Instagramming Africa

An interview with Peter DiCampo and Austin Merrill, founders of the Instagram project, Everyday Africa.

Two hawkers are heavily engrossed in a conversation at the beach where they sell beads in Lagos, Nigeria. Image by Nana Kofi Acquah.

Everyday Africa is an Instagram-based project aiming to document moments from daily life. It was founded in 2012 by the American photojournalist Peter DiCampo and writer Austin Merrill (I first met Austin through his soccer blogging at Vanity Fair (somebody had to do it) in the lead-up to the 2010 World Cup). Initially featuring the work of mostly American foreign correspondents, it now also includes the work of a number of African photographers, like Nana Kofi Acquah (featured before on Africa is a Country), Emeka Okereke and Andrew Esiebo. Chances are you’ve heard of it already as Everyday Africa has received a lot of positive press. Everyday Africa is definitely an important initiative in the north where one-dimensional, highly constructed images of Africans are the norm and so, a while back, I sent Peter some questions (a number of AIAC’ers pitched in too), which he answered. The exchange is below.

Can you talk about the original impetus for Everyday Africa. It was started by American journalists and photographers writing, documenting and reporting in and about Africa, right?

Austin Merrill and I were traveling in Ivory Coast in March 2012, 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, and I had been there before as a photojournalist, and 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.

Why is it important for non-Africans to tell African stories?

I’m of the opinion that any culture should be examined both internally and externally. There are, of course, many aspects of a culture that outsiders can’t access or understand fully. On the flip side, it’s easy for people within a culture to put blinders on when examining themselves, whereas an outsider brings a different critical view. At times, Everyday Africa has been criticized purely on the grounds that an outsider should never tell someone else’s story, period. I couldn’t disagree with that statement more – imagine if Alexis de Tocqueville didn’t write about America, or Robert Frank didn’t photograph America. (Those are just a couple examples off the top of my head – one could go on and on here.)

The real issue is that, generally speaking, I don’t think foreign journalists or photographers turn a sincere eye on Africa – instead, they follow the preconceptions I’ve been outlining. They (or should I say, we) tend to parachute in, cover the same well-trodden ground, and move on, without giving the story the same voice they would if covering a similar story in the states or Western Europe. See the ever-popular “How to Write About Africa” by Binyavanga Wainaina, who puts it far better than I ever could. Another good read along this theme is Slate Magazine’s new “If It Happened There” feature, covering US news as if it were foreign news. And it’s also worth noting that there are some great exceptions – people who have moved in for the long-haul and write about Africa just as they would anywhere else.

While I’m open to the criticism that we don’t have enough African photographers – which we’ll get into below – I also feel it’s very important to acknowledge that one of my personal goals for this project, initially, was a critique of the function and methodology of Western photojournalism. My experience was not a unique one – if I’m traveling in Ivory Coast and shooting a predetermined narrative, but I’m seeing all this other stuff along the way that doesn’t fit that narrative, then guess what? The same thing is happening to most other Western photographers doing the same work. This is how photojournalism is often responsible for perpetuating what is not necessarily an outright lie but certainly a reinforcement of stereotypes. Without daily life imagery of normal and even mundane situations, the West will still thinks of Africa as poor and starving with no exceptions, the Middle East as explosively violent at all times and in all places, etc. So, while of course it’s important – vitally, crucially important – to see what “everyday Africa” means from the perspective of Africans, it’s also vitally important to point fingers at the notion of photojournalism and poke holes in it, not only the way it is carried out but also the way it is read by an audience.

A quick story: I was once traveling in Europe with a close American friend who I grew up with. My only previous travel at that point had been in the Middle East (this was years ago), so I started talking about that. My friend exclaimed, “I would never travel in an Arab country… What do I know that’s good about them!?” I was very startled. I thought, no matter what the nightly news tells you, there’s a lot to assume that’s good and shared by every culture: a love of family, the care taken in preparing and consuming a good meal, an appreciation for music. The list goes on. But that’s exactly it: if we aren’t shown that those things exist, it’s difficult for an unfamiliar audience to assume that they do.

