It should seem inevitable to us that one day, the iPhone would create art. As ludicrous as it may sound, the iPhone (wielded by some very talented photographers) can bring us a refreshingly new take on a world we think we’ve seen before. So thoroughly am I convinced of this when I look at the photographs of Peter DiCampo and Austin Merrill.
In 2012, the two journalists and former Peace Corps volunteers began taking casual photographs of daily life using their iPhones while traveling through Uganda and the Ivory Coast. The result is truly extraordinary. In subtle glances, one observes people relaxing, waiting, gesturing. People study, cook, and wash their clothes. Smiles are hinted at; gazes are preoccupied. The iPhone even gets the colors right – the Africa portrayed in these photographs confirms the lush greens and blue skies we’ve always dreamed of. And yet this is an Africa we aren’t used to seeing at all – spectacularly diverse in its streets, homes, and rural landscapes. It is also a place we have an easier time identifying with. DiCampo and Merrill’s photographs open up a world unseen of the regular people just getting by – working, socializing, celebrating, mourning. It turns out we all do pretty much the same things wherever we are in the world.
DiCampo started the Everyday Africa project as a blog on Tumblr, in an effort to counter what he saw as the “constant barrage” of images depicting the African continent as a place of perpetual “misery, despair and hopelessness”. DiCampo feels that above all, these types of images feed into a western cultural view that Africa needs to be “saved”. It is a sad reflection of our current state when simple photographs of ordinary people can arrest us with their beauty and authenticity. The Africa we see in the media – war torn and poverty stricken – obscures the life of the everyman. It also harms people, as we relate to them in unequal terms. As DiCampo writes on his blog, casual observations of daily life provide us with a uniquely honest view away from the extremes:
The picture is interesting in its mundane-ness, and therein lies the truth. Africa can be the place of extremes that we in the West see so often. Inundated with images of incredible poverty; occasionally we also see vast wealth. But Africa can be familiar. It can also, thankfully, be boring.
To see Africa in its extremes reduces it to a set of familiar cultural symbols. It makes the continent seem two-dimensional, lacking in any depth and robbed of its agency. In this view, people become trapped in a historical narrative. We think we know the place, but we’ve never really seen it. Not the way DiCampo and Merrill portray it.
In his article for the New York Times, James Estrin rightly suggests that the iPhone remains crucial to the success of the photography. Smartphones have become, after all, the ubiquitous tool with which many an amateur photographer will snap a picture of a family member or friend. The technology has become an integral part of the visual language we use to communicate “the every day”.
DiCampo is hoping to expand his project, to incorporate an “every day” theme for every continent. The Everyday Africa blog now encompasses shots taken in South Africa, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Liberia, Gambia, Senegal, Egypt, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Zambia and Sudan, thanks to a number of guest photographers who have begun contributing regularly to the site. Will there be an Everyday Middle East soon? I sure hope so.