I have been a big fan of Everyday Africa for 2-3 years now, so I was delighted when Peter DiCampo, one of the founders, kindly agreed to an interview. Published on Instagram, Everyday Africa is a collection of mobile phone photography which combats the clichés that depict Africa as a place of only poverty, disease, and war. The photographers who are native to Africa or have lived there for years at a time, find the extreme not nearly as prevalent as the familiar, the everyday. Here are Peter’s answers to my questions.
Please give me a bit of background information about yourself and what motivated you to start Everyday Africa
I began my career as a photojournalist just before moving to northern Ghana as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2006 – so, from the beginning, I questioned the narrative that I was helping to propagate by focusing mostly on stories of disease, poverty, and conflict in West Africa. My two years living in a village showed me that there was much more to rural Ghanaian life, and this extends of course to rural and urban life across the continent and beyond. But, there are few places to share these stories.
Everyday Africa began in Ivory Coast in March 2012. Austin Merrill and I were traveling as a writer / photographer team covering the continued strife a year after the country’s post-election violence and the cocoa trade that is the root of turmoil there. Austin is intimately familiar with the country, having lived there at a couple different points in his life (he was a Peace Corps Volunteer there in the mid nineties and then a journalist living there at various points), and I had been there before as a photojournalist, and of course had lived several years “next-door” in Ghana. During the March 2012 trip we began shooting photos on our phones, very casually, and it occurred to us that those images felt much more familiar to us than the ones I was “professionally” shooting for the story we were there to tell.
Having outlined that story above – as you can imagine, it was a bit preconceived. I think often about the process of photojournalism – going into a story, you often feel you “know” the images needed to tell it. If it’s a story with phrases like “continued ethnic violence,” you feel you need photos of refugees, burned down homes, survivors with horrific stories to tell, etc. These are the images that will make sense to the reader; that he or she will find palatable. But there’s an inherent contradiction here: if we’re giving the reader images he or she already expects, then the story reinforces preconceptions and doesn’t teach anything new. Along the way, we also see a lot of daily life moments, but we often pre-edit these out of our story by not even photographing them. Austin and I decided to photograph them.
A couple months later, we were both on the continent again, at the same time but in different locations – he in Nigeria and Zimbabwe, me in Uganda. We kept shooting on our phones, and this time around started a Tumblr blog so we could share the images with each other and a wider audience in real time, or close to it. In the months that followed, we found that a lot of our colleagues shared our frustrations with coverage of the continent and were excited to have an outlet for the day-to-day images. We migrated to Instagram (but kept the Tumblr too) to extend our reach, and things grew rather quickly.
How did you publicise the blog and Instagram sites? How did you get photographers to contribute?
We could never have imagined how big this would become. The first way of publicizing it was simply on our own – we started the Tumblr, we posted about it on our Facebook page. Other photographers we knew were drawn to it – at first, other foreign correspondents living on the continent who shared our frustrations, and then eventually more African photographers. (The bulk of the feed is now African photography).
Then it snowballed. The New York Times Lens blog wrote about us, and a few other mainstream publications. Instagram put it on their “suggested user” list, and that made our following grow exponentially.
Is it mainly Western or African photographers who contribute their imagery? What motivates photographers to to be part of Everyday Africa?
In total, it is an even split. However, it was a lot more Western photographers early on, and is now majority African. In the forthcoming book, the number of photographers is half and half, but the number of photographs are majority made by Africans. As far as motivations, I think they feel it builds on their profile and career (some have certainly received assignments via Everyday Africa, for example), but the main reason, I think, is more ideologic: they believe in the mission of showing a different side of the continent, regardless of their background. They enjoy seeing their photos used in the educational initiatives we have, and simply having a platform and an audience for this kind of imagery.
Do you have any examples of African photographers contributing to Everyday Africa that have received jobs/commissions as a result of the publicity?
Just a few days ago, a photo editor from Buzzfeed reached out to me to ask for Edward Echwalu’s info. I’m not sure if the assignment panned out yet, but we get that kind of thing often. Nana Kofi Acquah, Andrew Esiebo, Tom Saater - these guys have all received assignments as a result of their increased social media presence, and I think it’s safe to say that Everyday Africa is a part of that.
We’ve also worked with World Press Photo to create the African Photojournalism Database, because we wanted to find a way to spread these opportunities beyond just our set contributors. See these two links:
signup here: http://apjd.org
database here: https://blink.la/organizations/apjd
How do you curate Everyday Africa? Do you ever censor images?
Actually, we really only curate the photographers, which I will get into. But as far as the images, we give our contributors the login information and set them loose. We don’t select the images. We instruct the photographers to interpret those words, Everyday Africa, however they see fit, and the only real rule is that they don’t post on top of each other. We have never deleted or edited an image. There have been a handful of times (maybe two?) that we have asked a photographer to edit their caption, always for the sake of clarity and not for the sake of content.
As far as selecting photographers, at first it was very organic. People would ask us, and if they seemed to have an intimate relationship with the continent (or a specific country), were thinking along the same lines as us in terms of broadening perceptions, and were skilled photographers, we generally said yes. Lately, it has been more organized, as we are drawing a few new contributors a year from the African Photojournalism Database, and looking more specifically on diversity as we try to find photographers in countries where we don’t currently have anyone based.
How powerful is photography in changing people’s perceptions about Africa?
I think it’s very powerful. We build these perceptions based on what we see – to put it simply, people do not realize that normal, daily-life moments occur because they do not usually see them. In paying attention to the commentary our photos elicit on Instagram, we’ve seen this happen in the most basic way, often with presumably young people: “I didn’t know they had cars”, “I didn’t know they had phones”, that kind of thing is very common in our feed. I think Everyday Africa has much deeper implications than that, broadening in many ways our understanding of the continent even for people who are more tuned in – but providing that very basic burst of those misconceptions for people at a young age is, I believe, very important.
There have been several campaigns to change narratives about Africa such as #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou, #IfAfricaWasABar etc. How important is social media as a counter to stereotypical images of Africa?
Social media is hugely important. I believe very strongly in showing things from multiple perspectives. Traditional media has a role, but as it presents a specific story-based narrative (conflict in Ivory Coast, for example), it doesn’t often have space for these other views.
What are you 5 favourite photographs on Everyday Africa and why?
When I think about my favorite photos from the project, they tend to fall into two categories. The first is, simply, the daily life moments that often go undocumented. Nana Kofi Acquah’s photo of women greeting each other with a handshake by the roadside in Burkina Faso.
Glenna Gordon’s photo of a couple celebrating their one-year wedding anniversary in Lagos, Nigeria. Edward Echwalu’s photo of a midwife gently touching an expectant mother’s shoulder as she speaks to her in a health center in Uganda. The other category is, loosely, the type of photograph that speaks metaphorically to our project, the push and pull of the Africa we imagine versus the one that is more real, the old clashing with the new. Tom Saater’s photo of a woman named Ginika wearing a white wig as she heads to graduate from law school in Abuja, Nigeria.
Austin’s photo of a safari in Zimbabwe, in which we see smartphones and tablets but only the smallest glimpse of an animal.
Of course, the list goes on and on!
I understand you are involved with educational work. Can you tell me more about it?
Since Everyday Africa’s first work in school classrooms, in December 2013, we have seen more than 2,500 students. A grant from the Open Society Foundations allowed us to build a pilot curriculum that we launched in March 2014 with a group of 16 middle and high school students in the Bronx, in New York City. That workshop, spanning eight classes over two months, taught students about stereotypes, photography, how journalism gets made, and truth in storytelling. Since then, thanks to funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, we have run similar workshops in Chicago, Washington DC, and Mombasa, Kenya. For the Mombasa program, we had the students collaborate with peers in a Chicago high school—the students discussed, via Skype, their stereotypes of each other, and then shared images of their school and home communities to tell the stories of their everyday lives. Students use Everyday Africa’s photography to learn about what life is really like in Africa, and then apply those lessons to their own lives, telling the stories of their own communities through photography. You can see our current curriculum here: https://pulitzercenter.atavist.com/everyday-africa-curriculum-
Why have you decided to publish a book now? What are the main objectives of publishing a book?
