Banners are pinned to a tree at a protest about the kidnapping of girls in Nigeria, near the Nigerian High Commission in London, Friday, May 9, 2014.
A woman whose face has become synonymous with the "Bring Back Our Girls" campaign online is not Nigerian, has not been abducted and did not give permission to have her photograph associated with the cause.
The viral image, which depicts a young woman named Jenabu Balde staring out from behind her hand, is accompanied by text that reads #BringBackOurGirls. It has been tweeted and retweeted hundreds of thousands of times since the early days of the campaign in late April, and has been appropriated for posters and signs that have been displayed at rallies around the world.
The campaign is focused on a group of Nigerian girls who have been missing since April 15, when a group of Islamic militants known as Boko Haram stormed a high school and took hundreds of girls captive. Some escaped, but 274 remain missing.
The image was created by Emmanuel Hephzibah, a Nigerian creative director, who says he took the photo from the Alexia Foundation's website — an organization which "promotes the power of photojournalism to give voice to social injustice." It spread rapidly when it was shared by the singer Chris Brown on May 1.
The young girl featured in the image, however, is not Nigerian. She hasn't been kidnapped. And she never gave permission to have her face plastered across social media. She's actually from Guinea-Bissau, a country in West Africa more than 2,000 miles away from Nigeria, and her photo was initially taken for a project unrelated to the Nigerian girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram. In the photo, Balde, 13, waits for her teacher to arrive at school in the village of Dembel Jumpora in Guinea-Bissau in May 2011.
The original photographer of the picture, Ami Vitale, has spoken out on Twitter and with both the New York Times and The Washington Post to try and correct the record.
"There were three photos that were taken from either my website or the Alexia Foundation website, and someone made these images the face of the campaign," Vitale told the Times. "But these photos had nothing to do with the girls who were kidnapped and sexually trafficked."
This is the original photograph, which Mashable is running with Vitale's permission. "Ami had received an Alexia Foundation grant to produce her work in Guinea-Bissau," Eileen Mignoni tells us, "and we've been working with her to help right this situation."
"There are many times when I get upset when people take my photos without permission, but this isn’t about that. I support the campaign completely and I would do anything to bring attention to the situation. It’s a beautiful campaign that shows the power of social media. This is a separate issue," she said.
"This is about misrepresentation.""This is about misrepresentation."
“It’s a pretty sad view of the world,” Vitale added in an interview with the Washington Post. “I know these families really well and you go in and tell people you want to share their story, and then to see think, ‘What if they saw their image was used this way?’ It’s very impoverished where I took those pictures, and I’m pretty sure they don’t know about this."
“People need to know," she said. "I want it on the record that this was not something I agreed to, and it’s a slippery slope we’re going down that now everything is available online … you can’t just take and use any picture out of context.”
Vitale has asked Hephzibah, who used Balde's image with the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag, to remove all posts — an impossible task, now that it has spread so far online.
Hephzibah told Mashable he was sorry for what happened and that he "never met any harm."
"I want you all to understand I did not create that image out of malicious intent," he said. "I was crying out so that our voice could be heard in Nigeria because it seems our government was not ready to take any action. I credited the source of the image as AlexiaFoundation.org."
Nigerians have been protesting their government to take action to find the girls and bring them home. People around the world have joined in, using social media to call upon officials to #BringHomeOurGirls and express solidarity with the families. Celebrities, politicians and world leaders have joined the call.
A team from the United States is headed to Nigeria on Friday to help the government there track them down. “As the president and Secretary Kerry have said,” a White House spokesperson told Mashable on Wednesday, “we remain committed to doing everything we can to help the Nigerians find and free these girls, and help them return safely home.”
"We promise that anywhere the girls are, we will surely get them out," Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said on Sunday.
Mashable has reached out to Vitale for comment and will update this post when we hear back.