“If you work with a massive NGO, it’s difficult to come out without pictures of refugees, which fits into a stereotype,” says Austin Merrill, co-founder of The Everyday Projects, a group that aim to “convey a more accurate view of daily life than what is commonly seen in the media.” Merrill says those stereotypical pictures should “live next to other photographs that give you a different sense of the reality of that country”.
In a recent post we looked at how Instagram is becoming the new frontier in NGO marketing. The Everyday Projects uses Instagram to challenge the negative images commonly seen in the media, particularly from the Global South. We spoke to its co-founder to find out about how we can fight the stereotypes that distort our understanding of worlds different than ours.
By Carolina Are
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Material Culture, Bulawayo Zimbawe. As most adults queue at banks and fuel stations across the country in a burdened Zimbabwe, A group of youths enjoy their days. A group who call themselves Material Culture, made up of youths from various townships around the country’s second city of Bulawayo, meet up to pit against each other in showing off their dancing skills and fashion prowess. _____________________________ Photo Credit | Zinyange Auntony @zinyange.auntony _____________________________ #ForeverYoung #EverydayZimbabwe #EverydayAfrica #Photojournalism #ReportageSpotlight #Youth #Culture #Dance #Fashion
How To Cover Faraway Countries In The 2010s
There is a growing consensus in the aid world and in some corners of journalism, that local citizens should tell their own stories. But Merrill argues that parachute journalism is still a challenge – where western journalists come and speak on behalf of local citizens: “That’s the nature of the [journalism] business,” he says. Moreover, these journalists tend to focus on the most negative issues in ways that can further victimise their subjects. Merrill believes that these important stories can and should be told in different ways:
“Maybe we don’t have to go to a refugee camp and tell these stories in a way that victimises refugees. It’s almost doubly evil, they’re already in precarious situation and some pictures victimise them even more.“There are ways to picture people with respect, without falling into visual tropes. It takes work, but there are photographs of people who are homeless, who have HIV or are refugees where you wouldn’t necessarily know that from looking at the picture. You get a deeper story in the caption.”
Merrill uses the example of different pictures of the opioid crisis in USA: for him, certain photographs of drug users painted them like human beings, closer to home, in a “that could be me” scenario. Others made them look like “monsters on the moon, distorted, out of place, jarring, so your reaction is revulsion.” This reporting may come from a good place – it may be an attempt to raise awareness and help reach a solution. Yet, the public reaction is often the opposite: “It makes us push people away, it makes us treat them as other. It makes us think we don’t want them to live next to us and our children, it makes the problem worse. When you treat those individuals with respect, it makes us connect in a deeper way.”
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A model being groomed backstage during the beauty and fashion show event dubbed Mr and Miss Kibera on December 11th, 2018. The event celebrates and nurtures young leaders in the slum. Photo by © Bryan @kiberastories #everydayeverywhere #everydayafrica #kibera #model #storitellah #fashion #kiberastories
Merrill believes we need to talk to photo editors about the ways in which they might change their process of assigning photographers to stories. “Old-school Western models saw sending people who look like me to parts of the world to photograph stories from those places as the main thing to do. We need to amplify local story tellers so they can seize control of their narratives.” He adds:
“Outside perspectives are important, but we want to pair that with local voices which are as important if not more so. We should bolster the work that local photographers are doing and connect editors with photographers.”
Everyday Africa was born in 2012 while on assignment in Ivory Coast, but it didn’t start on Instagram straight away. Back then, Austin Merrill and Peter DiCampo, a writer and photographer respectively, were both journalists who worked frequently in Africa. Merrill, who had previously lived in the Ivory Coast as a Peace Corps volunteer and, later, was based there as a reporter, knew the country very well; he had covered its political instability, as well as the efforts to rebuild and recover after a civil war. Yet he and DiCampo, who had been a Peace Corps volunteer and journalist in neighboring Ghana, wanted to do more than just report on the kind of thing we usually see in the news from that part of the world.
“As under-reported as the story in Ivory Coast was, we became very frustrated by the fact that what we were doing was producing another piece that was exactly what you see from that part of the world: another story from Africa about refugees, civil war, poverty.“What was more important was to show people what life was like most of the time – the thing you never see on the news. We’d lived there, we knew that place was a place where life was very normal for people the majority of the time.”
The question was how to capture that. They began taking pictures of everyday life with their phones, trying to find a way to make those pictures interesting to look at and sharing them with each other.
In March 2012, Merrill and DiCampo put their shots on tumblr, calling the blog ‘Everyday Africa’. “It was a little audacious,” Merrill says. “It’s just one continent but there are 54 countries!” As the project began gaining an audience, they started sharing the idea with their friends working across Africa. They quickly had half a dozen people in half a dozen countries on board. The team started to include photographers and freelancers from Egypt, Tanzania, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, Congo and more.
