Surviving Boko Haram
We talk to Adam Ferguson about his powerful award-winning portraits of young Nigerian girls who escaped from Islamist militants
Photojournalist Adam Ferguson was working on assignment in Nigeria when he heard about a young woman who had been raped by the Nigerian military. He subsequently learned that she had also been deployed by the Nigeriabased militant Islamist group Boko Haram as a suicide bomber but had escaped.
‘ The official government public awareness campaign in Nigeria around suicide bombs features a cartoon of a woman in a hijab – it’s like a cartoon on a big billboard,’ explains Adam. ‘So it got me thinking. I talked to a few Nigerian journalists and started researching through military channels to see how many of these women we could find, and came to realise how significant a story this was.’
Boko Haram sees female suicide bombers as a new weapon of war and has abducted more than 2,000 women and girls since 2014. The girls are strapped with explosives and ordered to blow themselves up in crowded areas. The group used 27 children, usually girls, in suicide attacks in the first quarter of 2017, but a small number of them managed to escape and find help.
The challenge for Adam would be how to tell this story when, for their own safety, he couldn’t show the girls’ faces. He discussed the idea with his photo editor at The New York Times, David Furst, about whether the project was even worth pursuing.
‘I didn’t want to present a narrative where the Nigerian people are impoverished and marginalised, as we’ve seen so much work like that over the years. I wanted a set of pictures which went beyond that and celebrated resilience. I wanted to accentuate the bravery and beauty of these girls.’
Adam returned to Nigeria with a journalist from The New York Times, Dionne Searcey, and she interviewed the girls while Adam photographed them. Between them they captured the stories of 18 women. ‘ Their stories were all different,’ explained Adam. ‘ They were all around 18 or 19 [years old], or in their early 20s; most of them had been kidnapped when they were around 13. Some were turned into war brides or servants. Some saw their entire families being killed. Some were strapped with bombs and sent out to detonate themselves for the cause. All these girls had all been through a very intense level of indoctrination at a very young and impressionable age.’
The girls’ homes were mostly outside the provincial capital, either in camps for the displaced or in small villages. Only their immediate families knew their stories and in some cases, where the girls had lost all of their family, only the military knew their identities.
‘ The girls all came into town separately, on buses and in taxis, and I had very limited time to work with them – especially due to the curfews. We had a series of safe houses and restaurants, and places we could meet. Everything was improvised, and happened very organically. I photographed 18 girls in two days, just working with the surroundings that were there. The young woman with the flowers in front of her face was taken at my hotel. We found an old conference room at the back, full of discarded furniture. I decided to use the wall as a background. I asked the girl to pick up a bunch of these old flowers I found, to hold in front of her face. Some of the portraits are very much in line with what I thought they would be, but others came together in a way that I didn’t anticipate.’
One of the most striking elements in some of Adam’s portraits is the lighting, but it was deceptively simple. ‘Originally we had quite sophisticated plans, and I brought a full set of strobes and light modifiers to Nigeria, but due to the short timeframe I had in which to photograph the girls I ended up using one of my flash heads and just turning the modeling light on. That’s all I used – with my ISO set to 3200.’
Adam’s set of images subsequently won first place in the People Stories category at the 2018 World Press Photo Awards.
‘I wanted to accentuate the bravery and beauty of these girls’
Maryam, age 16
Balaraba, age 20
Aisha, age 14
Falmata, age 15
Fatima, age 16
Maimuma, age 14
All of these pictures were shot with a Nikon D810 and a Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens.