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The Faces of #bringbackourgirls Aren't Their Faces at All

The image of a young African girl has punctuated news and social media feeds for over a month now. It first gained the attention of millions as a Twitter post calling for the release of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by the terror group...

by Laura Rodriguez Castro
10 June 2014, 3:30am

Image by Ami Vitale - Jenabu Balde rests her head inside the school in the remote village of Guinea Bissua. Most men coming from this conservative Muslim village of Fulani's believe the girls should stay at home and work.

The image of a young African girl has punctuated news and social media feeds for over a month now. It first gained the attention of millions as a Twitter post calling for the release of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by the terror group Boko Haram. The tweet, bearing the now ubiquitous hashtag #bringbackourgirls, was soon retweeted by everyone from Chris Brown to the BBC. The image, and importantly the girl in the image, quickly became the symbol for a global cause. There was just one thing: the girl was not one of the abductees. In fact, she wasn’t even Nigerian.

Ami Vitale is a filmmaker and photojournalist for National Geographic. She shot the image as part of a long-term project documenting life in a remote village in Ginea Bissau. The project was intended to show a different side of life for young African woman, one that was slowly improving.

So how does Ami feel about the photo being used to in some ways show the exact opposite? We spoke to her to find out.

VICE: How did you find out that your photos were used for the #BringBackOurGirls Campaign?
Ami Vitale: The Alexia Foundation sent me an email, so I jumped onto Twitter and quickly researched to find out who began the campaign.  I discovered it was a Nigerian man who had a design studio. I immediately started writing him letters and sending him tweets asking him to remove the photos from his campaign. The girls in my photos are not victims from Nigeria. Using these images and portraying them as victims is not truthful. 

Creative commons is complicated. Most people just assume that if they see a photo on the Internet without a watermark or name attached to it, it's free to use. However, this photo was not in the Creative commons. When I wrote to individuals asking them to take down these photos, many didn't want to take responsibility. The first response was, “well it’s already been retweeted a thousands times, why does it matter anymore?” That surprised me. They can often assume the people in the photos are models.

I also learned that one image of the crying girl had been stolen thousands of times before this campaign and her face was being used to illustrate everything from child rape to sexual trafficking to religion. So I have a huge job of trying to write to every single website that is using these photos without permission.

Jenabu's image as retweeted by Chris Brown and countless others. The image has been altered to include a tear under her left eye.

After everything that's happened, do you have any cynicism about the #BringBackOurGirls campaign?
I don’t blame the man who started using these pictures. He was frustrated and wanted people around the world to pay attention. He was using social media to create awareness. The problem is that he was using images he took from the Alexia Foundation's website that fit a stereotype of rural African girls.

People reading this may not see the problem here. Some might feel that stealing or misappropriating your photos in the name of human rights is excusable. 
Well, that’s why I think this one is so contentious. What about the human rights of the girls in the photos? Their faces have become a representation of sexual trafficking. That’s not fair to them. I just want the same standards applied. It’s not okay to misappropriate a picture in the name of human rights. I understand we are in very difficult place right now and we have to establish more rules and understanding.

Have you had a chance to talk to the girls in your photos?
They live in a very remote village with no electricity and no running water. It is a whole day, sometimes a two-day trip, from the capital to the village. They can’t keep phones charged there. I have no way of reaching them.

I don’t know when I am going to get there but I would like to explain to them what happened. As journalists we're always looking for good stories, but we must also think about the people whose stories we're trying to tell and show them the same respect we would expect for ourselves.

Let's get to your story. Can you tell us about how you found this village and how the project emerged?
My sister lived there as a Peace Corp volunteer for two-and-a-half years and this was her family. I was expecting to stay for a few weeks to tell a story about how a civil war impacted their lives. I ended up staying half a year and realised the story wasn’t about the war. I went in with my own set of values and ideas about their lives. It took time to see that there was another, very different story.

In the West, we are taught two stories about Africa. It was not the Africa of war and famines and plagues, nor was it the idealised world of safaris and exotic animals. It was something in between. I spent the days learning the language Pulaar, I carried water, gathered firewood, and experienced life just as the majority of people on the planet live. When the food was running out we all went hungry.

I think they trusted me because of the years my sister had spent living with them. And I became accepted into the community and once I gained their trust, all these wonderful stories began to emerge.

Your work challenges the Africa stereotype and focuses on stories of women’s culture and their everyday lives. How did that decision happen?
I made three trips in 1993, 2000 and 2011.  Politically, Guinea Bissau has so many problems and it’s a really ignored country in many ways. It’s considered the drug capital of Africa because South American drug lords are transporting drugs through the tiny islands of Guinea Bissau up to Europe.

But when I got into the villages and outside of the political story, I saw tremendous changes and hopeful stories. In 2011 girls were going to school, and that was a significant change from my first visits. Some of the men were even agreeing to allow their girls to live in nearby towns to continue their education, which is unbelievable. They had big dreams. The world is changing pretty quickly, and that’s how that story evolved. I don’t want to paint a picture that everything is perfect, but these seemingly small steps can have very big impacts.

There is still a lot to overcome. Circumcision is something I focused on there and in 2011 the government finally passed a law making circumcision illegal.

Having been close to the girls, and understanding the pressure placed on their mothers and grandmothers to undergo circumcision, do you think there's any chance this practice will end?
You can see changes in the capital Bissau. I think it will take time to trickle into the villages but passing these laws definitely has an impact. It has to go hand in hand with education so that’s why the fact that girls are going to school now makes a huge difference. The next generation knows that there is an alternative.

There are two main photos used for the campaign and circulating, what are these photos about?
Jenabu was the photo that went the most viral. She’s the one resting her head on her hands and that was outside of her school. I didn’t know Jenabu well. She was a relative with the family I stayed with, I just talked to her and like a lot of the girls there she was just really happy to be going to school, so that’s just a simple image of girls returning to school.

The other image is of a girl named Awa, she is the daughter of the family that I am very close to. It's a story about traditional culture and all these issues surrounding their everyday lives there.

The girls in Guinea Bissau matter as much as the girls from Nigeria and us much as your own girls. I think things won’t change unless we stop stereotyping. If we take the time to lift that veil, then we give our audience a broader vision of what the world really looks like. By digging beneath the headlines and taking the time to understand, a universal truth will emerge.

See the rest of Ami's photo project here.

Follow Laura on Twitter: @laurarc91

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