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Growing up in Nigeria, just about everyone I knew had superstitions around cats – carriers of evil spirits, witches, demons – some people would even intentionally drive over them (and other animals) believing that by killing one, you save a human life. There are of course, just as many cat-lovers with traditional beliefs that cats bring healing, drawing away illness from their owners. Possible? Anyway, there can never be enough images around us being compassionate towards animals. Foster kitten GuGu-Gin (who is in high adoption demand 😂), getting a visit from the vet. By @yagazieemezi (Yagazie Emezi) #iphoneonly #6s #streetphotography #lagos #nigeria #everydayafrica #documentaryphotography #issacatpost #yagazieemezi
In September 2012 they created the Everyday Africa Instagram account, and their popularity exploded. Back then, Instagram had a ‘suggested user’ feature, recommending accounts to follow to new joiners, which contributed to their swift growth. Everyday Africa began to take the shape of a community, and Merrill and DiCampo started to manage it, giving it some direction. They gained attention from The New York Times and The New Yorker, but also from international news outlets in Japan, Italy and other countries. Everyday Africa had gone viral.
The Everyday Projects
In 2014 Merrill and DiCampo spotted an Everyday Asia account on Instagram. After reaching out the creators of both accounts found they had very similar goals with their posts: they wanted to use Instagram photography to counter stereotypical narratives from different parts of the world. From there, accounts all over the world started popping up organically. People began suggesting that Merrill and DiCampo trade mark the idea, but they weren’t interested. They would rather let it grow and see what other people might do with the concept.
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Girls sort through picture of pop stars at a street market in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo by @allisonsarahjoyce
2014 also saw them take part in the Photoville festival in Brooklyn thanks to a collaboration with Instagram, which saw that the Everyday concept could challenge audiences to understand Instagram’s potential as a documentary platform
Instagram helped bring some of the early Everyday feeds together at Photoville. Their first general meetings included Everyday Latin America, Asia, Iran, Jamaica, and Middle East, and took place at the New York offices of the Open Society Foundations. For three days, they sat in a big conference room to figure out what direction to take. They decided The Everyday Projects would be a non-profit, loose confederation of like-minded communities aiming to rise above stereotypes through photography.
Since then, accounts picturing incarceration, climate change, American Muslims and more have popped up. Merrill says that not everyone who starts an Everyday account sustains it, but dozens of them have remained active. The photographers volunteer their photos to the feeds, but many have found that working on the Everyday Projects gets them exposure and paid work elsewhere.
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Photo by Shan Wallace (@_yoshann via @authoritycollective), a Baltimore (USA) based photographer, visual artist and freedom fighter. Authority Collective represents Womxn, femmes, non-binary, trans, and gender non-conforming people of color reclaiming their authority in photo, film and VR/AR. They have just released an important open letter to the photography world. Check out stories to find out more about the letter and Shan Wallace. Photo Caption: Despite this chaotic world, love blossoms anyway. “As a child born and raised in Baltimore, I was confronted with harsh realities rooted in racial and economic divides and misfortunes that shaped the course of my development. As a Baltimorean actively working and living within impoverished communities, I use these images to envision Black subjectivity and Black communities as they confront and adapt to the realities of marginalization. America’s perceptions of Black Americans is accompanied by derogatory images and assumptions that exploit, shame, and misrepresent Black people. We have witnessed the distortion of the image of black women in movies and on television and now social media. We have seen black people’s faces and bodies shamed and exploited. What we have not seen is the simple truth of their lives. I document the everyday life of Black Americans. I am positioned as a photographer, but, more importantly, an observer of Black people living their everyday lives in Baltimore, refusing and rejecting city corruption and dysfunction, striving and fighting to survive a failing government, low wages, a decline in population, growing segregation, redlining. But more importantly, fighting to just be, while being habitually and inherently impoverished and navigating its effects in the present. My work serves to represent larger systemic experiences and injustices in Black America as a whole.” . Hello, citizens of our planet! I’m @hari_adivarekar, an independent photographer from India and I will be the guest curator here this week. Please tag your images with #everydayeverywhere #authoritycollective #humanrights #baltimore #love #everydayeverywhere #everydayblackamerica
The main Everyday Africa team was initially very ‘Western’, almost entirely American, and largely based in Africa. Merrill and DiCampo began to diversify, although he says: “We didn’t know this was turning into an organisation, we didn’t have applications, we would just reach out to people and ask if they wanted to join.” The new African photographers they have recently added include:
At the moment, Everyday Africa count between 35 and 40 photographers as members. Approximately 20 of them are currently active. Merrill himself posts when he’s there, but at least three-fourths of the photographers are African, and they’re planning to have more locals join in the future. To facilitate this, DiCampo and Merrill teamed up with World Press to create the African Photojournalism Database as a way to gather names and information and help build a community. Several hundred photographers and journalists are now in that database.
