Sur­viv­ing Boko Haram

We talk to Adam Fer­gu­son about his pow­er­ful award-win­ning por­traits of young Nige­rian girls who es­caped from Is­lamist militants

Amateur Photographer - - Contents - Adam Fer­gu­son grew up in Aus­tralia but now lives in Brook­lyn, USA. He sees him­self as a sto­ry­teller, spe­cial­is­ing in con­flict and geopo­lit­i­cal is­sues. He con­trib­utes to var­i­ous pub­li­ca­tions in­clud­ing TheNewYorkTimes, Time and Na­tional Ge­o­graphic

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.