One more question along those same lines: This is an initiative run by two white, non-Africans to document and market African culture. What do you say to people who question your motives?

To start with, I disagree with the term “market” here, only because the point of Everyday Africa is not to present any one view. My aim is for something more experiential, something that fits the stream (Instagram, Tumblr, etc.) as a narrative. Meaning, we’re not trying to counter the “war and poverty” narrative by giving a “happy Africa” narrative – instead we’re trying to present Africa as it would appear if one were to simply go outside and walk around. (I recognize that that’s a problematic statement – my walk is different from your walk, and no matter what, different people will choose to photograph different things on different days. You can’t see everything, and you can’t photograph everything you see.) But the point is that we don’t go looking for certain pictures the way a photographer would when trying to market one aspect of Africa or another – we’re not trying to sell you any one view of what Africa is.

The reason I feel it’s important this work be shown is that, as I said above, it’s important for non-Africans documenting Africa to acknowledge that they generally see a lot more than what they can show in traditional media. That said, yes, in some ways it is problematic. (I often wonder if it would feel less problematic if we had chosen a different name. If I told you that we were non-Africans who wanted to show the parts of Africa we feel are familiar but don’t usually get to show, you might think that’s great. When I say we’re calling it “Everyday Africa”, you might think we’re getting presumptuous.)

We’re addressing this with some new phases in our work. As the popularity and inertia of the project spiraled much quicker than we had anticipated – which, by the way, is a great sign that we’re not the only people who felt this was a gap in coverage of the continent – we had to put some serious thought into what it was we had on our hands. What are the two most important elements? That in calling it “Everyday Africa”, we should be looking at what that means from a variety of perspectives. And that the photographs are from phones, the great technological democratizer of imagery – it’s such a cliché to talk about the overwhelming popularity of mobile phones in Africa that at this point it’s barely worth mentioning. And increasingly, those phones have cameras, and people are documenting their own lives.

Now, we’re trying to create a new platform, one that allows for anyone to post images, so those stories can be shared widely, and we can look at what daily life in Africa means from a greater range of perspectives. We’re trying to create a platform that allows the viewer to sort the images by country – all the images from Liberia, from South Africa, etc. – but far more interesting is that they will also be able to sort them based on who the photographer is, be it farmer, businessman, African photographer, Western photographer, tourist, tour guide, villager, mother, nurse, etc., however the photographer identifies himself or herself. As professional photographers, we have made nice pictures – but to me it’s potentially much more interesting to be able to click a button and see every photo taken by a teacher, for example, regardless of country, and see how they view the world around them.

We’re very happy with what we’ve accomplished so far, though we may have already reached our pinnacle of popularity in the Western editorial world. But for us, that’s just a starting point.

Can you describe a few unique visual aesthetic trends that you’ve been able to observe in the self-imaging of Africa?

To start with, these are topics – Africa’s self-imaging and photographic practice, related to identity – that have been written about at length and by experts, which I am not. (A recent example that comes to mind is Edwidge Danticat’s piece in Harper’s, “Look At Me”, which is basically a survey of The Walther Collection’s current exhibition on African photography, but still a wonderful overview.) The strongest tradition in African photography, in my opinion and many others’, is portraiture. On the professional level, there are numerous classic examples – Malick Sidibe, Seydou Keita – moving toward the more modern, metaphoric, and conceptual – Samuel Fosso, Nandipha Mntambo, etc. George Osodi’s portraits of Nigerian kings have been popular lately, and are an interesting collision of the traditional and modern. We (Everyday Africa) have been lucky to work with Andrew Esiebo lately – his portraits in barbershops are great. (To write in great detail on all these names would be impossible, but suffice it to say that these are artists I feel anyone interested in this topic should familiarize themselves with!)

