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‘I had to rebel to photograph life in Borno’ -Fatima Abubakar

Armed with her camera, daring Fati Abubakar has put Borno State in the spotlight for good reasons. She captures life on the frontier of the Boko Haram insurgency and her photos have gone viral. She talks about her work in this interview.
Photographer Fati Abubakar has become an international sensation after her series of photos documenting life in the troubled Borno State have gone viral. Her ‘Bits of Borno’ series has generated a lot attention across the world. And Fati is happy about the positive attention her work has brought to her state. Daily Trust interviews the trained nurse and public health practioner about her life and art as a young woman on the frontiers of the Boko Haram insurgency.
This idea of photographing a happier side of Borno, where did it come from?
Generally, I have several reasons. Number one being that the insurgency has been portrayed from mostly one angle, which is devastation and death. They [the media] don’t really see outside of that, which is really unfortunate. And for the rest of your life, you will be labelled as something that came out of there, something that is depressed. And I was doing a dissertation on the impact of psychological health of refugees and I discovered that despite the fact that there is a crisis going on, there are people outside of those that are affected that are resilient. They just group everybody as being traumatised. But there are people that can bounce back and can become resilient and if that adversity hadn’t happened to them, they wouldn’t be as strong as they could be. So that was what I saw in Maiduguri and that was what I went for-the resilience.
The second reason was that everyone seemed to have a page where they document life in their city. I was envious that no one was doing that for us [in Borno State] so I felt our stories had to be told. Everyone was focused on the IDP issue and I wanted to do something different. So it is not really happy stories per se but everyday life. I was tired of the trauma narrative so I diverted from it. I started with “Nostalgia”. I was photographing architecture because I was afraid we are losing our buildings. Very soon the school you went to might no longer be there so I was capturing the buildings. Then the news comes in with figures-ten thousand dead, five thousand-they don’t give account of what these victims left behind so my interest was the impact of the numbers that have died on the numbers that have been left behind. So after the bomb blasts, who do you see? The family? The children? A lot of reasons, but these are the main ones.

Why photography? You could have written a book or done something. What informed the choice of photography as a medium?
No. Books would not have captured… I don’t know the right word, but a book would not have captured the right image. You may read and reread a piece but you may never capture the imagery. But if you have powerful images, it evokes all kinds of emotions that writing cannot offer. And we don’t have a strong reading culture like that. I, for instance, hardly read an article if it is more than a page. Imageries stop you. I feel the impact is better, stronger because it is visual.

As a female in northern Nigeria picking up a camera and getting to work, was it an easy decision?
No, it wasn’t easy because always there are expectations when you are a northern female. You are expected to conform to certain stereotypes of being the wife, sister, something that is culturally accepted. Obviously I was breaking away from the norm and I wasn’t bothered about that because I knew that I had to be rebellious for the story to be told. I didn’t bother about opinions or what people would say. I just had a vision that I wanted to bring to life so I disregarded everything else.

And in terms of the responses you got from people, friends and relatives?
My family was very supportive and they understood what the impact would be. It was the community, the general perception is that you are jobless, aimlessly wandering about, what are you going to do with the pictures? They don’t understand it. So there was general disapproval in the community because we are mostly conservative but I didn’t let it worry me.

Was there any instance where you were hindered from doing your work?
No, I was never stopped from doing my work but there is a sense of disapproval, there is a gaze, there is flippancy, they are saying you are you jobless? What are you doing? There are words they say that if you are sensitive they would deter you. But they didn’t get to me.

What sort of words?
Generally, they would ask what are you going to do with the photos. It is not really insults but a lack of understanding. They are not aggressive or offensive, they just disapprove.

So which has been the most interesting subjects for you to photograph?
Well, I think children are very happy and very excited to be photographed. They are very easy to capture. If you go to the page, you will see a lot of children because they are more jovial. Adults are more difficult.

You decided to set up an Instagram account to showcase the photos you take. When you started taking these photos, did you have this at the back of your mind that you wanted to put them on Instagram?
I was posting them on my personal Instagram account and then I was seeing the reactions from people who were saying they hadn’t been to Maiduguri in four years and saying oh, this was my secondary school. It was generating a lot of nostalgia. And then I was commissioned to do some work in Kwara State and they were setting up an Instagram page where they would showcase the beauty of the state. I got inspired by that and said I wanted one for Borno State. I even suggested to them that apart from showing the beauty, why not
show the problems as well and they said no, they were only focused on the positives. I said, fine. I will set up one for my state that will show the good, the bad and the ugly. It will show everything let us see what it will look like.

