Five Years of Documenting Everyday Life on Instagram
In March 2012, Everyday Africa launched and gave rise to a movement of everyday life photography. We recount its history and reflect on its impact.
It’s quite possible that every single day a new Everyday account is created on Instagram. Everyday Cats, Everyday Den Haag and even Everyday Unemployed Photographer exist. While many accounts fizzle out after a few posts, hundreds of Everyday accounts are dedicated to documenting everyday life around the globe.
Five years ago, Peter DiCampo and Austin Merrill were on assignment in Ivory Coast, covering the aftermath of the country’s decade-long civil war. The two remember sitting together each night, passing their cell phones back and forth to see each other’s photos from the day. The images were a departure from the assigned story. They documented the in-between: men fiddling with a stalled car engine, a woman smiling in front of a red wall, a man wiping the nose of a child. The pictures included everything from refugee camps and shopping malls, to the hotels where they stayed and breakfasts they ate.
“These pictures, together, felt more accurate, complete, and familiar than any reporting I had done up to that point,” Peter says.
The two had become increasingly frustrated with the stereotypical African narrative. It was a second home for them both; a place where they served in the Peace Corps and had formed tight-knit communities. As journalists, they wanted to tell more complete and contextual stories and inspire people to care about Africa. They realized these pictures could help in that mission.
“When you set out to tell a specific story, you find yourself making only the photographs that fit that story. You omit everything else, and it can be a very distorting view on things,” Peter says.
So the two opened an account on Instagram and gave it a self-explanatory name: @EverydayAfrica. Then they reached out to other photographers on the continent to contribute and, in the first year, attracted some media attention. When Instagram began adding them to the platform’s Suggested User List, their following took off into the thousands. People began paying attention and, unbeknownst to Peter and Austin, were inspired.
Photographer Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist was working in a remote corner of India when he came across @EverydayAfrica on Instagram and thought, “Why isn’t there an @EverydayAsia?” Ian often covers unexplored themes, and the concept resonated with him, so he grabbed the Instagram and Twitter handles and set up an email account.
While it’s said that imitation is the best form of flattery, it took Peter and Austin time to process what they were seeing when they first noticed the account on Instagram.
Peter emailed Ian at the anonymous email address listed in the Instagram account description:
I’m one of the co-creators of Everyday Africa, and just wanted to reach out and say hello. Would love to hear more of your plans for Everyday Asia. And to know who you are! Let me know if you want to chat sometime.
Ian was worried he had stepped over some invisible line within the industry.
“I work outside the hubs of photojournalism, so didn’t have much experience within the industry and mainly kept to myself,” Ian said. “My trepidation was mainly around stepping into the social unknowns of reaching out to other photographers. But I was assembling a list of potential contributors and ideas to execute when things eventually got moving.”
Eventually, Peter and Austin’s skepticism turned to elation. They talked to Ian and liked him. Their goals were the same, and Ian knew Asia in a way they didn’t. Austin reflected on his personal connection to Africa and realized it only came after years of living and working on the continent. He says, “If I were immortal, I’d like to do the same in every country in the world.”
Knowing that was not possible, Austin realized that seeing photos from around the world “that show us how we get through life” was the next best thing.
“I was immensely relieved that they were excited to help me get moving,” Ian says. “I tend to sit on ideas for a long time as I weigh out the execution, pros and cons, so with their blessing I began reaching out to the list of photographers I had already created.”
@EverydayAsia launched, as did the unofficial start of a movement. Around the same time, Lindsay MacKenzie — an Everyday Africa contributor — started @EverydayMiddleEast and Tina Remiz — a Latvian living in London — reached out and launched @EverydayEasternEurope. Several other accounts began to pop up.
The Community Team at Instagram noted the growth of this new movement, and in fall 2014, invited 10 of the accounts to exhibit their work at Photoville in New York City. They also flew in representatives from South America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia to meet and exchange ideas.
The Open Society Foundations agreed to host the group of about 20 people for three days. Peter and Austin suddenly found themselves in a conference room full of people who they had never met, inculding Ian and Tina.
Austin told the group, “One of the most exciting things to do with something you have built is to hand it off to others and see what they do with it.”
