In April of 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped more than 276 girls who were attending schools in the northeastern region of Chibok, Nigeria. The incident drew international attention to the students' plight and the extremist terrorist group that claimed responsibility for the kidnappings. Photographer Rahima Gambo wanted to know why students were still going to school in the region despite the ongoing possibility of other dangerous attacks from Boko Haram.
Originally from Yola, Nigeria, Gambo studied sociology and anthropology before becoming a photographer and visual artist. In 2015, she began shooting what would become Education is Forbidden, a visual document of students who were experiencing the terror of the conflict. Gambo visited three schools and three universities in the Adamawa and Borno regions that had been attacked by Boko Haram militants.
"I often had this feeling that I was arriving too late, and what I was capturing was often a residue — a quickly evaporating substance of a traumatic event I was asking my subjects to recollect," Gambo said.
What happens before and after war is often just as important as the conflict itself, she realized. Education is Forbidden was Gambo's attempt at explaining how the cultural identity of the people living in northeastern Nigeria was slowly being overtaken by news reports of the Boko Haram conflict.
"With each article and photo, the history of the region was being rewritten as one of violence and conflict," Gambo said. "There are some horrific things happening in my country. I can give you the facts and figures and historical info on why this is happening, but I am trying to communicate an experience, the feelings that I have gone through while being there."
She wanted to capture the students' education in class, but the photographs revealed what it is like to be out of school. Portraits taken at an amusement park, in a natural setting or a zoo were spaces that played important roles in the girls' collective memories. Gambo also added words from a primary school textbook that taught the "mastery of writing" through letter formation, letter shapes and letter spacing.
"By working together with the students and asking them about their earliest childhood memories, they shared memories about stories and games passed to them in the playground," Gambo added. "I wanted to excavate what lies beneath these students' present memories of traumatic events they may have gone through during insurgency."
"The way we tell stories in Nigeria is not a neutral thing; it comes from a certain tradition which is very different than a Western one," said Gambo, who was influenced by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe's stories of independence, strength and resilience. "What is crucial here is asking different questions and not expecting specific answers. That is when stories have an impact."
Rahima Gambo is a documentary photographer from Nigeria. This photography series was created for the World Press Photo Joop Swartz Masterclass.
Laura Beltrán Villamizar is NPR's Projects Picture Editor.