How did an Instagram account shift perceptions of Africa and evolve into a massive global movement? Trailblazer Peter DiCampo, co-founder of Everyday Africa, tells us how the Instagram project began and how it’s inspiring similar projects to show the broader spectrum of daily life across the world.
What comes to mind when you think of Africa? For some, it’s images of wildlife, for others it’s sensationalized extremes of poverty, war, and famine. These antiquated clichés are what drives our Trailblazer Peter DiCampo, co-founder of Everyday Africa, to show that this continent is so much more complex than mainstream media would have us believe.
What began as an Instagram account in 2012, created by Peter DiCampo and Austin Merrill, both journalists and former Peace Corps volunteers in West Africa, is now a global movement bringing a greater awareness of what ordinary life looks like in Africa—a continent of 54 diverse countries. The social media project is now bringing mobile photography and social commentary to the printed page, with a new book Everyday Africa: 30 Photographers Re-Picturing a Continent.
In just five years, the @EverydayAfrica Instagram account has grown to over 325,000 followers. With over 3,600 images from African photographers, it’s using its social media influence to present a more familiar and textured reality of this complex continent and to show beauty in the mundane—from school graduations to fashion shows to urban commutes. The idea has since turned into a global movement known as The Everyday Projects, inspiring similar projects such as @Everyday Middle East and @EverydayAsia, with the shared goal of showing a broader spectrum of daily life across the world.
We caught up with Trailblazer Peter DiCampo to find out how this project began, how it’s changing perceptions of Africa, and how the global movement is evolving.
Adventure.com: What was the impetus behind creating the Everyday Africa project?
Peter DiCampo: Austin Merrill and I were traveling in Ivory Coast in 2012, which was one year after the end of their civil war. With a grant from the Pulitzer Center, we were dong a post-war aftermath story looking at refugee situations, asking questions around whether violence would continue, etc. But for the most part, the country by and large returned to a state of normalcy; we were able to see the conflict situations were abnormal, so we started also photographing daily life at the same time.
So it started as the two of us just doing one quick project: ‘Oh, let’s pull out our phones and document more familiar scenes at the same time.’ And from there then it snowballed out of control. We joined Tumblr at the time, invited other photographers to join us then realized the way to reach a larger audience was to move over to Instagram. Very quickly, it went from this sort-of small project that two of us were working on to this massive movement. We invited more and more photographers—there are about 30 photographers now and in the past couple years, we’ve only added African photographers.”
Two years after the start of Everyday Africa, we noticed other Everyday projects. So we started to help get them off the ground and promote them as well, such as Everyday Middle East and Everyday Asia. And, of course, now it’s a global movement, known as The Everyday Projects.
What are some perceptions of Africa that you hope to change with he Everyday Africa project?
For many of us who spend a lot of time in Africa, and of course the African photographers we work with, we are able to recognize that conflict and extreme poverty are abnormal situations. I think the way Africa is presented to the rest of the world in mainstream media is that those things are the norm: That we think of Africa and we think of poverty, disease, conflict, and of course wildlife.
We have a classroom component to what we do—also funded by the Pulitzer Center— and we do a lot of visits to middle and high schools in the States. We always start off by saying ‘What comes to mind when you think of Africa?’ And it’s exactly what I just said. Of course, given the news of recent years, people also say Ebola, poor, famine… and then there’s animals …lions and giraffes. The Everyday Projects is saying all those things happen on this continent, but there is a much broader spectrum of what life is like here.
How did Everyday Africa grow from an Instagram account to a massive global movement?
The first Everyday Africa photo was posted on March 1, 2012, so we’re just over the five-year mark, which feels totally crazy to me. This was a time when Instagram was really new, certainly relatively new for professional photographers to be jumping onto. So we were fascinated by it in so many ways; we were fascinated by the commentary, and we were fascinated by the fact that young people seemed to be learning about the world through our work and it was their first glimpse of these places, and their comments reflected that.
So that was the motivating factor behind many things that we do—and certainly the education work, which we started in 2013. Basically, in our first year we were already thinking along those lines. It was the thought that if we’re reaching a really wide audience but only on a surface level, why don’t we try to go into classrooms, go a little bit deeper and really show people how journalism is made—confront their stereotypes about Africa and talk to them about the stereotypes which affect their own lives.
At the same time, the other fascinating part of the comments was starting to think of them in terms of a book. We knew early on that this was a project that continues to grow and spiral, and at one point, we’re going to want to make it into a physical object. Of course, when you’re pulling the project off social media and trying to make it permanent, you have to include the comments as well. So we’ve been marking the most intriguing comments—some of them are very short, some of them go on for pages. There’s a range of paternalism, and wanting to save Africa, and at the same time the reverse of that—people saying ‘this is my home and I’m so glad you showed this village, this is where I grew up; and many other conversations in between.
The book is a chance for us to showcase 267 photos. It’s certainly the most beautiful, interesting and often surprising photography of the last few years and also documents how we communicate today and how we look at this continent.
What are some of the polarizing reactions from communities in Africa?
As far as what we see on the Instagram feed, we often get accused of showing just as much poverty as mainstream media and so on, but in the end, it can’t be a PR piece for Africa. Certainly we have shown the rich sides of Africa, the suit and ties, the offices and city life, but it can’t only be about that.
The point of Everyday Africa is not to say it looks just like America or it looks just like Europe—I think a lot of times when we show rural images, people get upset at us. We can’t just pretend that Africa doesn’t look like that, whether it’s dirt roads, villages or whatever. There has to be more sincerity in how Africa is portrayed, but we have to also somehow bridge that empathy gap of having a better sincerity in how we view these images.
We have to be able to look at an Africa village and not see poverty, but see daily life and that’s quite hard to do. But you do that by first showing people images that are more familiar, then you show images which are less familiar, yet look sort of basic in their normalcy.
Now that Everyday Africa has evolved into a global movement, what is the overall awareness you hope to bring with The Everyday Projects?
It’s about having a broader context; it’s about understanding that daily life consists of so much more than the monolithic singular way we tend to see it in other parts of the world. In the same way that in the States, the poor, the middle class, the rich, the homeless and so on live side-by-side, that of course the same is true in Africa or other parts of the world.
The real way to shift that focus is exactly in the title of our project – Everyday – and in trying to make these very basic and mundane things into very beautiful things, whether it’s a woman doing laundry or a wedding celebration or students graduation. All these things are so basic and yet at the same time, if we aren’t shown what they look like, we then forget they even happen and go back to assuming that life there is what we’re always shown, which is war and poverty.
How is this movement continuing to evolve? Are you experimenting with anything else?
With the book and our interest in what the Instagram comments reveal about our impressions of Africa, we’ve also started a theatre piece. We are using the Instagram comments as dialogue script in some sort of a theatrical presentation. It’s very early days so we don’t know quite what it’s going to be, but some of the scenes include projecting a photograph on the wall while a set of actors re-enact the moment of the photo, while another set of actors in the audience are re-enacting the comments. We’re not sure whether it will be one continuous story or a series of scenes, or maybe it’s an exhibition with people are shouting out the comments as part of the show.
Order the book Everyday Africa: Photographers Re-Picturing a Continent.