What I find striking (and less written about and discussed, although Danticat touches on it) is how this tradition is rooted on a functional level. In my experience, living in rural Ghana, photography is about seeing what a person looks like, connecting with them, remembering an event or a time or place. My Ghanaian friends wanted important events in their lives to be documented, but with posed portraiture, not with candid documentary images as is more common in the states. I have a series of pictures called Life Without Lights, all shot at night, looking at the lack of electricity in rural northern Ghana – when my friends saw the dark images, they didn’t understand why I liked them, why I made pictures in which you can’t see the subject’s face.

So there is this obsession with the photograph as a means of identity that ranges from the functional to the high-concept in African portraiture – which perhaps interests me coming from a Western photojournalism tradition because we get so caught up in making a “good” photograph or an “artsy” photograph, like my Life Without Lights work, that we sometimes forget to make a “meaningful” photograph, if that makes sense.

As far as Western trends that Africans practice, I’ll speak to what I know best, which is photojournalism, and simply say this: it’s always wonderful to see how much more intimate photojournalism of Africa is when Africans are also behind the camera. David Goldblatt comes to mind, as does Akintunde Akinleye’s World Press Photo winning image.

How this all plays out in Everyday Africa is that it’s been very obvious that the photos made by African photographers on our feed tend to be the most intimate. This goes for the work of Nana Kofi Acquah and Andrew, who I’ve mentioned, as well as Jide Alakija, a wedding photographer who joined us for the special Nigeria segment. We also featured some work from Swazi students learning photography in a class called My Future, My Voice, and it was incredible – simple, intimate moments of the students’ friends and family members.

How does the historical imagined Africa of the West figure into your vision of the content? How does it figure into the ways Africans see themselves?

I think “imagined” is a key word here. What I find troubling is that the exotic and /or degrading version of Africa we’ve grown used to in photography can actually cause Africa to become imaginary in the Western mind – to occupy the same part of our brain as fantasy and adventure. Take myself for example – I grew up reading Tolkien and watching Star Wars, then went through that late teens / early twenties phase of becoming politically aware and wanting to learn more about “the world” (vast that it is), simultaneously began studying photography and particularly exotic images of far-off places… and all of that manifested itself into my becoming a volunteer and moving to Ghana, with undefined desires to find adventure and help people. I’m hardly alone in this path.

So for my own photography in this project, I want to cut through the photos that create that very imaginary Africa – or, in the nature of the stream, to show them alongside of images that are more familiar. Basically, if I could turn back time and show this project to my 21-year-old self, I’d want him to understand that when his plane landed in Ghana, he would also see things that were familiar.

But at this point – I can really only speak for myself. We have so many contributors now, and I don’t give any of them much direction.

Who curates Everyday Africa? Can anyone submit images and post them?

We’ve done a variety of things on our feed. If there are no special segments happening, then there is a group of 14 or so photographers who have the login info and post freely – I’ve just asked them to try to space out their posts by a few hours, so that we keep a robust, steady flow. I don’t direct them on what images to post, generally.

We’ve done several special features on the feed and are trying to do more – we’re trying for one week per month. Sometimes this is simply the work of one photographer who is just joining us. Other times it is more interesting – for example, when Nichole Sobecki joined us, Sarah Leen, Director of Photography at National Geographic, selected Nichole’s photos and posted them with commentary. The most fun, most interesting thing so far was a recent segment on Nigeria: Helon Habila, the Nigerian author, selected the work from four photographers – Jide Alakija, Andrew Esiebo, Glenna Gordon, Jane Hahn – and posted their photos with his commentary. We’ll be doing other things along these lines, and some even more creative ideas that I don’t want to give away just yet.

And while the long-term goal is to have a new platform that anyone can contribute to, we also plan in the short-term to have a segment of user-submitted photos (we get them all the time), hopefully sometime soon.

Many of the Everyday Africa photos are candid shots taken of people on the street. For decades a debate has persisted among photographers regarding the ethics of street photography. Some see no problem with capturing images of unsuspecting strangers while others bemoan street photography’s frequent evasion of subjects’ consent. How does this ethical issue of consent come into play when foreign photojournalists like you engage in street photography in African countries?

