Rows of multicoloured wigs in an Istanbul shop window. Snowy hills seen from a ski lift. Abu Dhabi’s mint green central bus station. A 200-year old Yemeni knife. Two friends in Beirut share an umbrella; Omani shipbuilders inside a half-finished dhow; Syrian refugees under a blanket; the giant aquarium at Dubai Mall; a model walks her first fashion show in Bethlehem. A surprised cat sits under a washing line; an artist puts on lipstick in Gaza.
Yes, there are camels, but @everydaymiddleeast — a stunning Instagram account that you should be following right now — is challenging the visual representation of the Middle East with a diverse and beautiful collection of contemporary photography.
The project was founded in March 2014 by Lindsay Mackenzie, a photographer living in Tunisia who lost patience with the international media’s reluctance to feature images that didn’t fit dominant stereotypes of life in the Middle East (think women in niqab, shouting Arab Spring protesters, and penniless refugees).
Today the account has 61k followers and 25 contributors — professional MENA photographers who submit daily phone-camera images of their homes from Morocco to Iran. (Check this Gulf Photo Plus page for a full list of contributors and their personal Instagrams). An exhibition of the images ran in Dubai’s art district Al Quoz in January and February this year, and many of the contributors met in person for the first time at the opening event. Everyday Middle East sits within a growing network of @everyday projects currently collaborating to form a nonprofit org, including the original @everydayafrica, @everydayasia, @everydayiran and @everydayusa.
“These images are not shown to most people by the media,” says Baghdad photojournalist Ahmad Mousa. “It feels important to show the real picture of the region by posting scenes of everyday life both from the city and countryside.” The project’s aim centres on challenging visual stereotypes of MENA by presenting diverse alternative narratives produced by the region’s residents — Everyday Africa’s tagline is “finding the extreme not nearly as prevalent as the familiar, the everyday.”
I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I rocked up in Abu Dhabi five months ago, especially since Qasr Al Hosn — a 10-day festival celebrating local culture held here recently. (I have a masters in the classic old discipline of visual anthropology.) Visual representations of Abu Dhabi — even self-produced and officially promoted representations — tend to fall into three categories: shiny new glass skyscrapers; Emiratis in traditional dishdashas and abayas with falcons and camels in sand dunes; or migrant labourers looking stoic on construction sites. It’s a nation-building project being enacted through reinforced visual representations of culture — and yet none of this much reflects the realities of most people’s lives here.
Everyday Middle East’s real achievement is the richness and diversity of the visual cultures that it’s able to delve into, and the vitality of everyday life that it represents, combating cultural stereotyping and Orientalist imagery. Its juxtaposition of images reflects the diversity and tensions between lifestyles and lived material cultures across the region, where the traditional and the contemporary do not always sit comfortable side by side — though not in the ways you might expect.
By acknowledging, accepting, celebrating this diversity and tension — by featuring vintage Arabic typewriters next to barefoot Bedouin campers next to buses, and mountainous landscapes next to burqas next to the audience at a Chopin recital next to, yes, a herd of camels in the desert — Everyday Middle East is producing an informed, collaborative photo essay on life in the Middle East, and its popularity is contributing to a radical shift in the region’s visual representation. It’s becoming a fascinating visual anthropology project and you should head on over to Instagram and hit Follow right now.