Taken in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State in Nigeria, these portraits feature young women who were forced to carry suicide bombs by Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group based in Nigeria. Captured by the militants at an early age (sometimes as young as 13), these girls were made to transport explosives in the hopes that they would carry out suicide bombing missions in busy urban areas. And yet, they survived. “These young women still had the resilience, after all this indoctrination, after losing their families,” says photographer Adam Ferguson, “to make the decision not to commit a violent act.”

The New York Times commissioned Ferguson to take portraits of these young women for an article about the horrific practice. The photographs are simple—standing in front of the blank wall, the girls all wear different colored robes; the folds and contours of their clothing draw our eye upwards, and occasionally we catch a glimpse of light bouncing off a cheekbone. To protect the identities of these young women, Ferguson obscured their faces in his photographs—some of them conceal their faces with thin fingers (whenever I see their hands, I’m reminded of how young they are), and others hide their eyes in the deep shadows surrounding their bodies. As single images, they are affecting. As a series, they cut to your core.

Each girl’s portrait is presented alongside a brief quotation about their experience, and these testimonies are a punch in the gut: “I knew very well that bomb would kill me,” says Maimuma, age 16. The coupling of their statements with Ferguson’s photographs culminate in a potent record of the terrors of war. And yet, most of the girls stand firmly upright, their figures cutting a strong vertical in the frame. Even though the young women’s faces are obscured, the images resonate with quiet power—a testament to their resilience in the face of ineffable horrors.

—Coralie Kraft

This video interview was conducted during World Press Photo Festival in Amsterdam. Ferguson’s story was awarded first prize in People, Stories at the World Press Photo Awards, and an image from this series was nominated for the World Press Photo of the Year.

Adam Ferguson’s series “The Bombs They Carried” was the second prize winner in our Portrait Awards 2018. Explore work by all 39 of the winners, finalists, and jurors’ picks.