Everyday Africa: Stories Between the Headlines
In March 2012, two photojournalists — Peter DiCampo and Austin Merrill — decided in the middle of a project in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, to begin a new, raw media outlet, which portrayed the mundane and casual life of everyday Africans on iPhones and Instagram. A year on, Everyday Africa curates photography from journalists across the continent, and they’re looking to involve locals, too. We spoke to Peter DiCampo to see why he think these images have captured our attention.
What made you decide to start Everyday Africa?
Austin Merrill and I were in Ivory Coast, and we were working on a very specific story on the aftermath of crisis and conflict there. He and I were both Peace Corps volunteers in west Africa, so we spent two years of our lives living in villages. We noticed all of these in-between, daily life, mundane moments, and we realized that, working as journalists, you don’t even shoot these moments. You edit them out ahead of time because they don’t fit into the story you’re trying to tell, which is kind of one of the funny parts about journalism: In some cases, it’s kind of preconceived. In order for a story to make sense, you have to look for certain things.
So we wanted to capture all these other things we were seeing as we went along, which is basically the stream of daily life. Of course “stream” is the key word, because the perfect way to shoot it and the perfect medium to share it is on places like Tumblr, and shooting it on a phone, casually. I think casual and mundane are the key words for this project.
Do you think that it’s a failing of the media that news coverage has to focus on these basic narratives we have of Africa?
I don’t know that I’d call it a failing of media because by its very nature media is there to look at the big events, so you’re often seeing the extremes: either the crisis or these stories of rich Africa.
In the US, or the UK, we do often see stories of poverty in western countries. But when I look at a story of poverty in the US, I see this family going through these depressing moments; but because the setting is more familiar, I know it’s not like their entire lives are lived in extreme moments. When the setting, to our eyes, looks as exotic as an African setting looks, you very easily have the assumption—– if you see 10 pictures of Africa, and all of them are of starving people looking sad in a refugee camp — you just have this natural assumption that’s what life is like for people all the time.
I’m not really sure there’s something the traditional media could do to correct this; it’s not their role. But I do think there’s an amazing role for social media to correct it. Aside from Everyday Africa, you have a simple fact that American and European youth can be following African youth on Tumblr, and understanding that their lives are more similar than they realize.
Is that what you’ve seen from your travels?
There are obvious differences. It’s not like we live in a hut. But I mean much more basic than that, in terms of how our time is spent, doing basic everyday things. Every culture in the world has a strong emphasis on family, has a love of a good meal, has a love of certain types of music. We can lose sight of similarities that are that basic if we just look at the news.
And you’re shooting this on your phone; it’s very much rough and ready.
I think there’s something interesting about keeping it on a phone only. For me as a photographer, it’s interesting in the way it has me shoot, which is much more casual. I find that my images are a little less composed, which I like in terms of the audience we’re trying to reach.
The other thing is all the implications of mobile technology in Africa. We’re going to start including a lot of the work of local Africans, as well as trying to look at what regular people are capturing on their phones anyways. It becomes a cliche to talk about this, but it’s amazing to see the influx of cell phones on the continent. Every time I go back, it seems more and more people have phones, and it’s got to the point that when I visit a village in the Ivory Coast, everyone is photographing me on their phones.
What is it that makes the everyday image so powerful?
I have to say, I’m constantly shocked at how much attention we’ve gotten with a project based on normalcy. It’s mindblowing that it’s apparently enough of an interest to get people’s attention. What I think that means is we are not alone in realizing that this is a gap, that this is something we don’t normally see. It’s a fine line … we want to photograph the mundane, but we want the pictures to be interesting. I think the key element is these are moments we’ve seen in our own lives, in the places we live, and just simply don’t see in a place that seems as foreign as Africa does.
There are people, photographers, who have said, “You know, if you want to photograph on your phone, that’s the sort of thing you should use to photograph your girlfriend or your family.” To me, that’s exactly the reason we should be photographing Africa with phones. It’s just a family snap of a foreign place that you don’t usually see.
* * *
In the past few months, Lindsay Mackenzie, a Canadian freelance photojournalist based out of Spain and Tunisia, has joined Everyday Africa’s ranks. She tells us about how societies’ similarities can bring together western and African youth.
How did you get involved?
I got an iPhone last year — my sister gave me her old one — so I started using Instagram and at some point I read about Everyday Africa. I really like their philosophy because having spent a lot of time in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, I get where they’re coming from when they say what they see and experience in Africa and what they see from the other side of the world in coverage is different. We only really see the extremes and the worst cases. People say, “Oh, it must’ve been really terrible being in Tunisia.” Not at all. I lived by the sea. They have fashion shows, and art events, and people go to the beach and the mall. I wanted to show this is a very normal place most of the time.
So this is filling in the gaps TV news and print media miss?
Yeah. There’s only every one story about Equatorial Guinea. Google it. You’ll only read about Teodoro Obiang and the depth of his dictatorship. While that’s valid, it’s nice to show that people go get pedicures at the market, or that there’s really beautiful in the south. You usually see pictures of Africa that have been filtered through editors and through the constraints of print. It’s what people think we should see. With iPhones and Instragram, there’s nobody between you taking the photo and the person on the other side seeing it.
How important is using a phone for the photos?
I think the type of people using Instagram are a much younger generation. When you think of a 15-year old on Instagram, when they see an Instagram-style photo from Equatorial Guinea or Namibia, they’re used to that. It brings it closer to them, being in the photographic language they know how to speak. The whole photo and platform makes people more normal, more human.
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