I believe in street photography, and the photographer’s right to photograph candid street scenes. Of course, if someone tells me not to photograph them, I don’t photograph them – but in the interest of preserving a scene, I’m a fan of candid photography, regardless of the location. I’d be delighted to see more street photography shot by Africans in America or Europe. In fact sometimes I do see it, on Instagram.

My favorite function of the Instagram feed has been to post “live” images, which I feel are even more impactful in countering stereotypes; not only do our photos have an ‘everyday’ feel, but they also seem closer and more familiar when we are able to say, “this just happened thirty seconds ago.”

Unfortunately, that hasn’t been practical in terms of keeping a steady flow on the feed. Many of our contributors (including the African ones) only live on the continent part-time, and we’re often dealing with connectivity issues. So it’s often more practical to post a batch of images after a trip, rather than during. Nana Kofi, for example, was traveling in Ivory Coast recently and was rarely able to get online – but we saw his images once he got back online, at home in Ghana.

Can you say something about the kinds of phones used by photographers who contribute to Everyday Africa?

At this point almost all of our images are from iPhones. When we mention that, we get accused of being walking advertisements for Apple – but frankly, I couldn’t care less which phone the images are made on. They just happen to mostly be from iPhones. I’m sure that will change as time goes on. Just a few days ago, in fact, Nana Kofi revealed on his Facebook page that he’s been shooting more on his Android now, and the photos are beautiful! But I think so far, he may be the only one.

Will more African photographers be represented on Everyday Africa?

To be honest, we never sat down at the beginning of the project and said, “we want x amount of photographers from here, here, and here.” People just asked to contribute, and I generally said sure, and things grew quickly from there. There was never an intention to omit African photography. Looking back, if I had known how unwieldy this beast of a project would become, I probably would have tried to unroll things more slowly, choose photographers regionally, etc., but well, here we are.

I was really thrilled when Nana Kofi wanted to be a part. I love his work and he’s been one of our strongest contributors, and we’ve added more African photographers since then.

The desire for more African photographers is not at all in response to criticism. Of course we want more! Like I said, it all stems from wanting to view the continent visually from as many viewpoints as possible. So we want more African photographers, and eventually will open this up to people who aren’t professional photographers but are shooting pictures on their phones. One issue with getting more African photographers in the short term: the professionals who are strongly using Instagram often don’t need us! They have a better following and better feed than we do anyways!

Is the decision to include only pictures taken or sourced on the continent deliberate?

Yes, although we’ve toyed with the idea of doing diaspora segments. I’m sure it will happen sooner or later.

How do you deal with the challenges of covering Africa as a signifier for a range of meanings—a continent, as a diaspora, as land-mass filled with diverse people? When and why is essentializing “Africa” important? When is it dangerous?

I’m sure these are questions Africa is a Country have to deal with often! But, perhaps like yourselves, our feeling is that if the problem of stereotyping is continent-wide, then we can try to deal with it on a continent-wide basis. That said, there certainly is a danger. I’m heartened by the large volume of comments we get that are location-specific – “I’ve been there, I live there, it’s my favorite place, thanks for showing this place,” etc. – but I do worry that people scrolling through their phones simply see our photos in their feed, think “Africa sure is cool,” click the ‘like’ button, and move on. Then again, in some ways that’s what we want, for people not to have to think of the continent in such heavy terms all the time. We recognize that we can’t teach people about any one place in great detail, or outline the differences between the Ashanti and the Maasai – it’s simply not the purpose the project serves.

Imagine a Tumblr called “Everyday South America”, or “Everyday Asia.” Would it make The New Yorker? Get so much media play?

Great question. Thinking about The New Yorker and the editorial world as a whole, I think the answer is yes, if the photos were good. But in terms of the idea, and not the image quality – perhaps not. People realize that, while every region has its media-generated stereotypes, Africa has arguably been the most damaged by them – which means they recognize the need for a project like ours.

Finally, the New York Times recently featured an Instagram image on its front page (of Alex Rodriguez). What does that mean for news photography?

You saved the least interesting question for last – don’t ask me, ask a news photographer!

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.