Q&A: Nelly Ating

The Nigerian photojournalist on the exploitation of African suffering and how African democracy should be visualized.

The World Today Updated 27 October 2022 Published 30 August 2022 3 minute READ

Nelly Ating


Roxanne Escobales

Former Editor, The World Today, Communications and Publishing

Nelly Ating acted as a guest photo editor for the current Africa-themed issue of The World Today. Here she talks to the editor, Roxanne Escobales, about her work as a PhD student in Cardiff working in the photo archive of Amnesty International.

As a photojournalist from Nigeria, you documented conflict in the country for a number of years. What did you learn and how has that influenced how you approach your work?

When I step back and look at my work, I see a lot of intersectionality that I didn’t realize was there at the time.

In Nigeria I focused on gender, homelessness and what displacement looks like. Stories of love and war, interviewing women who were in love with Boko Haram fighters. But it was also about humanitarian crises and development issues in that part of Nigeria.

In Lagos, I saw that people were being uprooted because of governments decisions. In the northeast, displacement was based on religious extremism and the violent radicalization of young people. So, it was very different to see how one is caused by government, the other is by ordinary citizens – Boko Haram insurgents – who have decided to take up arms.

This makes me see my work as a much bigger body of photographs that goes beyond simply documenting the insurgency.

A girl stands in silhouette in front of a mural in a yellow room

Hafsat Hussein (not real name), 13, was rescued by the Nigerian army in 2016. She was an underage armourer for Boko Haram. She had been abducted at the age of 10, leaving behind her twin. Hafsat spent three years in captivity, witnessing mass slaughter and cleaning the bloodstains from weapons. Photo by Nelly Ating.

You are now at Cardiff University as a PhD student researching the role of photography in humanitarianism and human rights work. What are you discovering?

As part of my PhD, I have the opportunity to access Amnesty International’s photo archives. Certain representations of Africans have always been around. I’m thinking of the photographs by Alice Seeley Harris, the English missionary and photographer, whose lantern slides were circulating in Britain in the early 1900s documenting the abuse meted out by the Belgians when they were in power in Congo. This was when the image of Africans suffering become an aesthetic for humanitarian causes.

What power does an archive represent? Should an archive be thought of as a compilation of objects from the past, or of the present? The question occurred to me when I walked into an archive that was more than 60 years old. It made me think, yes, an archive is a living object, as Stuart Hall, the cultural theorist, has said. 

Amnesty needs to open up its archive for different types of interrogation because I am seeing lots of intersections and topics that would give feminist scholars a new perspective. For instance, on how female activists are being represented, especially in South Africa and especially in the case of Winnie Mandela.

You recently spoke on your social media channels about the commodification by photo agencies of human suffering using a photo from the Getty Images library. What did you mean by this?

I think about how power is constituted and how power flows. The act of commodification, of commercializing someone’s pain, is itself power.

I went into Getty Images looking for images of Biafra. Pictures of malnourished children kept popping up and each had a price attached to it. These photographs were for sale. Who gets to buy these photographs and why buy someone else’s pain?

If we are being honest, these images are mainly created for western audiences and the western gaze – they are not put on display in Africa. Most of the photographers who covered the Biafran war [1967-1970] were not Nigerian, they were westerners.

And I started looking at all the other stories from Biafra. These were mostly written by either missionaries or British journalists. Of course, the Nigerian press also wrote stories, but they were mostly used as a propaganda tool by the Nigerian military and government to suppress Biafra.  

When your story is not written by you, there is room for misinterpretation. There is also room for things to be misconstrued. So, it made me question who gets to buy pain and why is pain marketable.

Women chop wood to build structures in a refugee camp

Abagana internally displaced persons camp in Benue State, Nigeria, housed over 32,000 displaced persons who were forced to flee their ancestral land due to the ongoing land dispute between farmers and herders. The land struggle escalated into shocking violence, displacing thousands of families distributed across informal and formal camps in Benue State. Photo by Nelly Ating.

You acted as the guest photo editor for The World Today’s Africa issue, and were given the task of visualizing African democracy. What were the challenges and surprises, especially when you had to use Getty Images, after what you have just said?

Something that came through very strongly was the informal democratic expressions in Africa. This expression is in the form of civil resistance from young people holding their leaders accountable. They are saying: ‘I don’t just want development, I want equality. I want to see myself being represented in the office that is issuing policies and decisions.’

I am seeing the same expansion of informal democratic institutions in my country, Nigeria, where young people are supporting a presidential candidate, Peter Obi. They call themselves the ‘Obidients’. I see their support as an act of protest. It comes over as a way of telling the government, ‘You didn’t think we could be this powerful.’

I am seeing that happen in South Africa as well, and in the recent Kenyan election. I am seeing Kenyans on Twitter discussing Nigerian politics and Nigerians on Twitter supporting Kenyans to push their young, social media-savvy candidates.

Supranational networks and alliances are springing up as informal democratic expressions of power. As Africans, we have our shared cultural resonance. We understand each other. These are cross-cultural connections that move into the social and political spheres, and I saw that heavily represented in Getty Images.

You have been in Cardiff for two years now. What does that feel like now being part of the diaspora rather than a Nigerian in Nigeria?

I have had to adjust to a more advanced society in terms of technology and innovation. But it also makes me very interested in Nigeria’s change.

I always believed that the knowledge I am creating now is not just for myself. My friend and I began to think of building a collective to directly address the ethical representation of African photographs.

We are mirroring images from Africa and what that representation and gaze should look like, even interrogating the visual languages that are being infused in these images. We are also raising questions such as how can people read and decode meanings in these images.

If my PhD focus was only on Nigeria, I would have been very limited. Incorporating South Africa into my critical analysis has broadened my thinking on how images of African bodies are received in the West.

Take the iconic image of the malnourished Biafran children. When I lived in Nigeria that representation did not mean much to me. I did not think about the cost attached to it. Now, living away from Nigeria, I see how that can be problematic. I now question why it is still available on Getty’s website.