The photographer’s project Education is Forbidden reveals the complexities of the lives of girls living and learning in north-eastern Nigeria


A classroom in Shehu Sanda Kyarimi school, Maiduguri, Nigeria, 2016


Buni Yadi massacre survivor, Damatturu, Nigeria, 2016


School boys of Shehu Garbai, Maiduguri, Nigeria, 2016


Lecture hall, University of Mubi, Mubi, Nigeria, 2015


Rukkaya and Hadiza, Nigeria, 2016


Hadiza, Maiduguri, Nigeria, 2016


With her project, Education is Forbidden, photographic artist and journalist Rahima Gambo confronts the Boko Haram insurgency, the state of the post colonial educational system in north-eastern Nigeria and the status of women in society. She recently showcased the body of work as one of the curated projects at ART X Lagos art fair, where Nataal met with her. Gambo has been developing it since 2015 with the support of the International Women’s Media Foundation, driven by “a curiosity to understand what it means to be a student on the front lines.” Hailing from this region herself and now based in Abuja, Gambo has travelled to schools and universities in numerous states to meet pupils, teachers and activists and document the “lingering trauma and infrastructural decay that began decades before but is now destabilised by conflict.”

Gambo comments that most pictures you see of rural classroom settings today feel like development images. Before shooting, she asked herself: “How do I take these photographs so that they are something else, so they are not lost?” Her approach was not to elicit pity but instead prominently feature girls from a rich and stylised perspective. Using the language of traditional school portraiture, “the ones with the red background we all had to take,” she says, with a smile, they remind the viewer of being back in school and the carefree times those years should be. One girl blows gum into a sizeable bubble. Another squad of girls stare calmly into the lens. “It’s very frontal, as you can see, they were all looking at me,” Gambo says. The collaborative nature of the project shines through, and many of the subjects have seen and love the results.

But these aren’t just any girls. Gambo felt compelled to tell their stories because “there was this horrible occurrence in their lives at a time when they should be resting in the naivety of youth.” That said, she does not want to label them by their deeply troubled circumstances. She points out that most of us will experience moments that could be described as traumatic at some in our lives but it should not define us as victims. “The project is not based on trauma because you can find that in any condition, no matter how comfortable. Often you don’t even know that you’re traumatised until you look back.” 

“The project is not based on trauma because you can find that in any condition, no matter how comfortable”

The series is as much a visual documentation as it is concerned with collective memory. The act of retelling the horrors of conflict amid a crumbling educational framework “creates a third space, an alternate reality that is timeless and unresolved.” This is why in one of the photos, of a man who survived the Bunin Yadi massacre that took over 50 lives, is shot behind a curtain. Gambo says many of the subjects did not want the photos taken, so this image was their way to addressing the issue without focusing on one face. 

Gambo has also just participating in Lagos Biennial and been selected for the upcoming Bamako Encounters Biennale of Photography in December. This tops off an impressive year for the emerging artist, during which she’s won the Fourthwall Books Photobook Award, allowing her to publish Education Is Forbidden as a book. She was also shortlisted for the Contemporary African Photography Prize and participated in a World Press Photo master class. 

Gambo studied Development at the University of Manchester before completing a masters in Gender and Social Policy at the London School of Economics followed by a masters in Journalism at Columbia Gradate School in 2014. In the same year, she became a Magnum Foundation fellow and since then, her interdisciplinary approach has examined Nigerian identity, gender, history and socio-political issues through a series of in depth visual projects. Education Is Forbidden combines photography, text, illustration and film that together tell a troubling narrative that regrettably remains unending.

Visit Rahima Gambo

Published on 28/11/2017