In her school notebook, Hauwa Nkeki wrote a letter to her brother: “Dear Brother Nkeki, Million of greetings goes to you thousand to your friend zero to your enemies.” On another page, she lists the names of her friends who are “good” girls, “stupit,” and “on top table” — the very best.

Hauwa is one of the nearly 300 girls who were kidnapped by the Islamic militants Boko Haram on April 14 from their school in Chibok, a remote village in Northern Nigeria. Boko Haram’s name translates roughly to “Western Education is sinful.” The group believes that girls shouldn’t be in school and boys should only learn the Koran.

For the past few years, Boko Haram has been burning villages to the ground, using forced recruitment and carrying out an ongoing insurgency. Thousands have died and the region has been devastated. No one took much notice before the girls were kidnapped.

In May 2014, a hashtag campaign (#BringBackOurGirls) became viral on Twitter and swept the globe. Within a week, it had attracted over 2 million tweets. A media frenzy began and coverage of the protests was extensive. But the thing that’s been missing from most of the coverage is the girls themselves.

Of course, the girls are missing from my photos too. Despite their absence, I have endeavored to show the girls as best I can. Since we can’t understand the things we can’t see, I wanted to do my best to make the girls visible.

For example, the girls’ school uniforms make them real, distinct individuals. One was made in a hurry, with messy stitching and different color threads. Another was utilitarian. A third uniform was especially dirty and threadbare. It’d been stitched again and again at the sides—torn and repaired, probably the only uniform she had.

In her school notebook, Elizabeth Joseph wrote the definition of the word “government”: “the word ‘government’ suggests different thing to diffen people. When we use the term “nigerian government” we usually mean the sum total of people and institution that make and enforce law within nigerian.” The cover of the notebook is lime green, yellow, purple and blue. There’s a silhouetted girl blowing a bubble.

The Nigerian government failed Elizabeth and the other girls of Chibok. This is just one tiny piece of their story.

—Glenna Gordon

This project was awarded Grand Prize in the Documentary Category of LensCulture Visual Storytelling Awards 2014. Don’t miss the work of
all the other winners and finalists from the LensCulture Visual Storytelling Awards 2014. In total, you’ll find 25 powerfully told stories from across the world.