Do you photograph anything outside of Borno?
Yes, because of the success of the page, I get commissioned by others who want something similar, asking me to photograph something. Mostly I prefer to work with NGOs because they are not afraid to do anything because they are interested in good, bad, and ugly. I don’t want to sugar coat. Despite the fact I am showing good things, I don’t want to shy away from reality. I get commissioned by NGOs to do this kind of work a lot and I travel a lot to do these.

Some of the first images of yours I saw were the water project you did for an NGO which were exhibited in Abuja. Was it hard for you to go into these villages to photograph the people struggling to find water?
No. I am naturally curious. I always want to learn about other cultures so when that opportunity came, I jumped on it and didn’t feel any kind of paranoia. It was an adventure and I didn’t blink.

Speaking of adventures, Borno State is considered a difficult place to work because of the security challenges. How secure do you think you are?
I always say that if you are meant to die, you are going to die anywhere in the world. Even a mosquito bite could kill you. So I don’t live with that kind of mentality that something is going to kill me because I live in Borno. I just know that it is unpredictable globally so I don’t put any thoughts of death or injury in my head. I just go out knowing that if it is meant to be, it will be. I don’t see Borno State as a danger zone where I could die at any moment. I always tell people you could die in your posh office in Abuja if you are meant to die. People say I will die if I go to Maiduguri and I say you could also die in Abuja. A gunshot could kill you in America, a stab wound could kill you in London, you know they have issues with knife attacks. It is how you programme your mind.

Let’s hope there are no more killings. What would you say has been the most fulfilling thing for you since you started?

I’m happy with the responses because there was one particular person who told me he went through his entire childhood sitting in his living room in Abuja and the photos made him think of what growing up was like before. So I am happy it is making people think about life and how different things are. People are saying because of the images they have seen, they realise there is normal life in Maiduguri and they could actually go and visit. The photos create a lot of empathy in people and have spurred donations for people who are in need. So it is not only about changing the narrative but also about making an impact in peoples’ lives. There are so many positives.

You still work regularly? You have a day job?


How do you juxtapose the two?
Because it’s an NGO that I work with, we go to a lot of communities and I have already told the NGO I am a photographer and this also works for them because I photograph their projects. I get access to places I would normally not get access to. The relationship works perfectly for me because I have the freedom to do what I have to do.

And this photography has apparently become a career for you, or do you think it will go on only for some time?
It is something I have always wanted to do even in my dreams so I want it to be a lifetime commitment. I want a combination of medicine and media where you can do both. Even when I was studying in public health, there was a module about media and how you can use advert videos and audios to influence health issues. So I think medicine and the media need each other and I want to work on these for as long as I can. But life is unpredictable. You don’t know which pull will be stronger but I am hoping to continue for as long as I can.

Do you have plans to move these photos outside of Instagram? Maybe hold exhibitions, publish photo books?
Yes, I have plans to publish a coffee table book because I have people that are calling in to say Facebook will not last forever and I’ve always wanted the works to be in a book form so it can be in libraries and museums. In our state especially. Years from now, people will want to know the story and it may not be available so I want it to be a book that can be preserved. Exhibitions will bring attention as well so I will like to have an exhibition someday where people who are not on social media can see it. Those are the plans I have for the work.

When is this likely going to happen?
You know a photographer’s lifestyle. Obviously you can never do anything alone. You have to get grants. You have to get funding though I am trying. There are some people who are interested in publishing but you have to look and see if they are pushing for themselves or doing it for you. You have to look at the interest and the agenda but there is already an interest in making it a book so I have to look at it carefully.

People have always thought that northern women have limited career choices and then there are women like you blazing new trails. What have been your thoughts on this?
I think people need to keep an open mind first of all and I am hoping that as they see more and more women come out talking about issues or going into professions that are not commonly associated with women, I hope that they see that we are more than the stereotypes. And that we are no longer what they assume we are. Intellect is not restricted to certain regions. It is something you are gifted with whether you are in a village or in a city, if you have it, you have it. So titles attached to northerners or southerners are irrelevant.

You were conscious of not wanting to be the focus because of the attention your work has generated people are really interested in who you are. Does that make you uncomfortable?
Yes, it makes me very uncomfortable because sometimes the focus is on the sensationalization of you as a female in a conflict zone. It is a narrative for a female in the north. I want to disengage myself from a situation where people look at you, instead of the work and then you end up getting accolades, not for you works but for being female. You have to step back from all that and look at the work, that is how you will appreciate it as an artist, as opposed to being a female where everyone just wants to talk about you. I don’t want the focus to be on me. I want it to be on the story, on the people and on the impact. And because this is a very historic time, years from now, people will look back and wonder what we lived like. So it is better to have discussions about the work.

After this series, what areas of photography are you likely to explore?
The future is very unpredictable. Documenting culture has been my main interest. I don’t know what the future will bring. But for now this is all I want to do, to document these things for the future generations.


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