David Guttenfelder returned to the US last month after spending the previous 20 years working as a photojournalist overseas. His career with the Associated Press had taken him to far flung places across the globe — Nairobi, Tokyo, North Korea — so his return should have marked a homecoming for the Iowa native. But it didn’t quite feel like that.
“The United States kind of feels like a foreign country to me,” Guttenfelder says. “I’ve never worked here as a photographer before. I’ve never had to walk up to Americans to put a camera in their face.”
Yet that’s exactly what he’s been doing since he got back. Upon his arrival, Guttenfelder launched @everydayusa, an Instagram account where he and 12 other documentary photographers publish shots of contemporary life across the US. Some are pointed in their social commentary — a Muslim high school student standing at her locker, a black man raising his hands in Ferguson — others are less so — a black-and-white Beach Party Barbie doll, a man and his daughter dressed in matching pink outfits in a Connecticut parking lot. Each carries the distinct aesthetic of its author, but when combined into one feed, they form a powerful collage that blurs the line between the quotidian and the profound.
The project was inspired by photographer Peter DiCampo’s feed @everydayafrica, which aimed to dispel media-fueled stereotypes and misconceptions about Africa with images of everyday life. The feed spawned @everydayasia and other spinoffs after it launched in 2012, but Guttenfelder says @everydayusa is decidedly different in scope. The aim isn’t to challenge commonly held stereotypes about the US, but to shed light on social issues that members of the collective are passionate about.
"We have sort of the opposite problem here, which is that there are a lot of serious issues, social justice and things that documentary photographers traditionally cover but don’t have a place to publish daily," he says. "So this is a place for us to tackle hidden things and important issues without the constraints of having to do it for a client."
from north korea to north carolina
Guttenfelder has garnered a large following on his personal Instagram feed, where he regularly published fascinating photos from isolated North Korea. He created the @everydayusa account last year in Pyongyang, where he was working as the AP’s chief photographer for Asia, but didn’t launch the project until he left his job and returned to the states this summer. (He’s now working on projects across the US as a National Geographic Society Fellow.)
The collective began with a small group of Guttenfelder’s friends, before expanding to 13 over the past several weeks. "I was really just looking to collaborate with photographers who were like-minded photographers," he says. "People who were serious documentary photographers who were using Instagram in new ways as part of their work, which is what I was trying to do."
They hail from diverse backgrounds, as well. Brooklyn-based Ruddy Roye documents the people he encounters on the streets of New York, while Danny Wilcox Frazier has focused on economic transformations in Iowa and other rural areas. Not all were Instagram aficionados, either. Relative newcomer Jon Lowenstein documents life on the South Side of Chicago, and has turned his Instagram feed into what Guttenfelder describes as a "community newspaper" for the area.
"It's very much about taking people along with you."
There isn’t any clear editorial mandate or curation behind @everydayusa. Each photographer has access to the account and can publish at will. The only guidelines are to share the space equally and, as Guttenfelder says, to "stick to the spirit of what we think Instagram is for."
"It’s not a place to be using your DSLR cameras," he explains. "It’s not a place to be republishing your portfolio or other assignments, watermarking your pictures. It’s very much about taking people along with you on either your day to day or on projects that you’re working on."
Guttenfelder doesn’t plan to expand the collective anytime soon, though says they’ll begin honing their focus and "start tackling issues as a group." They may eventually begin working with magazines or other clients, but for now they’re just following their instincts as photojournalists, as Guttenfelder reacquaints himself with a home that still doesn’t feel like home.
"I’m just using photography the way I would anywhere else in the world — to learn about the world around me," he says. "And America still feels foreign to me, which is great."