This Woman's Beautiful Instagram Account Is Changing How The World Sees Her Home

Photo: Fati Abubakar.
Fati Abubakar is used to the odd looks she gets as a young, single woman with a big camera roaming the streets of northeastern Nigeria on her own. But those looks — coupled with curious, sometimes suspicious questions: What are you going to do with those pictures? What's your agenda? — have not stopped her from snapping thousands of portraits of daily life there.

"Because of how our culture is very conservative, they are not used to seeing a woman with a camera walking around, so they kind of disapprove," Abubakar told Refinery29. "Occasionally, people say, 'You should get married,' or, 'You should focus on getting a real job, this isn’t a profession.'"

But the 30-year-old Nigerian woman is on a mission to change the way the world sees her homeland. Borno state, where Abubakar was born and raised, has been plagued by violence and instability as government forces fight against Boko Haram, an armed group that has aligned itself with ISIS. The group made headlines in 2014 for kidnapping hundreds of schoolgirls from the town of Chibok. In all, violence has affected 5 million Nigerians and forced 2.2 million people to flee to other parts of the country, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

"You take it day by day; today it might be peaceful and tomorrow it might be chaos. It’s very uncertain. It can get depressing," Abubakar said of living there. "The fact is that you live life on the edge and you’re never calm, even for a few days. It’s very traumatizing."

But amid that violence, there is still hope and resilience. It's those powerful moments of positivity that Abubakar trains her camera on. She captures them all and shares them with the world through her Instagram account, Bits of Borno. She said she also uses the page to collect donations of food and clothing for some of the subjects of her photos.

Ahead, Abubakar shares some of her favorite photos, and why she will never stop doing this work, with Refinery29.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All captions were provided by Abubakar.
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Photo: Fati Abubakar.
How did you get the idea for your Instagram account? What inspired you?
"I got the idea came from other pages I’d been seeing, like Humans of New York, and also UNICEF and all of the other organizations that do human stories, so that was really the inspiration for the work.

"I do a lot of series looking at different issues as I see them happening around me, and I also address issues that have happened in the past but that we are really seeing happen again. I take it day by day, and I take one issue and I tackle that and then I move to another issue. So we have a series I’m doing on everything that’s happening around."

Caption: Fashionable girls pose during Eid celebrations in Maiduguri.
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Photo: Fati Abubakar.
What do you think is missing from a lot of the photographs of Nigeria that are published in the mainstream media?
"To be honest, if you search on Google or on your newsfeed right now, all you’re ever going to see is devastation and the death tolls and people lying dead on the streets. So we don’t really have a good image anymore.

"People don’t know that there is life outside of what has happened in the past and what continues to happen. So I really want to show more things, that there is lots of resilience. There is everyday life, there are markets, there are schools, there are offices still open. So I want to show what the media is missing and that is the resilience."

Caption: A Kanuri woman smiles at the Dalori camp for internally displaced people.
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Photo: Fati Abubakar.
How do you feel empowered by social media to share your message?
"Social media is still very powerful. We’re very well-connected. You don’t know where the work is going, but it reaches audiences worldwide. I’m happy about using social media since it’s a great medium to reach as [many people] as you can. I guess social media has helped the work reach an audience we ordinarily wouldn’t if we had used print, for example."

Caption: Women rush to a food distribution center on Gamboru Ngala Road.
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Photo: Fati Abubakar.
What was your life like growing up? Why did you want to be a photographer?
"I had a really great childhood, I would say. My father bought me a bicycle; I would go swimming; we would have picnics and we would go to the zoo and the lake. So, it was a very normal, very happy childhood. It was a quiet town, a very small town where we all knew each other. We went to parties together. I thought it was a beautiful life before any of that happened.

"The reason why I wanted to photograph all of that is that we are losing a lot of our architecture; we are losing our people; we are losing our culture, and so I was unhappy about that. I wanted to document as much as I can so that in the future, people will look back and say, 'Okay, we had this before.'

"It kind of creates nostalgia. That’s why I decided to document everything as it happened, everything that is left behind: development, buildings, people, cultures, a lot of things. I want to preserve as much as I can."

Caption: A girl poses at the Sanda Kyarimi Zoo during the celebration of Eid, which marks the end of Muslims' holy month of Ramadan.
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Photo: Fati Abubakar.
What are some of the factors that are leading to parts of your country being destroyed?
"In the past, there were lots of bomb blasts, but now they are reducing. But because of the terrorist attacks and the bomb blasts, we are losing a lot of our architecture. Our people are being displaced and it's generally causing a lot of devastation. So, I would say the terrorism that caused all that."

Caption: A young boy at the Sanda Kyarimi Zoo during Eid.



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Photo: Fati Abubakar.
One of the terrorist groups that’s operating in Nigeria right now is Boko Haram. What is life like in a place where Boko Haram is fighting for control?
"I would say life in the midst of the insurgency is very unpredictable. You take it day by day; today it might be peaceful and tomorrow it might be chaos. It’s very uncertain. It can get depressing — the fact is that you live life on the edge and you’re never calm, even for a few days. It’s very traumatizing.

"Boko Haram is a terrorist group that has an ideology that wants to enforce Sharia law on other people. They use violence against people who are not joining their ideology. It’s a very extremist group, and they are very fanatical about religion and how everybody should conform to their ideology. Boko Haram is a very dangerous group, and it has tarnished the image of an Islam that is peaceful."

