They were supposed to finish their final exams, then return home to their families. Instead, the nearly 300 girls from a government school in Chibok, Nigeria – stolen from their dormitory in the middle of the night – have been missing eight weeks now.
While the search for the girls continues, and outraged citizens take to the streets and to social media, families are left with only traces of their loved ones: school uniforms, class notebooks, a pair of shoes.
Documentary photographer Glenna Gordon, a veteran of assignments in West Africa, traveled to Nigeria in search of an intimate way to tell the girls’ stories. She agreed to share with us a bit about her approach and some of the haunting images she made of what the girls left behind.
How long have you been working in West Africa in general, and specifically in Nigeria? How did you end up in that part of the world?
After working as a writer and reporter in Uganda for a few years, I moved to Liberia in 2009 where I started focusing more on photography. Even in Uganda I was taking pictures, but it only became my main pursuit when I started working in West Africa.
I first went to Nigeria for a photography festival in Lagos and knew I wanted to go back, so I started a project there about Nigerian weddings in 2012. That eventually led me to Northern Nigeria, a place I really love working. When I heard about these girls, I knew I needed to do something.
Were you already in Nigeria when the story about the kidnapped girls broke or did you arrive afterwards? How did your previous work experience in the country prepare you for this story? Have you ever covered anything quite like this? What, if any, are the extra challenges you face in trying to cover a story as complicated as this one?
I wasn’t in Nigeria, but I already had a few assignments to go and do some other stories about women in the north during this exact time frame.
On a practical level, I think that if I hadn’t previously worked in Nigeria, and even more so in Northern Nigeria, I wouldn’t have been able to do this. It’s a difficult place to work. It’s hard to even make a phone call because the network is so bad, let alone do a project. There are many layers of bureaucracy and authority, and the person who seems to be in power isn’t necessarily the actual gate-keeper. There are a lot of ways you can easily misstep and you have to know the right way to ask for things and how to operate.
And, on an emotional level, if I hadn’t already worked in Northern Nigeria, I’m not sure I would have had the deep commitment to getting this done. It was so logistically difficult and personally trying to do this, that if this had just been another story, I probably would have given up. But, even though I’d never been to Chibok or met any of these girls, I know so many girls just like them. Thinking about those girls kept me going.
The story is complicated and has also become very politicized in Nigeria, but I wanted my images to be very straightforward and simple. I haven’t addressed any of that in my work, and I’m okay with that.
When the girls were first taken, it took quite a while for the Nigerian government to organize any kind of search. Is that indicative of the way girls and women are valued in that part of the world? Or do other factors contribute to such a delayed response?
Women are certainly of less value in Nigeria than men, but I think the delay actually has more to do with class than gender. These are poor girls in a remote area and the government doesn’t care about them. Boys have been kidnapped and forcibly recruited as well, and the government hasn’t done anything about that either.
But, their fate is ultimately very gendered: they are being taken as forced “wives.” In Nigeria, the inequality of husband and wife in a normal marriage is astounding — women do everything – from cooking meals to cleaning his shoes to washing his clothes to carrying his water. And forced marriage is indescribably worse.
The pictures you’ve made of the items the girls left behind are haunting and heartbreaking, especially since we don’t know how many of them will come home. How did you develop this unique approach to the story? Did you know from the very beginning that this was the way you’d cover it? And why did you choose this direction?
I knew I didn’t want to cover the protests. I felt so disinterested in the micro-updates of which celebrity was holding up a sign, and in the breaking news of how the world was reacting. To me, that was all so secondary to the girls themselves. I knew it had to be about them.
It took me awhile to come up with an idea. I’d been chatting with a friend of mine who covered the South Korean ferry that capsized by photographing notes the students wrote to each other. I had ideas of the girls swimming around in my head when I went to the Met right before I was leaving New York for Nigeria. And then it just all came together – that I wanted to present the objects beautifully, as if they were in a museum. The next morning I sat around calling all of these stellar ladies I know in the North and asked them if they thought it would be feasible and they were really supportive and encouraging and told me it could be done. So, I hopped on a plane and went to do it.
What sorts of access have you needed to cover this story? Have you interacted much with the families or school officials? Tell us about your interactions with the people searching for the girls.
Access has been incredibly difficult. I felt like I was trying to move a mountain to get these items. I did it by going to the capital, Abuja, and going to the protests to meet people from Chibok. I greeted many people and told them my plan, and eventually one person agreed to help me do this. A Chibok guy living in Abuja named Sunday Samuel who is missing two of his cousins, was basically my main point of entry. He called his brother and his other relatives in Chibok and introduced me and explained what I wanted to do and helped me make it happen.
I then met more people in Maiduguri, the regional capital of the state the girls are from, who also were willing. But for every one person who was willing to work with me, a dozen would make a phone call that would go nowhere, or not even make a phone call to begin with.
These relatives were my points of access, and I didn’t interact much with school officials or government officials.
Where have these images been published so far? And what has the reaction been?
The images have been in the Wall Street Journal, Time, on the Lens blog, and in a few European publications. The reaction has been astonishing and incredibly rewarding to me: people are so hungry for pictures of these girls, for some way to make them real and human, and I’m glad I’ve been able to offer that.
Is there anything you would like our audience at Too Young to Wed to know about this project or your work?
Yes! One thing about this project, in fact: I’ve gotten several comments and messages from people who are angry that I’ve named the girls and shown pictures of them, arguing that I’m contributing to stigma and that I shouldn’t do this.
I thought long and hard about this, and what was the right way to move forward. It wasn’t an easy decision to make nor one I made lightly, but ultimately I stand behind my work and my decisions.
Often, there’s this impulse to not show the faces of women who have been raped, or to name girls who have been abused. (Of course, there are women who are at risk for speaking out, and there are minors for whom there are legal implications, and those are very different situations.) But, I’ve very often felt frustrated when working with girls and women who are old enough and wise enough to speak for themselves and want to be named, and want to tell the world, “This happened to me and it isn’t okay,” and an NGO or someone else will tell them or tell me that we can’t do it.
To me, this adds to stigma. This tells the girl that she shouldn’t be shown, and this contributes to stigma by buying into the idea that we have to keep her hidden.
These girls are known – to the government, to the public, to their community. Nothing I do has any ability to change that. If or when they come back, they don’t get to be village girls anymore. Maybe they get to go for rehabilitation in the capital, maybe they get a scholarship fund to help them finish their schooling, maybe they recover, maybe they don’t. But, they don’t get to go home to Chibok and marry that guy they were supposed to marry, and have a daughter who goes to school where they went to school, and sit under a mango tree with their mothers and cook dinner every night.
The fact that this life is no longer available to them has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not I put their names in my captions. Their lives have been changed forever by a government that failed to protect them and a world that allows violent jihadi ideology to flourish in the midst of poverty and inequality.
If or when these very real girls get back, they will need to have opportunities for rest, recovery and education. I can only hope that my photographs humanize them enough that they aren’t just numbers we can easily dismiss. Nigerians and the international community need to take responsibility and ensure that Dorcas, Fatima, Elizabeth and Hauwa get everything they need to start over.
To see more images by Glenna Gordon, visit her website: www.glennagordon.com