Bits of Borno

This photographer is showing the world a different side of her war-torn hometown.

Her photographs are famous worldwide. From the Guardian to the New York Times, the media have taken an interest in her inspiring work. She is often invited to hold talks on the power of photography and resilience, and her Instagram profile counts thousands of followers.

Fati Abubakar is today a renowned photojournalist who rose to international fame after taking hundreds of photographs to show a different side of Borno – a Nigerian state better known as the birthplace of a nine-year-long insurgency that has claimed more than 20,000 lives and displaced millions.

“I felt our stories had to be told. Everyone was focussed on the issue of internally displaced people, and I wanted to do something different. I was tired of the trauma narrative, so I diverted from it,”

Boko Haram – listed among the top five terrorist organisations in the world – fights against Western influence in Nigeria and seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate in its occupied territories. Authorities have claimed victory over the group several times, but attacks at the hands of the various splinters have continued, triggering one of the worst humanitarian crises in Africa.

Maiduguri is the capital of Borno and the birthplace of the insurgency. It is also the town where Abubakar was born and bred, where she witnessed first-hand the destructive force of terrorism, but where she also learned about the power of resilience, love and hope.

Rediscovering resilience one picture at a time

Abubakar became passionate about photography in her late 20s, when she realised that she could use it to portray a different Borno, not a state known for terrorism, but for its inhabitants’ incredible resilience.

“The insurgency has been portrayed from mostly one angle, which is devastation and death, and for the rest of your life, you will be labelled as something that came out of there, something that is depressed,” Abubakar told Words in the Bucket.

“I felt our stories had to be told. Everyone was focussed on the issue of internally displaced people, and I wanted to do something different. I was tired of the trauma narrative, so I diverted from it,” she continued.

Abubakar wanted to convey a different message, shine a light on her people’s strength and determination, the beauty of her culture, the courage of people who face immense challenges, yet they continue with their lives.

People fail to understand how truly strong we are as a people,” she explained. “How we have loved through this tragedy and continue to have the ability to wake up and try to have a simple life,” she said.  

At first, Abubakar took pictures of buildings, especially schools, often targeted by suicide bombing missions. Soon enough, she realised she did not want to simply document the death and violence of her hometown. So, she started portraying the daily life of communities “left behind” and tell their stories.

Almost every conflict zone becomes like a saga to most people and an opportunity to present ‘field work’ to an audience overseas,” Abubakar said. “We have to make this less about ourselves. People documented become numbers, and it is very important we do not forget that these are real people who need to be humanised.”

From ‘accidental photography’ to international fame

Abubakar was born in Borno 32 years ago and she still remembers how people’s lives went on unscathed by violence that would ravage Borno years later.

I’ve learned so much about my history, my culture, my community, and in the process, I learned to cope with devastating issues,”

When she moved to London for a master’s degree in Public Health four years ago, the crisis in her country had started to make headlines worldwide.

Saddened and depressed because of the situation at home, she took long walks along the Thames River and visited museums. Here, she came to understand the power of photography. Soon enough, she would buy a camera and a ticket to Nigeria and become – as she defines herself – “an accidental photographer”.

Drawing from her admiration for the work of photographers including Steve McCurry, Richard Sandler, Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keita, Abubakar took hundreds of pictures and defied local prejudice to make her Borno known to the world.

Breaking taboos

“People in my community feel a Muslim girl shouldn’t be as free-spirited and as adventurous as I am. So everyone thought I was just aimlessly wandering and they didn’t understand what I was doing. And, as a Kanuri woman, you are expected to be married,” she explained. Kanuri is a tribe from the region. 

“Financially, it was – and still is – hard. Because photography gear is very expensive. I have to work several assignments to afford one lens, and grants to help me travel to expand the project are really hard to come by.”

Slowly, people in Borno started appreciating her work as it reminded them of their life before the insurgency, offered a fresh perspective on their situation and gave people dignity.

“Because of this medium, I’ve learned so much about my history, my culture, my community, and in the process, I learned to cope with devastating issues,” she explained.

Eternalising a moment

“What I love about being a photographer is the ability to capture and freeze a moment in time and eternalise it. Photography makes you delve into history, and it creates conversations around a specific topic that makes people think extensively about life and how to improve it,” she continued.

Fati’s photographs have been displayed in several places across the world, but she still feels much more needs to be done to make the project known internationally. She is currently working on expanding it and turning her work into a book.

“I am currently struggling with the trauma of documenting trauma”

“I’m truly thankful for the people who have been so kind to show my work around the world and open discussions not only about my work but also about African photographers generally,” Fati said. 

“I am currently struggling with the trauma of documenting trauma. I hope to find ways to deal with it. Fortunately, I have not experienced any kind of threat from the insurgents, Alhamdulillah. I hope it doesn’t ever happen to me or to anyone else,” she concluded.

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Ludovica Iaccino is a London-based press officer for children's charity World Vision. Previously, she worked as a foreign news reporter for the International Business Times and Newsweek, focussing on Sub-Saharan Africa. She has reported extensively on Nigeria and her work features interviews with local activists, politicians, survivors of terror attacks and analyses on terrorism and development. She is the author of “The Silence of Nyamata”, a historical novel about the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
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