Photo Of The Day

Jenabu, 13, waits for her teacher to arrive at school in a village in Guinea Bissau in May 2011. Her photo was used without permission and out of context in the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. Photo Credit: Ami Vitale/AlexiaFoundation

Jenabu, 13, waits for her teacher to arrive at school in a village in Guinea Bissau in May 2011. Her photo was used without permission and out of context in the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. Photo Credit: Ami Vitale/AlexiaFoundation

Safeguarding Truth in Photojournalism

Ami Vitale’s Survival Guide

When a photo is published on the web, it falls into nimble, anonymous hands that upload and share millions of images each day. Context becomes a casualty. Its loss threatens photographers’ reputations, may endanger their subjects, and chips away at journalistic credibility. If a photojournalist’s responsibility is authenticity, her challenge is control.

James Estrin opened this conversation in “The Real Story About the Wrong Photos in #BringBackOurGirls” on The New York Times’ Lens Blog May 8, shortly after the offending tweet metastasized. Three days later, Duckrabbit Blog’s John MacPherson, using a Google reverse image search, revealed that Ami’s photos were everywhere. And when Ami conducted her own search, she found broken promises with each click of the mouse.

“It literally stopped me in my tracks,” she said in an interview with Ochre. “There was a week I thought this was enough: I’m quitting. And then I realized that this was actually just a call to action to try to educate people, protect yourself and the people you photograph as best you can.”

The story starts in a remote village in Guinea-Bissau where a tweet was, and still is, the noise a bird makes. Ami traveled there three times—in 1993, 2000 and 2011. On the most recent trip, she photographed Jenabu, a young, striking relative of the family she stayed with.In Guinea-Bissau, as with all of her work, Ami documented beauty and hope in seemingly grim circumstances. Jenabu embodied this hope.

Three years later, on the night of April 14, 2014, Islamist militant group Boko Haram kidnapped more than 250 girls on their way to a boarding school in northeast Nigeria. In the days that followed, Emmanuel Hephzibah, a Nigerian creative director, found Ami’s photo on the website of The Alexia Foundation, a charitable organization that supports photographers as agents for social change.

He credited the site. He made the photo black and white. He added a tear and the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. He uploaded, hit “tweet,” and Jenabu was no longer just a schoolgirl. In the eyes of the world, she became a victim.

#BringBackOurGirls was delivering a galvanizing message under a false banner. “I was conflicted,” Ami told Ochre. She believed in the cause, and understood why Hephzibah had resorted to using her photo. “He was frustrated that the media and people were not paying enough attention.” On the other hand, she said, “This is dangerous stuff we’re talking about. The girls I photographed could potentially be harmed.”

As Ami would learn from MacPherson’s work, her problem wasn’t limited to #BringBackOurGirls. She acknowledges that she was “completely naïve. I did not understand that people were using a number of my images, totally misrepresenting these people as if they’re models.”

“You need to make sure and monitor, pretty regularly, where these images are going,” Ami realized. “It’s just adding another layer to our workload, which none of us need right now, but you know what? We must do it.”

In the instance of Jenabu’s photo, that meant a sleepless night. “I wanted to verify everything,” Ami said. “So the very first thing I did was jump on the Internet, and I started searching Twitter. And pretty quickly, I tracked down where it originated from. And then I saw how it spread so quickly.” By morning, she knew Hephzibah had created the tweet and that rapper Chris Brown and the BBC had pushed it forward. Monitoring enabled her to contact these key players and—after a fight in which the BBC initially claimed fair use—get the image taken down.

Other media became her allies. Her phone rang off the hook; interview requests flooded her inbox. “It was overwhelming,” she said. But her colleagues understood “that it’s not just me. It’s their reputation, too. We are all connected. All we have is truth. Every time a story like this happens it just erodes that fundamental truth that we try to impress upon people.”

The attention amplified her outrage. Ami was furious that her subjects had been misused in a way that Westerners would not tolerate. It was not about race, but about changing the rules where the developing world was concerned. “It’s not a black or white issue,” she insisted. “It’s about applying the same standards across the planet.”

Ultimately, however, Ami had to find some middle ground. She knew she “could spend the rest of my life now, today, sitting there trying to … take down images.” She now allows people to use her images within context as long as they keep the original caption and link to the original story. “At some point,” she said, “I think you need to let go. Do everything you can and not let it eat you alive.”


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