“[I]t’s nearly impossible to photograph a story where the main characters are missing,” says photographer Glenna Gordon, who works primarily in Africa (and whose work is shown here.) “These girls are missing—and they are missing from these photos too.” She is referring, of course, to the nearly 300 girls abducted from their dormitories at Chibok Government Secondary School in Nigeria on April 15th. Where the girls are, exactly, and what has happened to them is still unknown. What is known is that on the night of April 14th, the terrorist group Boko Haram attacked and burned the girls’ school to the ground. By the morning of April 15th, the girls had vanished. They are still missing. Since then, there have been more reports of abductions. Today, the New York Times is citing reports that 60 girls and women, “and possibly more than 30 boys,” have been seized in the village of Kummabza, 100 miles outside of Maiduguri.
To report on the story, Gordon set out to photograph personal items from the missing girls left behind at their homes. “[W]e can’t understand the things we can’t see,” she says, “and it is my hope that these images make the girls real and visible.” Already familiar with the area, Gordon touched down in Abuja in northern Nigeria and began developing a small network, first by learning some Kibaki, the native language in the area, and then by introducing herself to locals and listening to their stories. They were willing to help, but getting the items was difficult: “The girls are from an incredibly remote village on the Nigeria-Cameroon border, where’s there is hardly a road or a phone network,” she explains. “I received the [things] in three batches from family members and others who had some understanding of what I wanted to do and why.” She then set up a makeshift studio and began photographing, building portraits of the women with the items they left behind.
1. Kidnapped Chibok Girls. Photos courtesy of their families. Top row left to right: Yana Pogu, Rhoda Peters, Saratu Ayuba, Comfort, Bullus, Dorcas Yakubu. Bottom row left to right: Hauwa Mutah, Hajara Isa, Rivkatu Ngalang.
2. A notebook of Rhoda Peters, offering a definition of the word, “miracle.” “Rhoda loves going to church,” writes Gordon. “Her dad is a civil servant in Chibok, and she’s the kind of girl who writes thank you notes to her inlaws when they [buy] her a book.”
3. The shoes of Margaret “Maggie” Pogu, 16.
4. A romantic series of notes between Dorcas Yakubu, and a boy with whom she had a flirtation. One of the notes to her reads, “Hello (Dorcass) [sic], When I’m away from you I’m still with you. When my eyes are closed, I can still see you. When I’m awake, I still dream of you. When I feel I have everything, I still need you and no matter what, I will always love you. “
5. “Hauwa Ntaki wants to be a nurse or maybe an economist,” explains Gordon. “She was third in her class. She loves volleyball. Her school notebook includes a letter to her brother and notes on the solar system.”
6. A page of 17-year-old Saratu Emmanuel’s notebook.
7. The sixth of nine children in the Mutah family, Hauwa dreams of becoming a biochemist. Here, one of her dresses.
8. An additional page of Saratu Emmanuel’s notebook detailing her studies.
9. A pair of Rhoda Peters’ earrings.
10. Among the missing girls is Hauwa Ntaki. Hauwa is described as strong student (third in her class) who wants to be a nurse or possibly an economist when she grows up. In her notebook (seen here), she has drawn a diagram of the earth’s movement around the sun.
11. The front cover of Dorcas Yakubu’s notebook.
12. A page from Hauwa Ntaki’s notebook.
13. Dorcas Yakubu’s toothbrush.
14. Elizabeth Joseph is the fourth born of nine children. She is 19. In quiet moments, she reads her bible by lantern-light. She has been missing since April 15.