On Wednesday morning, we, at the Alexia Foundation, discovered that one of Ami Vitale photographs from her Guinea Bissau work had been taken and was being used in the #bringbackourgirls campaign.
We contacted Ami Vitale immediately, who knew about the situation from one of our tweets, asking the BBC to remove one of her photos which had been manipulated. We brought in Mickey Osterreicher, a lawyer with the National Press Photographers Association and an Alexia Foundation trustee, who helped advise us on how to address this.
We are responsible as photographers and journalists when we make promises to do justice to their stories and honor them in the way that they have honored us by sharing their stories
We believe in the campaign. Bring Back Our Girls is working to raise awareness about the terrible tragedy of the kidnapping of 276 girls from school in Nigeria. It’s vital to raise awareness in order to bring change. We have been working to raise awareness in our own circles for nearly a week. However, using Ami Vitale’s powerful photography is not the way to do it.
Ami’s story in Guinea Bissau sought to tell a story different from the two narratives we so often hear from Africa, that of the horrors or that of the exotic. She immersed herself in this work. Her story showed the beauty and truth between these two extremes. She revisited in 2011 to see the change that had happened in the village. She found amazing progress in the treatment of women. Girls were attending school. It is inspiring. It is a story of positive change.
No one should take a photograph from anywhere they find it to use it as they want. They shouldn’t. In most circumstances, legally they cannot. What is egregious, however, in this situation is the misrepresentation.
The girls in these images are not Nigerian and they have not been abducted. They live more than one thousand miles away from Nigeria in Guinea Bissau. Ami’s original story was beautiful and positive, showing girls who were seeking an education.
These girls have families. They have lives. They are not models and have not agreed to be represented like this. Ami knows their families. They are her friends. They have not agreed to be the face of this atrocity. We cannot know what kind of repercussion this work could have on them.
“Can you imagine having your daughter’s image spread throughout the world as the face of sexual trafficking?” asks Ami.
Ami spoke to James Estrin, who runs the New York Times Lensblog, on the situation and why this is so upsetting.
“I feel a sense of responsibility to the people I photograph,” explains Ami. “I go into communities and I make a promise that I will be responsible with their images and that I will deliver the message that they articulate to me.”
“We are responsible as photographers and journalists when we make promises to do justice to their stories and honor them in the way that they have honored us by sharing their stories,” Ami continues. “I need to follow through with this one.”
So far, this situation has been reported on by The New York Times, The Washington Post and Mashable. Although resistant at first, the creator and the reporter at the BBC have removed the photographs. More media are in the process of reporting. We are working hard to correct this and make sure that these photographs are properly presented.
In the meantime, we ask that everyone try to be conscientious about what they are sharing and the source. We need to remember that photographs represent reality. They show lives. We need to respect these lives.