that continue to shape the economic, political, and social reality for many United States dwellers. My dream for Everyday USA is to bring together a diverse group of photographers who are dedicated to confronting some of the more difficult and challenging issues of our time in a direct and honest way without the pressure of a financial imperative from the client or an editorial bent.”—Jon Lowenstein

BECKY: How is Everyday USA different from the other “Everyday” feeds like Africa and Asia?

DAVID: The other feeds have their own tone, their own point of view and purpose. Everyday Africa, for Peter, was really about African photographers and emerging photographers telling their own stories and challenging the stereotypes. It was about showing that it’s not just drama and problems and misery in Africa. Everyday USA isn’t really like that. We have a tradition of feature photography in our newspapers so I don’t think that portraying the everyday—the normal, the happy—is the problem in the U.S. The Everyday USA feed is about trying to photograph things that people overlook or refuse to see, things that come from places that they don’t go or they don’t know about. So you know, Ruddy Roye’s pictures of people struggling in their lives in New York might be really surprising to those living in Iowa, but Danny Wilcox Frazier is driving around in what he calls “The Sticks,” and that’s probably just as surprising to the people living in New York.

BECKY: What are some of the ways that you’ve been engaging with the United States through the account? Has there been any carry over from your previous international work?

DAVID: When I was in North Korea I used to do this thing called “artifacts.” I would find or buy objects and photograph them in a very sterile product shot, like a North Korean roll of toilet paper. It became a fun project on Instagram about cultural artifacts. So I started doing that here. Instead of shooting a North Korea propaganda button, I’m photographing the ice bucket at the Super 8 Motel and Black Cat firecrackers—the ubiquitous objects in America that say something about the country and spark my memory of growing up here. I think people get that I’m approaching my own country in the same way an anthropologist would. America feels a bit like a foreign country to me right now.

BECKY: How do you make the feed work as a group? What have you learned from posting alongside the others?

DAVID: We set up some basic rules about how we use our feed. It’s very much of the platform, it’s not a place where we re-post old pictures. We share the account and share the voice equally, it’s not curated by one person. People post what they like when they like, and it’s up to the photographers to look at what other people are photographing and to try and bear in mind that we’re editing and curating this together. Our hope is that through many voices we’ll create a collective view of the country. The comments are one of the most interesting thing about Instagram all around—they open up discussions and arguments, and I’m learning about my country by the way that people react to all the pictures, not just my own images.

“On my own Instagram account I’ve used the platform to think about the ways in which social media are informing and/or changing my own creative process. I’m only getting my feet wet with EverydayUSA, but the idea I’ve started working with is to investigate the meaning of social media while actually photographing in the real-world social landscape of the U.S.”—Alec Soth

BECKY: Is there a clear vision for the future?

DAVID: I want it to be about community and taking people along with you. That’s what’s fun. We’re doing it out of love. No one in the group has any idea of where exactly this is going or any expectation that this would be some easily defined professional thing. We all recognize how powerful Instagram can be in creating community and reaching people, and it’s an incredible reporting tool. Every time I post I get people writing back to me “Oh the reason they do that thing is…” or “You should come photograph this thing here.” I think that Instagram created an ecosystem, and it’s up to the rest of us to figure out what to do with it. Say there’s a major issue in our country, there’s the hope that we’d be able to fan out and contribute to documenting it. But right now we’ll just keep having fun and learning from each other.

“Only in New York there are so many different realities that exist in one city. I do my best to get to know different sides of the city and different kinds of people that live there and not stay in a bubble. Even the phrase “documenting America” is something that makes me excited because it can mean so many different things and creative possibilities are endless.”—Malin Fezehai

Images from Everyday USA will be on view at Photoville from September 18-28 at Pier 5 in Brooklyn Bridge Park as part of an upcoming exhibit featuring work from “Everyday” accounts throughout the world. Read about the exhibit here.

Follow Becky Harlan on Instagram and Twitter.