May 18. 2024. 3:51

The Daily

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‘You see tragedy but you also see everyday life’: How photography can change perceptions of northeast Nigeria

For more than a decade, northeast Nigeria has been known internationally as a war zone. Since an Islamist insurgency started in 2009, millions of people have been displaced and hundreds of thousands are estimated to have been killed from direct or indirect causes. It is the place where the Chibok schoolgirls – and likely tens of thousands of others – were abducted, hitting headlines around the world.

It is also the birthplace of Fati Abubakar, an internationally renowned photographer in her 30s. Today, she has a dream: to establish a new arts centre in Maiduguri, the capital of her home place , Borno State.

Abubakar’s photography has garnered a huge amount of international attention. In 2014, she set up an Instagram account called Bits of Borno: her mission was to document everyday life and to show there is more to the northeast than conflict and tragedy.

Her efforts were featured by international media. In a 2016 profile, the New York Times described her as “a slender woman with a soft voice and sharp points of view”, while noting that local journalists said they had never known of another woman Nigerian photographer in their state.


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A myriad of opportunities came in the following years, but Abubakar says the reaction was also “really, really overwhelming”.

“I didn’t really know how to cope with the attention. I was happy that the work got a lot of praise and it was sort of changing the narrative and people were seeing the northeast as a different place: you see the tragedy but you also see the everyday life.”

She said the focus on her personally was hard, but “my fame I think made it easier for more women in the north to identify as photographers, to want to be photographers.

“There used to be a stigma with being a journalist who is a woman in our region, so now it’s become a very, very respectable profession. Fathers are calling me saying ‘I want my daughter to join. I want her to have a studio. I want her to have a business where she enjoys what she’s doing.’ So it’s been really, really incredible in terms of shifting mentalities around the profession itself.”

Speaking on the phone from Nigeria, Abubakar says she is keen to use her position and influence to help others. She always dreamed of setting up an arts foundation to “help build a thriving creative economy” in the northeast: it would run a creative centre where students can develop skills and critical thinking before they go off to work for media organisations, or become “whatever they want to be within the media and art space”.

Most large media organisations are based in political capital Abuja, more than 800km from Maiduguri, or economic capital Lagos, more than 1,600km away. “I wanted to have a training where young people will ... learn how to be visual storytellers, because I think there’s lots of stories in the state and in the region in general.”

She says this is also about “ownership” of the stories, making sure there is an archive in the state of what it was like at this time, as seen through the lens of local people rather than foreign, usually Western, journalists.

Abubakar received an initial grant, allowing her to hire a finance and procurement officer to help. They have leased a building for two years and are working on refurbishing it. The plan is to have one room for a small library and another area where people can come in to edit their work. They will also hold exhibitions there, she hopes. “We’ve never really had a creative centre, an art centre, in the state.”

They are looking for further donations to go towards the refurbishment. One challenge is getting electricity: Maiduguri, a city effectively under siege because of the conflict, has had no electricity for about two years, after militants blew up the infrastructure supplying it. To get around this, the centre needs a generator and solar panels. She also wants to buy furniture and lights and pay other expenses towards making it a modern arts space.

She says she tried having conversations with organisations and agencies that might help, but getting commitments is hard, because their attention is drawn by so many other needs, so instead she is trying her hand at crowdfunding.

At the same time, the foundation has also started work.

It held its first photo workshop last year. Hundreds of young people applied for only 10 places, Abubakar said; they eventually found space for 30, almost half of whom were women. After it ended, she kept mentoring participants.

When they opened calls for another audio and video workshop this year, another 300 applied. “People are really interested,” she says.

Some of the applicants already work in radio stations. She says the growth of Instagram and TikTok, as well as the number of foreign photographers who have visited the region, has expanded interest. But most applicants neither have a camera nor can afford one. The foundation has 10 cameras which it loans out so people can work on projects. “For the duration of the year that we are mentoring the students we allow them to use the camera any time,” Abubakar says. “Unfortunately we cannot afford to give them the cameras.”

She is also thinking about continuity. One workshop participant from last year went on to do a fellowship with the media organisation Human Angle, and in the future she wants to find other media organisations that will partner with the foundation. She would love to see students going on to work at places such as CNN and Al Jazeera.

Even with this new mission, Abubakar is motivated by trying to change the stories told about where she is from. “It sort of enraged me that there was only one narrative so a lot of my work comes from there,” she says. “I don’t want people to remember [northeast Nigeria] only for the conflict. I feel like there’s so many beautiful things about this place and the people and the culture and the food that are kind of forgotten in the narrative about conflict. So I think it’s important to make people remember that there’s more to this place than what you see.”

“Foreign coverage of Africa in general is something that a lot of Africans struggle with,” she continues. “Obviously no place is perfect. But we wish that there was more coverage that was nuanced and more balanced and looks at the happiness and hope, together with other tragedies that happen simultaneously. ”

When she speaks with students, Abubakar emphasises the importance of capturing a wide range of stories. “I always say look for the good, the bad and the ugly,” she said. “You have to have balanced reporting ... so that we know this is a place that has everything and doesn’t just have one thing.”