I was intrigued by the NYT Lens piece by James Estrin ‘The Real Story behind the Wrong Photos in bringbackourgirls”. Estrin interviews the author of the images used to illustrate the campaign, Ami Vitale, who reveals:
A Twitter campaign using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls has focused global attention on the plight of some 276 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by the Islamic militant group Boko Haram. Three photos of girls have been posted and reposted thousands of times, including by the BBC and by the singer Chris Brown (who himself has had issues with anger management and violence against women).
One problem: The photos are of girls from Guinea-Bissau, more than 1,000 miles from Nigeria, who have no relationship to the kidnappings.
The use of these pictures raises troubling questions of representation, and misrepresentation. Ami Vitale, the photographer who made the original images as part of a long-term project, spoke with James Estrin on Thursday. Their conversation has been edited.
Tell me about the photos.A.
“There were three photos that were taken from either my website or the Alexia Foundation website, and someone made these images the face of the campaign. But these photos had nothing to do with the girls who were kidnapped and sexually trafficked.
There are many times when I get upset when people take my photos without permission, but this isn’t about that. I support the campaign completely and I would do anything to bring attention to the situation. It’s a beautiful campaign that shows the power of social media. This is a separate issue.
This is about misrepresentation.”
Reading through a few of the subsequent comments one stuck out, by ‘bronx’ noting that:
“First time I saw the image of the crying little girl was maybe two or three years ago, on some something&something cupcake website. I found it on many others too. I simply googled crying little black girls and her images appeared without her name or copyright or links to the sites she mentions above… She deserves credit for her work. Absolutely. I’d just like for her to stop being self righteous. Ok. I’m gonna talking. Thanks for indulging me.”
Normally these throw-away lines lead nowhere, but I still can’t resist trying….so did the ‘crying little black girls’ search and indeed up came Vitale’s image, so then did a ‘Search Google with this image’ command, and was literally astonished by what was returned – you’ll see it further down the page in this piece – and I have to confess that I find the repetitive nature of this ‘search result’ quite overwhelming visually.
But however visually striking it might be, it was only when I ‘mined down’ into the various uses of this one single image that its impact really hit home.
It has appeared in hundreds of different locations, illustrating everything from DestinationTrinidad’s article ‘What is for you…certainly is for you’.
The Beauty Impact (This is Your Planet):
To the fictional ‘The Mother’s Sins’
and also ‘I have men issues but it wasn’t because of my daddy’ a piece on sexual and physical violence against children.
And ‘news’ articles too, as on warm hearts blog :
This latter use is fairly common, well…..judging by the various similar uses it’s been put to that popped up by the less-than-scientific method I employed of simply clicking on any one of the images at random. Take the following as yet another example, and there are many many more:
This example above from ‘One in a Billion Consulting’ uses it to illustrate an emotive piece on the rape of an 11 year old girl.
This is perhaps the most blatant – there is a ‘news’ intent to this piece, and the perpetrator/rapist is pictured and the illustration of the ‘victim’ is…..yet again the Vitale image:
I find this continual reference to (sexual) violence which accompanies these uses of this image very troubling, for all the reasons you can imagine. And particularly when the original story which featured the image was in no way negative, but a positive story, as Vitale underlines:
“So it’s ironic the story I was telling was that there is a beautiful world that lies between these two truths. Why don’t we ever tell these stories that show the dignity and resilience of these 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.”
Of course, and as Vitale herself notes, were we to utilize an image of a ‘first world’ white person in a similar (careless) way there is a very good chance there would be repercussions, of the legal sort. (To be fair some of these uses illustrated here may be ‘legitimate’ in so far as they’ve sought the appropriate permissions from the author or her representatives.)
But for the rest, because this is some anonymous black girl, it seems it’s just ‘hey who cares’.
Well it might be fair to say the subject probably cares. And so do her family. She has a name. She has siblings. She has a mother who cares deeply. It seems the only people who don’t care, are we image users.
There’s a curious irony in the fact that 270 schoolgirls are kidnapped, and……well nothing really happens. Until a photograph of someone unrelated to the incident is (mis)used to spearhead a campaign to find them – and the featured individual is from…well….the wrong country, and is the wrong ethnicity – but suddenly people sit up and take notice.
But, do any of you know what a group of 276 schoolgirls actually looks like? (276 is an estimate – I cant find an exact figure).
Well they look something like this – the result of my ‘search google with this image’ command:
(Click the linked image below to have the images fill your screen)
Except, of course, the number shown above is…well……just a few more than 276…..but as other schoolgirls were kidnapped previously and some others subsequent to the main event, and nobody appears to know the exact number of children missing (a frightening and telling fact in itself), this sobering graphic might be the most accurate representation of the real number of children missing…..
…….except these are not the missing young people. They’re not just a number.
The missing children are all different children, individuals with their own stories to tell. One of anguished parents, distraught siblings. They had aspirations too. As DestinationTrinidad’s article which I linked to above, eloquently underlines beside its own particular use of this image, and in a curiously ironic and apposite way:
“You may find it odd that although you planned a particular direction for your life disregarding your trials and tribulations to get there stuff keeps happening and leading you in a total different direction. Take heed this is the time when you need to stop, reflect, observe and listen to what is going on. This is your life, your story that’s waiting to be told. It’s begging you to see the light, the path that you need to be on en route to destination success, life fulfillment and purpose.”
Maybe it’s time the real stories of these lives are told. Is that too much to ask?
Well, let me conclude with a peek at astoldbypepper’s blog, where this same image appears once again, in a piece which combines condescension and irony in equal measure: