Today is the International Day of the Girl Child. It is a U.N. event with a grand name and a powerful mission. Girls around the world, especially in lower-income countries, often face terrible things, from genital mutilation to child marriage to kidnapping. We asked five photographers, who devote much or all of their time to documenting the lives of global girls, to share photos with special significance and talk about the images.
Finnish photojournalist Meeri Koutaniemi first went to document female genital mutilation in Kenya in 2012, working with a Finnish film director at a safe house for girls who’d fled their families to escape circumcision or child marriage. “I felt really weak and sad,” she says. “I was thinking I didn’t even get any pictures.”
“It made an unstoppable impact on me and a desire to continue,” she says of that experience. “I was a little bit shocked that this is quite a huge human rights violation toward girls and women, and I wondered why we were not talking about it more.” And then I started to think, how could I continue? So, I decided I have to make a book.”
In 2002, Beirut-born photographer Mariella Furrer got a three-day assignment from an American women’s magazine to shoot a story on infant rape in Johannesburg. When she got to the child protection unit, she couldn’t believe what she saw. “I was shocked how many children were brought in,” she says.
Furrer herself had been sexually abused as a child but kept silent until her 20s. A decade after that assignment, Furrer is still giving voice to the victims. “Although I can’t change what happened to these girls,” she says, “I do my best to try to make a difference.”
A documentary photographer based in New York, Glenna Gordon was on assignment in Nigeria when news broke about #BringBackOurGirls, the online campaign urging the rescue of nearly 300 Nigerian girls abducted from school by the extremist Muslim group Boko Haram. She dropped her plans and left for the town of Chibok, where protests on behalf of the girls were taking place. She wanted to take pictures … but of what? She began collecting the girls’ personal belongings to photograph, aided by Sunday Samuels, a pastor’s son whose three cousins were among the kidnapped.
“The girls are missing,” she says. “They’re missing from my photos, too.” And though she photographed only objects, she says it was an emotionally draining assignment. She grew protective of the items. When she had to switch hotels rooms, the hotel manager offered to move her things: “I was like, ‘Do not touch my stuff!'”
For over a decade, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Stephanie Sinclair has turned her lens on child brides. Her image is featured on the Day of the Girl website. “I don’t see them as pictures,” she says. “I see them as the girls they are, and I carry them around with me every day.”
She sees cultural differences in the practice of child marriage in different countries. But there is one similarity. “Girls are always taken out of schools because they’re giving birth right away. The girls are commonly very young, their bodies are just not prepared for childbirth. Maternal mortality rates are high. Infant mortality rates are high. The girls aren’t even taking folic acid. Of course they’re not! Girls can have ruptured uteruses. It is a real physical issue in addition to being a human rights issue.”
She plans to continue her work: “I keep going back because I know how important this is.”
You may have seen photographs by American-born, London-based Lynsey Addario on the front page of the New York Times or featured in National Geographic. And you may have seen her own face in newspapers and magazines as well. Addario has been kidnapped on the job twice, in 2004 and again in 2011, when she was among a group of journalists held hostage in Libya.
Her goal is to tell the stories of civilians affected by war, focusing on women and girls, whose voices are often harder to hear. When she is not covering a war, she wanders with her camera, documenting the ramifications of childbirth on girls whose bodies are not of an age to bear children.