Caption: School girls on Damboa Road in Maiduguri.
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Photo: Fati Abubakar.
What is life like for women in particular in areas that are controlled by Boko Haram?
"Life for women is more difficult. For example, if they lose their husband and they lose their families, it’s very, very traumatizing, and you have to start life all over again from scratch, from having everything to having nothing. Then you are left with the idea that you are vulnerable and you’re weak, and you have to start life all over again."

Caption: A Kwayam woman during Eid in the community of Dalori.
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Photo: Fati Abubakar.
How are you combatting some of the terror and uncertainty of living in an area like that with your pictures?
"I’m trying as much as possible to look at the positive side. Besides the fact that there’s a lot of trauma and devastation, there are other stories, as well. People are bouncing back and living in adversity, but they are still stronger than they were because of what has happened.

"Occasionally, you see people who are resilient who wouldn't normally be if it hadn’t happened. I’m living in a world of crisis, and that makes you stronger — it makes you have more courage. You become brave and then you develop a kind of attitude where, whatever happens, you don’t really care anymore. I will live my life to the fullest and take it day by day. It makes you stronger, and you become very brave. That’s the feeling I have had."

Caption: A smiling girl holds her sibling at Dalori camp for internally displaced people.
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Photo: Fati Abubakar.
Talk a little bit about the people in your photographs. What kind of stories have they told you, and what kind of memories have they shared with you?
"Generally, the recurring theme is one of loss. A lot of people talk about a lot of loss, whether it’s a family member or their property. But after a while, as the insurgency is waning, there are a lot of stories about children going back to school, people picking up businesses, and some people leaving to [go back to] the towns and cities and coming and acquiring new skills. It’s a vast range of stories to get, but the recurring theme would be loss, and how people are trying to cope despite losing everything."

Caption: An old woman in the Gwange neighborhood of Maiduguri.
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Photo: Fati Abubakar.
Is it ever difficult to be a young woman walking around, taking pictures?
"It’s definitely very challenging because in the moment, there is suspicion: What are you doing? What do you want to do with the pictures? What’s your aim? What’s your agenda? So there are a lot of questions. And because of how our culture is very conservative, they are not used to seeing a woman with a camera walking around, so they kind of disapprove.

"They say, 'You are not conforming to the traditional lifestyle.' Occasionally, people say, 'You should get married,' or, 'You should focus on getting a real job, this isn’t a profession.' They are slowly adjusting to it, but they are not used to it.

"Here, if you are 30, it’s like you are 50. They keep telling you, reminding you to get married [laughs]."

Caption: A youth vigilante does security checks at the Monday market, in Maiduguri.
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Photo: Fati Abubakar.
Why have you chosen to continue to do this work despite those challenges? Why is it so important to you?
"As an individual, you have to choose what makes you happy, despite what society thinks. You don’t have to conform to anybody’s idea of who you have to be. If it makes you happy and it’s going to bring change to the community, you definitely have to follow your passion and your dreams and actualize your vision.

"I continue doing it because I’m seeing the kind of change that it’s bringing in the narrative. People no longer see or view the town as trauma central or bomb-blast central. They see more of the people moving on. I like the fact that it’s changing the narrative. And now that people are donating through the page, they can see it’s also actualizing and helping a family. They get a lot of donations, and when you go back and hand it to the person, they are very happy with the impact on the community."

Caption: A boy at the cattle market.
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Photo: Fati Abubakar.
What is your favorite part of taking these photographs? What do you enjoy most?
"I enjoy photographing children. I like their excitement when they see the camera. They are very jovial, very bubbly, and happy to see you. They always ask you to take their pictures for them, so it makes me really happy that, for that moment, they are excited and don’t have to worry about anything else.

"It makes me happy that I’m making people see my community for what it should be despite the fact that we have problems, we are well aware of that. We also want to see something different. It makes me happy that people see a different side."

Caption: Schoolgirls at Galtimari Primary School in Maiduguri.
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Photo: Fati Abubakar.
How many photographs do you think you’ve taken at this point?
"I think it would more than a thousand photographs. But you always have to select the good ones and keep some for the future. I would say more than a thousand for now."

Caption: People dance during a cultural event sponsored by the International Organization for Migration for internally displaced people in the community of Kusheri.
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Photo: Fati Abubakar.
Do you hope to keep doing this work?
"I definitely want to make it a career, make it long-term. But because my background is in health, I actually want to combine media and medicine so that I can tell stories of health issues and some of that visually — maybe using video.

"I definitely see myself continuing my line of work and also making sure that, even if I cannot continue, I would want people to pick up the camera and encourage them to learn how to visually tell human stories…so we can have a generation that is growing up that will continue telling stories."

Caption: Young boys at the Monday market.
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Photo: Fati Abubakar.
What is your advice for other young women who want to do what you’ve done?
"I would definitely say, 'Do it for the right reasons. Do it because it makes you happy. Do it because you want to contribute to your community, because you want to preserve cultures and document for your community’s archives.

"I think they should have the right reasons first, and also make sure that this is what you love. You don’t have to conform to the traditional version of what a female should be. You should define for yourself what you want to be. And if being a photographer is what you want to be, I think throw caution to the wind and make sure you keep going and [do] not listen to destructive criticism."

Caption: A cultural troupe plays at a wedding in Maiduguri.
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Photo: Fati Abubakar.
What message do you ultimately want to share with this work?
"My ultimate dream is to show that we are resilient and that we are a people moving on. That’s my dream, for people to see that we are proud of our past and moving on."

Caption: Cheerful girls in the community of Jere.
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