The reality faced by young women in northeastern Nigeria, living in areas devastatingly affected by the conflict that has erupted there in the last decade, has faded from the news cycle. Many of us know of the thousands of schoolchildren who have been rounded up and abducted over the years, and the tragedy of their reality lingers in the knowledge that many are now dead or still missing.
The lives of the young women affected are explored by photographer Rahima Gambo in her Education Is Forbidden portfolio. Schools were wiped out and education faded into the background when the priority shifted to survival, but her intimate series captures the cherished memories of a number of schoolgirls of a time before the insurgence erupted.
It's in this part of the world that survivors of Boko Haram have had to find means to adjust to their new lives, forging their own coping mechanisms to try and deal with the trauma that will undoubtedly continue to affect them. It’s a poignant experience that is the focus of a photo series called It’s All In My HEAD, by documentary photographer Etinosa Yvonne.
These are just two examples of work by artists soon to be showcased at Britain’s first major African photography prize. On 4th October, new British multimedia company, Africa MediaWorks, launches its inaugural Photography Prize. Finally giving voice to some of Africa’s most exciting talent and showcasing the African diaspora that hasn’t had much recognition here in the West, the platform will be exhibiting 15 photographers, all up for a £5,000 prize towards a further body of work.
Zooming in on the crisis and aftermath that continues to ripple through Nigeria – a topic all too fleetingly relayed through the eyes of the UK press – we spoke to these two Nigerian female photographers shortlisted for the prize to uncover the stories behind their work. Read ahead for a glimpse of some of the beautiful images they produced, and the heartbreaking experiences of the people they photographed.
Education Is Forbidden, by Rahima Gambo
This photography project started back in 2015. Rahima, who is from one of the states in northeastern Nigeria, remembers kicking everything off as a photojournalist trying to find her voice. "I was curious about what was happening and wanted to see for myself. I wanted to see how [young people] were experiencing the conflict," she tells Refinery29.
Education Is Forbidden began very much like a documentary project, and saw Rahima travel to different schools and universities that were attacked, looking for stories of what happened and meeting former students along the way. The school that she photographed had been attacked in 2013, but when she returned to it for this latest set of images, she had a clear idea of what she wanted to take away from it.
"I wanted to go back and ask a different set of questions, questions that have nothing to do with the event or the incident they had been through but more to do with the memories that precede the event," Rahima explains. "I was trying to find a certain sort of innocence, an open-endedness that didn’t trap them in the frame of a victim in any way."
And so the result is something joyous and distantly familiar, with a devastating story behind it that manages to remain subsidiary. Education Is Forbidden presents these young women, now aged 16 and 17, returning to a space that hadn't felt safe for a formative part of their childhood, playing the games they used to play and recreating fond memories that predate an international tragedy. "There’s something in movement and it’s all about freedom and defying gravity," Rahima says. "Just seeing them in that way was... I wasn’t thinking about it at that time as a visual resistance, but it was playing against everything you think about that time."
"The words that you see above the images, those are taken from schoolbooks," Rahima continues. They came from old books not necessarily used by the girls photographed but contained a sentiment which she felt resonated with the spirit she wanted to capture on camera. "I thought it said something more about an interior state, and just kind of putting together and see how they fit."
For the shots in the classroom, Rahima asked the now 16- and 17-year-old girls to bring something with them, like a toy or a game they played at about the age of 10. "Something that reminded them of their childhood, of a time when they have no worries," she says. In doing so she managed to create new memories for these young girls in an otherwise difficult place. "I was thinking, what is my role in this space? I’m a photographer, here to take pictures and show them to an outside audience. I’m asking about their memories but also at this point in time being a part of their memory and I kind of wanted to give something to them during that."
It’s All In My Head, by Etinosa Yvonne
"I use this project to advocate for increased access to mental health facilities and psychological support for the victims," Etinosa tells Refinery29. For each delicate portrait that was taken, Etinosa did an in-depth interview with the survivors to really understand what they were thinking. She says that a lack of support is something she noticed was lacking during these intimate, often upsetting, interviews. "When there’s an outbreak of violence or terrorist activities in that area, most of the time the humanitarian organisations and government agencies, what they focus on is relief material and schools, but few of them focus on mental health."
When it came to putting It’s All In My HEAD together, Etinosa was really conscious of communicating what was going on in these people's minds authentically, but also trying to find a way to reflect thoughts that aren’t necessarily clear in a straightforward portrait. So, after absorbing each individual's experiences with terrorism, Etinosa would layer a visual representation of what they described as their "coping mechanism" within their portrait.
The result is beautiful, but the reality is hard to hear. Almost in the same way that you might squint your eyes to really see the image behind an optical illusion, with this photo series you physically have to look within the person in the image, to get a glimpse of what they might be feeling. Needless to say, it's pretty moving.
Talking through the image of a man’s face layered with the blueprint designs for a building, Etinosa explains: "He used to be an architect. He had to flee the community. Sometimes at his worst, when he’s severely depressed, he goes to a café and designs these plans – that’s a form of escapism for him. That’s what reminds him of what his life was before. So, I try to layer it just to get people to understand what’s going on inside their heads."
Since starting the project in March, Etinosa has interviewed a vast number of survivors to find out how they cope with the weight of their past traumas. And though some might strike home more than others, it's the singularity of each photograph that really speaks to the scale of what's been happening. "They all have pain that they’re going through and everyone's pain is unique. They have lost," she says. "Some of them were doing really well for themselves and now they have nothing. Some of them lost a loved one, some of them lost their means of livelihood, you know, it’s just the whole lot."