Tears for fears


Image © Ami Vitale

Image © Ami Vitale

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.


“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’.

Image ©  Ami Vitale

Image © Ami Vitale


The Beauty Impact (This is Your Planet):


To the fictional ‘The Mother’s Sins’ 

Image © Ami Vitale

Image © Ami Vitale

and also ‘I have men issues but it wasn’t because of my daddy’ a piece on sexual and physical violence against children.

'I have men issues but it wasn't because of my daddy'

Image © Ami Vitale

And ‘news’ articles too, as on warm hearts blog  :

Image © Ami Vitale

Image © Ami Vitale

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:


Image © Ami Vitale

Image © Ami Vitale


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:

lsm1 lsm2


Author — John Macpherson

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 27 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

Discussion (14 Comments)

  1. Ami Vitale says:

    Thanks for your post. I had no idea the image was being used in so many places for almost every stereotype one can imagine. Its particularly poignant and disturbing to read this on Mother’s Day. How would any of these people feel if they saw their own child’s image used in the same way? I have spent the past 5 days trying to reach these website administrators to urge them to take it down. It seems futile but I hope people will have some empathy and start thinking about the ramifications of such indiscriminate use. thank you.

    • Hi Ami- thanks for adding your voice here. After reading your interview on Lens and then doing the search suggested in the comments, I had a feeling you might be unaware of the sheer scale of usage of this image. The astonishing number of uses is one thing, and obviously an important one, but what utterly dismayed me was the overwhelmingly negative ways that this image was being (mis)used. As a very ‘visual’ person I was quite disturbed by the seemingly endless stream of images (uses) that the google search revealed. I hope you manage to rein in at least some of these administrators.

    • jafabrit says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this Amy. My first thoughts aside from the copyright issue was on the exploitation and use of a child’s image and how the child or her family felt. The way your images have been appropriated is disturbing on so many levels. I hope you are able to get the images removed off sites, but asking the website owners is probably a waste, better to just file dmca notices with their webhosts, search engines, etc.

      • Thanks for your comments. This morning I clicked through a few of the links I’d included in the article above and noticed that several of the pages have disappeared, and one has had the image removed and a “sorry” comment posted. However the wider issues of ‘exploitation’ and ‘misrepresentation’ are not so easily resolved. DMCA action is time consuming at the best of times bit the sheer scale of this particular misuse will require a lot of time spent trying to get some resolution.

        • jafabrit says:

          yes, very time consuming unfortunately 🙁 but worth taking the time. I carved out a hour each morning last year to deal with large scale abuse of my work and got it under control.

  2. Stan B. says:

    I’m glad these kidnapped girls are finally (finally!) getting the attention they deserve to initiate the necessary action that will hopefully ensure their safe return, and in so doing, prevent any recurrence.

    Think it’s pretty safe to say however, that only (a small minority of) those interested in photography are paying any mind whatsoever to the underlying issue of image appropriation- which is why this particular abuse will grow even more rampant…

  3. Gabriel Tait says:

    John and Ami,

    Thanks for this work. My research explores photographic representation in Africa. Unfortunately John brings out a very common practice, misrepresentation by Western media (I use this in cultural sense of Mass Media) to propagate ongoing stereotypes regarding persons on the continent. Images that injure by Paul Lester Martin and Reading National Geographic by Catherine Lutz are good resources to explore the above issue. I have also created a research method called “Sight Beyond My Sight (SBMS) to learn about cultures label as subaltern from within the culture.

    Thanks for continuing the conversations about photographic representation and fair use of photography. @drtaitphotoasu @Amivee @JamesEstrin

    • Thanks Gabriel – really appreciate your input. If you’d like to offer some ‘academic’ perspective on this issue (as I am not an academic) it would help greatly to both stimulate further (important) discussion but also perhaps nail some misconceptions and ‘truths’ out there to be considered – we’d be happy to run it here on the blog. The more this issue gets an airing and a flogging the better in my opinion.

      We talk of ‘the developing world’ as if it were all their responsibility to ‘develop’ when I’d suggest we western observers need to do some ‘developing’ of our own and we might usefully start with developing a sense of responsibility for the ways we represent people, and (mis)use their images in the process.

      • Gabriel Tait says:

        John, I am happy to reflect further on the issue of cultural hegemony and the propagation of stereotypes from the “other”.

        • That’s great Gabriel, thank you. Send anything you’d like published to me, images too if appropriate, and I’ll collate and upload. Email is [email protected]

        • To add – I was thinking about a follow up post because I took the liberty of emailing one of the Vitale image users – a person who describes herself as a ‘Black Culture & Traditions Examiner’ but who ran the crying girl image as (I think unauthorized) illustration to a piece entitled “Communities are responsible for the protection of girls and women”. I was interested in how she could justify the usage given the subject matter. So your observations might be appropriate too.

        • duckrabbit says:

          I also (having lived and worked in Ethiopia) would love to hear more about your work.

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