Picture Story: Everyday Africa on Instagram

June 2, 2014

By David Walker

© Peter DiCampo

A father with his children, Botende, Ivory Coast, 2013. 

If there’s a silver lining to all the turmoil in the publishing business, it is the freedom—even imperative—of photojournalists to experiment with the conventions of narrative, voice and audience engagement. The Instagram-based project called Everyday Africa is a notable example of creativity borne of business disruption.

Launched in 2012 by photographer Peter DiCampo and writer Austin Merrill, the project is a growing collection of images by about 20 contributing photographers that show the continent outside the usual media frame of exploitation, war, poverty and disease.

“The goal is very much to change the perceptions of Africa,” DiCampo says. “We want people to understand that [the Western media’s depictions] are only a small part of the truth.

“To me, it’s all about looking at the notion of [traditional] photojournalism and sort of trying to poke holes in it a little bit,” he adds.

He and Merrill seem to be on to something: Everyday Africa has spurred imitators in Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere. They’ve won grants to use Everyday Africa as a springboard for a pilot program to teach eighth graders in New York City about media stereotypes and visual literacy. Other initiatives stemming from the project are in the works.

It all began when DiCampo and Merrill were in West Africa on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to do a story about the aftermath of the civil war in Ivory Coast, which ended in 2011. The two journalists had proposed telling a conventional story from the perspective of refugees.

“Then of course, you’re looking for all these different images and sources that tell that story, and you tend to pre-edit all this other stuff that you’re seeing,” DiCampo explains. “To us it became important to tell a more complete story [that] mirrored how we knew daily life functions on the continent.”

DiCampo found himself telling the story he’d pitched with “my quote-unquote professional camera” while shooting more personal and spontaneous pictures of everyday life on the streets with an iPhone.

He and Merrill finished the Ivory Coast story, but kept their daily-life project going while working on subsequent assignments, and they were looking for ways to share it. They knew mainstream media wouldn’t be interested because it didn’t fit the mold of stories about Africa.

“The news media is by its very nature so story-based,” and biased toward negative stories about Africa, DiCampo explains. “But our project is even more strange because it’s sort of a project about nothing. It’s just a collection of daily life images for the most part.”

They started a Tumblr to distribute the images themselves, and soon afterwards, launched the project on Instagram, too. “From there we launched into getting other photographers involved [as contributors] who are experiencing the same frustrations” over the stereotypical coverage of Africa.

DiCampo invited photographers whose work he respects and who “understand the project in a deep way, and are either African, or have lived there for significant amounts of time,” he says.

He gives them little direction. “Nothing’s off limits,” he says. “I love it when it’s this behind-the-scenes thing, where you’re kind of going about shooting this crisis story but showing everything else that happens along the way.”

Initially, he sent a monthly newsletter about Everyday Africa to magazine and newspaper editors. That led to stories about the project on Salon.com, The New York Times Lens blog, National Geographic and other online publications.

Everyday Africa was also featured twice on Instagram’s suggested user list, which dramatically boosted the number of followers. At press time, the total was approaching 90,000.

“We realized that our primary audience on Instagram is young people who are learning about the world,” DiCampo says. He and Merrill saw this as an opportunity to help shape perceptions of Africa in audiences still forming ideas about it, “so we kind of went into education from there.”

In partnership with The LAMP, a nonprofit media education organization in New York City, DiCampo and Merrill won an Open Society Foundations Audience Engagement Grant to develop and launch an eight-week course for eighth graders that meets once a week at the Bronx Documentary Center. (The program is also supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.)

The students will “compare our photos to news photos and talk about where preconceived notions come from,” DiCampo explains. The students will also discuss news coverage in their own communities.

“Then they’re going to get some practical photography lessons and they’re going to go out and start telling stories in their communities. And all of that will go onto an Everyday Bronx feed,” he explains.

DiCampo hopes to replicate and expand the program in other cities. At the same time, he and Merrill are using some of the grant money to build a website that expands community participation in the Everyday Africa project. Camera phones are ubiquitous in Africa, and people are already creating their own visual narratives from multiple perspectives, DiCampo says. “There’s just no place to share it. So the website will display not only our photos, but everything that’s hashtagged with Everyday Africa.”

Meanwhile, he’s exploring other ways to leverage the popularity of the project. Now that other Instagram users are launching similar projects in other parts of the world, DiCampo envisions a traveling exhibition that “[takes] all these ‘Everydays’ of Instagram photos to create something global in scale.”

He’s also started work on an Everyday Africa book, culling the comments and conversations of the project’s Instagram followers for the text. “Any book would have to bring in the dialogue we create,” he says.

DiCampo realizes those projects require money, and perhaps a lot of it. As popular as the project is on social media, and as promising as it seems as a foundation for visual literacy education, Everyday Africa is still largely a bootstrap project running on volunteer labor.

“There are all these questions about how you monetize Instagram,” DiCampo says. “Do you put ads on your feed? Do corporate-sponsored jobs?”

A big challenge is finding ways to sustain the project and its various initiatives without compromising the project’s principles and credibility, DiCampo says. Not that he’s complaining. After all, a project he and Merrill began with a Tumblr feed to share a few personal pictures that challenge the conventional view of Africa has already succeeded beyond all their expectations.

Related: Picture Story: Childhood Malnutrition in Afghanistan