By the end of day three, the group had formed committees, voted to become a non-profit and crafted a mission statement:
The Everyday Projects uses photography to challenge stereotypes that distort our understanding of the world. We are creating new generations of storytellers and audiences that recognize the need for multiple perspectives in portraying the cultures that define us. We are a network of journalists, photographers and artists who have built Everyday social media narratives that delight, surprise and inform as they confront stubborn misperceptions. We believe in developing visual literacy skills that can change the way we see the world. We work to achieve this through a variety of media and events, including our Everyday Instagram, Facebook and Twitter feeds, and our websites, exhibitions, workshops, lesson plans, books and festivals. We connect classrooms and communities from disparate parts of the globe and foster mutual acceptance.
The group also started @EverydayEverywhere — an account with no set contributors; a democratic experiment in seeing the world through everyone’s eyes. The curator changes every week and selects from recent images that have been hashtagged #everydayeverywhere from both Everyday feeds and other Instagram users.
Since then, the project has grown organically and exponentially: from @EverydayJapan and @EverydayGuatemala, to @EverydayDPRK and @EverydayMotorCity, just to name a few. Not everyone with an Everyday account knows each other — in fact, most of them probably don’t — but they all seem to share a common goal.
“I wanted to share what I’ve learned on the journey. Particularly from an Indian viewpoint, I know there are several unexplored stories as well as tons of talented photographers wanting to tell them,” Chirag says.
While he hasn’t extensively networked with others from the project, the guide he wrote is spot on. (And inspired us to update our starter guide!) Without a budget or marketing plan, the Everyday concept had reached Mumbai; little was lost in translation.
While the first Everyday accounts had a geographic focus, others found the model was useful to dissect issues like climate change, racism and migration.
“The majority of the world’s refugees are not, in fact, storming European shores,” photographer Katja Heinemann says. “They are hosted by neighboring countries in the region of their displacement. And many of the circumstances that make the refugee experience most difficult can not be reduced to the few moments of crisis and drama — they are psychological and often play out over long periods of time.”
Everyday images have also made their way into classrooms in the United States, Africa and beyond through partnerships with the Pulitzer Center, PhotoWings and Open Society Foundations. Through those partnerships, Peter and Austin eventually developed a curriculum. It champions visual literacy by not only using everyday images to inform and dispel stereotypes but also to spur dialog between unlikely groups of people.
Austin recently returned from Atlanta, where students will soon start posting to @Everyday_Atlanta. Through a partnership with Atlanta Celebrates Photography, student and professional work will be exhibited in ACP’s 19th annual photo festival in October. The newly launched @EverydayBayArea, initiated in partnership with Catchlight, has a diverse set of photographers and will include classroom visits and public exhibitions. Both of these new projects have the goal of connecting disparate populations within a single city.
“In a sliver of time, our students learned they don’t have to take the negativity in the news at face value and that they can be empowered to think critically instead of accepting stereotypes often found in the media or thrown at them by bullies on the playground,” Tracy says.
Everyday contributors in Washington DC, Ecuador, Haiti and beyond are emulating and building on the Everyday Africa education model in their own communities.
“I think visual literacy is imperative in the current news and social landscape,” Ian says. “I would really love to see this expanded upon – expand its reach and the number of feeds, contributors and regions included in the work.”
Yet, in talking with many of the project’s contributors, one of its largest impacts has nothing to do with its number of followers, exhibits or physical products. It’s solidarity.
“I felt pretty isolated before starting @EverydayAsia. It gave me a reason to reach out to photographers who I respected for their work and reputation. It also helped me build a network of photographers I could talk to regularly about work,” Ian says.
Tina says the group challenged her to think and question a lot of things, both about her cultural background and the role of a documentary storyteller.
Chirag says the project has especially helped photographers in developing countries network and make their work known. He has also become a mentor to several young photographers who have approached him about story ideas and how to crop their images and write better captions.
Five years later, Peter and Austin are thankful they didn’t take advice from people to snatch up all the Everyday handles they could find or franchise the idea. Cofounder of @EverydayLatinAmerica and a member of The Everyday Projects community team Danielle Villasana is too.
“If we see only pictures of war but not how people lived before a war, or even during a war, then how can people living “ordinary” lives connect with them?” Danielle asks. “Images that only show violence and war makes it easy for people to shrug it off as something that is too far removed from them. But showing everyday life really brings out the commonalities we share, which I believe helps us build empathy in a different way.”
Founder of @EverydayAfghanistan Aryan Musleh says Afghan society is generally “not known by its real face.” For him, The Everyday Projects has been a revolution in photography and storytelling that has brought change to the way people understand Afghanistan — and the world.
Aryan says, “Now, through the eyes of an Everyday project, we can see the differences. We can see the diversity of cultures, and we can easily realize the true face of life around the world.”