Wrong Photos in #BringBackOurGirls Campaign Raise Troubling Questions

A photojournalist reveals how images from her long-term project were misappropriated and used for the viral Twitter campaign. 

Posted: 05/09/2014 01:30 PM EDT
Wrong Photos in #BringBackOurGirls Campaign Raises Troubling Questions

From U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama to Alicia Keys, a long list of influential individuals have joined the #BringBackOurGirls Twitter campaign to prompt the immediate rescuing of some 276 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls. 

Three particular photos have been posted and reposted thousands of times after being retweeted by BBC and Chris Brown. However, as it turns out, the young Black girls featured in the photos are from Guinea-Bissau and have nothing to do with the Nigerian girls who were kidnapped. 

The images actually came from a long-term project, titled Tradition, Women’s Rights and Circumcision, by photojournalist Ami Vitale. Yet, neither Vitale nor the girls in the images were asked permission before the photos became a part of the worldwide #BringBackOurGirls campaign.

In an interview with The New York Times, she addresses the concerning questions of representation that these pictures raise.

"Can you imagine having your daughter’s image spread throughout the world as the face of sexual trafficking?” Vitale asked. "These girls have never been abducted, never been sexually trafficked. This is misrepresentation.”

Vitale had traveled to Guinea in 1993, 2000 and 2011, during which she lived there for several months, learned the language and immersed herself in the local community. What started as a project aiming to “put a human face on conflict” ultimately became a story about sidestepping the stereotypical images of Africa and focusing on the beauty, dignity and resilience of the local people.

"And this is why I feel so enraged, because I was trying to not show them as victims. They are not victims. Using these images and portraying them as victims is not truthful. The story I did was a hopeful story."

Since learning that the images had been misused, Vitale has already committed herself to preventing the further spread of these images. She told the Times that, as a photographer and journalist, she feels a sense of responsibility to the people she photographs.

"I can’t help but wonder that they thought this was OK just because my friends are from Africa,” she said. "If it were white people from another country in the photos, this wouldn’t be considered acceptable."

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(Photo: Chris Brown via Twitter)

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