The Middle East gets its fair share of media coverage. That coverage, however, often gives a rigid representation of the region—one which perpetuates stereotypes that don’t paint its entire truth. Everyday Middle East, an Instagram project featuring the work of photographers across the Middle East and North Africa, uses photography to challenge the stereotypes and visual tropes that shape (and misshape) common understanding of the complex region.
We spoke with Everyday Middle East’s founder, Lindsay Mackenzie, about the continuing goals of the project: replacing monolithic reporting with a more well-rounded, realistic reflection of “everyday” life across the region and, in doing so, recognizing the range of cultures that shape our world.
What was the original mission of this project?
“I started Everyday Middle East in March 2014 after having spent the previous two years based in Tunisia working as a photographer (and sometimes contributing to Everyday Africa, the first ‘Everyday’ Instagram project). I was frustrated with mainstream representation of the region in the Western media—the images I was seeing were so far from my day-to-day experience. It should go without saying that every society has an ‘everyday,’ but media coverage of the Middle East tends to edit that out in the process of selecting which stories to tell. I wanted to create a space for photographers in the region to publish photos that showed everyday life—something more than the extremes that media outlets are so focused on.”
How did you go about connecting with the contributing photographers?
“In the beginning, the photographers who contributed were people that I reached out to because they were active on Instagram and lived or worked in the Middle East. Then, the contributing photographers recommended other people whose work they came across or personally knew, and the project grew. Once photographers are a part of the project, they have access to the account and can post their photos directly to the feed. There is no editor—it’s a collection of individual perspectives.”
“By displaying images from our day-to-day lives, we hope to work against the stereotypes and visual tropes about the region that are so prevalent in the mainstream media.”
Why, in particular, is imagery so important in communicating the realities of everyday life in the Middle East?
“A photo editor from Esquire, Elizabeth Griffin, put it well. She said that in places like the United States, ‘The visual exposure to non-Western nations has often been delivered in the form of very distinct, very dramatic, very foreign, and sometimes incomprehensible images. While they are important photos in their own right, they tell a specific story—and not one that captures a country or a region as a whole.’ Our project helps fill in those gaps by showing the mundane. By displaying images from our day-to-day lives, we hope to work against the stereotypes and visual tropes about the region that are so prevalent in the mainstream media.”
How do you think Instagram is effective in broadening cultural understanding and reversing common misconceptions?
“New media platforms like Instagram mean that anyone with a phone and Internet connection can take part in changing the representation of this region. For us, one of the most powerful aspects of Everyday Middle East is that our followers can ask questions in the comments, and the contributors (and also other followers) will respond to those questions. You see a lot of learning in those dialogues, where people broaden their understanding of the region and find commonalities that they didn’t know existed. Or you just see people say, for example, ‘I’ve never seen such a photo from Iraq.’”
Why is this type of representation so important, especially in the climate of the world today?
“In reflecting on the importance of the ‘Everyday’ projects, Peter DiCampo (the founder of Everyday Africa) put it well: ‘At times like these, it seems the only sane action left is to elevate the everyday and to use our social media presence as our own barrage of imagery, tearing down the imaginary barriers that separate us.’ It’s not that I believe that the media shouldn’t cover conflict in the Middle East and North Africa, but it shouldn’t cover those things exclusively, repeatedly, and without context. Especially now, in the age of the Muslim ban, it’s all the more important to continue with this project.”