Merrill and DiCampo now focus most of their efforts on The Everyday Projects. Merrill left his position as an editor at Vanity Fair in 2017, but still writes. He and DiCampo are trying to take the project further, with an educational focus: they are going to middle schools and high schools in America, using it as a launching point to teach storytelling and how to use photography to tell your own story. They talk to kids about misperceptions, using Everyday Africa and the other Everyday feeds to help them discuss the stereotypes they’re burdened with and to help them tell their own local story.
Using Instagram To Challenge Stereotypes About Faraway Countries and Our Own
Everyday Africa’s main platform is Instagram, although they do repost their work on Facebook, Twitter and other sites. Merrill says the platform encourages different photography and posting styles: “Sometimes the perfect caption is brief, sometimes it’s a paragraph. We leave it up to the photographer.”
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Oral tales in Sidama region of Ethiopia speak of Queen Furra, a queen that was feminist in her own terms, in great length. Furra had a special place among Sidama women as she would advise them to never submit to their husbands whereas men disliked her because she would order them for impossible tasks like bringing her water with sieve or building her a house on air. After ruling for several years, the men plotted against her and put her on the back of a giraffe that run so fast and tored her apart. To this day, there are areas in Sidama by the name of Hallo(waist) and Dassie (Hand) that the people protect as legend has it that her limbs, head and waist were scattered at these places. “No one dares to go there and cut trees. It’s like a dense forest now.” said Asfaw, a man born in Sidama. On the image above, a woman makes coffee in the Furra coffee house of Furra Developmental Studies Center which was named after the legendary queen of medieval Ethiopia. Photo by Maheder @maile_tadese Nov 2018 #maile_tadese #everydayethiopia #everydayafrica #everydayeverywhere #queenfurra
One challenge Everyday Africa presents is how to find a way to cover all regions of the continent without overwhelming the audience. Merrill says ideally you’d want to portray every area, but you also don’t want to flood the feed with too many images, potentially overloading the viewer. There tend to be between one and three pictures posted a day.
“Social media is such an amazing tool to learn more about the world, but the unanticipated negative consequences of it are a bit of a shock,” says Merrill. Trolling, echo chambers, and interpretations of posts that were different from what the authors intended, are just some of the challenges of working online. Everyday Africa tried to overcome this in their recently published book:
“We wanted to do a book, and one of the challenges was: how do you do a book and make it different from just a repetition of the Instagram feed? The idea we landed on was that we saw from the commentary on Instagram there were interesting conversations, a window into what people were thinking about these parts of the world.”
For Merrill, looking at Everyday Africa is a personal experience: you look at a picture and have your own reaction to it. With the book, readers are placed in a “multi-leveled reality to dig into misperceptions”. This was achieved through chapters made solely of images, forcing the reader to form their own opinion about them, with each chapter followed by a section of selected commentary from the Instagram feed.
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We’ve made a few more @everydayafrica books available! Link in our profile – use the code EVERYDAY when you checkout for a $5 discount through the end of the year. These are sold out elsewhere, get one while they last!! Photos by @africashowboy @asenbrennerova @gboxcreative @guillaumebonn @thesestreetsza @dcoreraphotography @pdicampo @edward_echwalu @laura_el_tantawy @yagazieemezi @andrewesiebo @malinfezehai @glennagordon @janehahn @i_am_idil @mamoudinijad @lindsay_mackenzie @austin_merrill @hollypickettpix @whitney_rich @christinarizk @tomsaater @sam.vox @allisonshelley @charlieshoemaker @ricci_s @nicholesobecki @saraterry13 @leyuwera1 @shannonje Essays by @maazamengiste @africashowboy @austin_merrill @pdicampo @everydaystephen Design by @teunvdh Published by @kehrerverlag Thanks for making this book possible @photowings @pulitzercenter @opensocietyfoundations and all of our @kickstarter backers!
Merrill says: “For the reader willing to do this work, you see the photos, have your own reactions to them and then you look at the commentary, and think, ‘Where did that come from? I didn’t see any pictures that elicited that type of response!'” It’s a process to connect your ideas with others’ to understand how misperceptions are formed.
New Media and Humanitarian Issues
Our interview with The Everyday Projects team is the first looking at how new media, and especially Instagram, are being used to provide content alongside humanitarian journalism and NGO communication content. We’re keen to hear your thoughts and recommendations on other platforms and accounts to feature.