In March 2012, journalists Austin Merrill and Peter DiCampo traveled to Ivory Coast on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. They realized that by reporting only sensational, breaking news stories, they weren’t presenting a full picture of what they were seeing. They were simply perpetuating stereotypes.
Merrill and DiCampo’s desire to share what everyday life was like in Ivory Coast inspired them to create Everyday Africa, a photojournalism project housed on Instagram that began with photos that the two of them uploaded from their cell phone cameras. It’s since expanded into a number of feeds that feature work from local photographers throughout the world such as Afghanistan, Australia, Chile, Mumbai and rural America.
Collectively, they are known as The Everyday Projects.
Merrill, a writer and editor based in New York City, has worked as an editor at Vanity Fair and as an Associated Press correspondent. He spoke with IJNet to share the effect that this project had on his work, as well as tips for journalists to apply lessons from The Everyday Projects to their reporting.
The journalism industry is geared towards crisis more than the everyday, Merrill noted, but “life is not in crisis all the time.” Merrill suggests that we can demand a more complete angle from news gatherers.
As a journalist himself, Merrill knows this isn’t easy. These tips, however, are a start.
1. Go beyond the obvious
In a refugee camp, there are a lot of things happening all the time, Merrill pointed out. He proposed that reporters dig deeper while on assignment, and offers a list of questions to help:
- “What can I do to try to come at this from a different angle and find things that are not as obvious but are just as important to the story?”
- “Did I hear all they said?”
- “Was I true to the idea of looking beyond what I expected?”
- “Are there other ways of telling the story?”
2. Widen your camera lens
Merrill suggests that journalists apply this concept, to go beyond the obvious, to photography. Take pictures of less obvious elements of a scene that capture what a place or event was really like.
“That could mean [...] turning in a different direction to make a photograph,” Merril said. “In a direction that’s maybe away from the subject that you’d normally be looking for.”
3. Learn to really listen
For Merrill, The Everyday Projects has inspired him to listen more.
“Listening doesn’t just mean listening in an interview with someone but also listening to the landscape. Looking around and observing what you’re seeing.” He suggests that journalists “find the space to really listen to what you’re hearing.”
Journalists should do this throughout the entire reporting process: while preparing and researching the topic, while on the ground, then afterwards during reflection, writing and editing.
4. Leverage social media
Merrill views social media as “a vital part of the media ecosystem, and a net gain despite some of the backlash.”
“It’s by and large a phenomenal tool to learn and to experience things in parts of the world that we might not have been able to experience so readily before,” he added.
In the spirit of sharing small, everyday details to provide an authentic picture, Merrill suggests that material that doesn’t fit into a news piece might be posted on Instagram and other social media platforms.
5. Refresh your perspective
Merrill’s advice to local reporters — or those embedded in a community — is to consider the view from an outsiders’ perspective.
Merrill suggests that journalists ask themselves these questions with the outside view in mind:
- “What are the international publications, journalists, photographers, television, newspapers saying about this place where you are from?”
- “Does that ring true?”
- “What are those narratives leaving out?”
- “What can you say to fill in some gaps or to combat some stereotypes that might arise out of those kinds of narratives?”
These are the questions that got Merrill and DiCampo to start Everyday Africa. They considered how the world perceived Africa, saw that wasn’t the whole truth, highlighted the elements those narratives left out, then created a platform to fill in the gaps and combat stereotypes.
6. Disrupt your assignment
Let everything you notice about the day-to-day experiences of people in-country reshape your plans. “We ignore the things that don’t fit into the preconceived narrative,” Merrill stated. By remaining open to change, journalists make room to incorporate the unexpected into their narrative.
Merrill recounted a time that he spoke with a Llama herder while reporting on climate change in Peru — and really listened to what the herder was saying instead of just what he was expecting to hear. In the context of this big, global issue, Merrill realized what the herder was really saying is that he’s just trying to get by. He shared some of what day-to-day life is like in this region on Instagram alongside his piece on climate change.
7. Take responsibility for storytelling
While the everyday folks journalists meet can inform storytelling, they can’t do the reporting for them. So reporters must “take on some responsibility and find ways to be respectful of our subjects as we tell their stories,” Merrill said.
For example, Merrill pointed out that when a subject gives consent for a photo, they can’t really know what they’re consenting to in terms of the image’s larger impact. So is it really fair to ask for consent? The burden lies in the hands of the journalist to be considerate of the subject and their story.
8. Use everyday tools
One major takeaway from The Everyday Projects is the power of visual storytelling — without sophisticated cameras. “Everyday Africa started as an opportunity for people to use the thing that was in their pocket, an everyday device, to capture and share things from everyday life,” Merrill said.
While it is no longer a requirement to use a cell phone camera for photos that appear in The Everyday Projects, the project’s initial parameters made a point that you don’t need expensive gear to tell a story.
9. Keep learning
The Everyday Projects includes curriculum that fosters dialogue about stereotypes, photography, representation, journalism production and honest storytelling. Though the lessons are geared towards young people, they are useful for reporters to look at, too.
Merrill told us that The Everyday Projects has spread globally not by recruitment, but by people all over the world replicating the idea with their own Everyday feeds.
“We encourage it,” Merrill said.
There is a starter guide that anyone can download to start an Everyday feed on Instagram. For journalists, this might be a way to get in the habit of capturing and sharing the everyday — and develop a mindset that transforms their reporting.
Main image is a screenshot from Everyday Africa's Instagram feed.