The answer to “why now” is because we wanted to do it while there is still a buzz surrounding the project – we hope there will be for a long time, but we can’t know for sure! Instagram is changing, new platforms coming up – it seemed a good idea to encapsulate this work now. The book comments on a very specific form of communication that is ever evolving, and it seemed best to set it in print before it is unrecognizable. The book, for me, is a very exciting object. It includes the strongest photography, as well as Instagram commentary. Creating it presented us with the unique challenge of translating a social media project to the printed page – including the commentary makes the book into a document not only of the Everyday Africa project, but also of the many perceptions that we cast onto a continent and of how we communicate today.
The comments range from paternalistic and racist to funny to the very familiar, people commenting that the photo is from their hometown, for example. It is a marker of increased connectivity, the need for us to dispel antiquated notions of Africa, and the need for more localized storytelling. Some of the conversations go on for quite a long time, and become fascinating discussions on how we read imagery. For example, an image of women carrying things on their heads (of course a common sight across the continent) prompts a heated debate on our understanding of poverty: some commenters, many of them African, argue that the photo shows heavy labor and serves only to perpetuate a poor view of the continent, while others argue that ignoring this sight would be an even greater disservice, as we would then be asserting that only “Western” can be synonymous with “normal”. The conversation raises many questions on empathy and visual literacy, to say the least. We’ll use the book in our educational programming as well. We’ve worked with a number of partners and supporters – Pulitzer Center, Open Society Foundations, PhotoWings – to create a curriculum on media creation, stereotypes, and photography. Studying the conversations from the Instagram feed adds another layer – it’s a direct lesson in cross-cultural communication, comparing how people see themselves to outside perceptions.
Are there any plans for an exhibitions, and if so where?
We’ve had a number of exhibitions in the past, see our full list of Everyday Africa exhibitions here At the moment, we have work showing in BredaPhoto and FotoIstanbul. The book launches with an exhibition at AddisFoto in December. In 2017, we’re hoping to have a number of exhibitions that coincide with book launches.
What advice would you give to other people wanting to use photography for social change?
Experiment, experiment, experiment. There is no recipe for this stuff. We, for example, never could have known the impact we would have. Look at what is out there already (in terms of subject matter, but also in terms of how it is displayed) and see what you think works for your project, your issue, your passion, the change you want to make, and the audience you want to reach, and then try it, and then try something else too. We’re on social media, but we’re also in classrooms, in galleries, in publications, making a book, and even experimenting with theater. Some of those will reach a broad number of people but only on the surface level; others will have a deeper impact but only reach a few people. It’s very difficult to know what method will reach which group of people, and how. For more specific campaigns, try targeting specific change-makers (government officials, etc). For stories that aren’t receiving enough attention, try very public displays, in the vein of what #Dysturb is doing. Be targeted but be creative.
EVERYDAY AFRICA BOOK
Featuring some of the best images project, the book Everyday Africa: 30 Photographers Re-Picturing a Continent, showcases photos of ordinary life that find beauty in stories rarely seen, shifting perception from the ensationalized extremes to a more textured, familiar reality. Photographs run alongside sections of Instagram commentary inspired by the images. Shocking, funny, and heart-felt, the comments are lighthearted one moment, caustic the next, speaking volumes about widely held perceptions of Africa while underscoring the continent’s increased connectivity in a globalized world. Together they justify the project’s very existence. To be one of the first owners of the book please support the Everyday Africa Kickstarter campaign.
A huge thank you to Peter for this detailed and fascinating Q&A. I hope you learn as much from this post as I did. I spent 3 thoroughly enjoyable hours on Sunday familiarising myself again with the Everyday Africa Instagram images. To finish, here’s a couple of my personal favourites from the project. I can’t wait for the book….