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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 17 July 2018

Everyday Arab life

Everyday Middle East is a simple idea with a big message. A group of photographers chronicles life as it is really lived in the region, then post the results to a dedicated Instagram account. The idea is counter many of the stereotypes and cliches of Middle East life as it appears in the Western media. Here, curator Lindsay Mackenzie explains to The National what #everydaymiddleeast is all about.

What was the inspiration for Everyday Middle East?

While working as a photographer in Middle East and North Africa I often find that the photos that large media outlets want are not an accurate reflection of the day-to-day experience. There was a Newsweek cover story in September 2012 that ran with a photo of shouting bearded men in Egypt and the headline “MUSLIM RAGE.” The reality couldn’t be further from that.

I worked for two years in Tunisia, for example, and the only photos that US media outlets were interested in publishing were photos of Salafis protesting or women wearing niqabs. If you are a reader in the US and those are the only photos you see from Tunisia, you are going to have a distorted image of daily life there. This is not to say that we shouldn’t document those subjects, but that we shouldn’t document those subjects exclusively.

Everyday Middle East came from a desire to try to work against the stereotypes and visual tropes that are so prevalent about the Middle East and North Africa by showing images of day-to-day life across the region. It’s a place to publish photos whose subjects aren’t predetermined – just what we see when we are out in our ‘everyday.’ The project is modeled off of another Instagram feed started by photojournalist Peter DiCampo and writer Austin Merrill called Everyday Africa (Instagram: @everydayafrica, website: http://www.everydayafricaproject.com ).

Who do you have contributing to the account and how do you select/find people?

We have 23 contributors: Dalia Khamissy (@daliakhamissy), Bryan Denton (@bdentonphoto), Wissam Nassar (@wissamgaza), Christina Rizk (@christinarizk), Alex Kay Potter (@alexkpotter), Laura El-Tantawy (@laura_eltantawy), Laura Boushnak (@lauraboushnak), Iman Al-Dabbagh (@photosbyiman), Silvia Razgova (@silviarazgova), Tamara Abdul Hadi (@tamarabdul), Kiana Hayeri (@kianahayeri), Hanif Shoaei (@hanifshoaei), Newsha Tavakolian (@newshatavakolian), Sarah Dea McGregor (@_sarahdea_), Holly Pickett (@hollypickettpix), David Degner (@degnerd), Tara Todras-Whitehill (@taratwphoto), Ed Ou (@edouphoto), Samuel Aranda (@samuel_aranda13), Tanya Habjouqa (@habjouqa), Natalie Naccache (@natnacphotos), Mohamed Somji (@msomji), and myself (@lindsay_mackenzie).

I was looking for professional photographers living or working in the region who use their mobile phones to take everyday images and who have a presence on Instagram. Some photographers I found myself, some were recommended, and others asked to join once the feed started up. At this point the team of contributors is basically set – we want to be a large enough group to have a steady and diverse flow of photos on the feed from across the region, but remain small enough that our followers can get a feel for the vision and daily reality of each contributor.

We also recently started a “follower feature” where each Friday one of our regular contributors picks a photo to feature on our feed that’s been hashtagged with #everydaymiddleeast. It’s a nice way to be able to involve our followers and highlight some of their work.

What do you want to illustrate through the Instagram account?

We would like to be able to illustrate the context within which the extreme images that we always see in the mainstream media exist. Contrast the “Muslim Rage” Newsweek cover with, for example, Alex Kay Potter’s photo of a Yemeni father relaxing with his kids after lunch. We’d like to interrupt the predicable Western visual narratives of a place like Saudi Arabia with Iman Al-Dabbagh’s photo a woman riding her bike along the Jeddah boardwalk. We’d like to show common human experiences, like Hanif Shoaei’s elegant photo from behind the scenes at a wedding in Tehran.

At the same time, I think the account also shows the diversity within and among all of these countries that the mainstream media lumps together under the “Middle East” label.

Who do you hope looks at it?

I hope that we can reach a broad audience, but in particular people whose only ideas about the region are shaped by the stereotypes. We had a comment from a follower in the US who said “we who live in the US seem not to have a true picture of Middle Eastern life,” and added that she found the feed “helpful” and “interesting.” That tells me that we are moving in the right direction. It is also interesting to see the reaction of followers from within the region – people who leave comments saying they are from that place, or they recognize the area, or they are glad to see these kind of images being published. We had a conversation in the comments on one of Alex Kay Potter’s images from Yemen from a follower in Kuwait who was interested in traveling there but worried about safety – I think she may now be planning a trip there!

What do you look for in a photo?

All of the photos on the feed are mobile phone images. Beyond that, there are no restrictions as to what kind of photos the contributors can post. We are trying to convey our everyday, whatever that may be. Of course, being an Instagram feed run by professional photographers, we also hope that the feed is a place to go to see high quality photography from across the region.

Is it difficult choosing which to use and which to discard?

I don’t choose the images that are published on the feed – each contributor has access to the Instagram account and decides what he or she wants to post; it is a collaborative project. I’m glad that there is no editor deciding what to post or not to post – that way the feed is not one person’s perspective of the region but 23 different perspectives.