Photo series honoring Nigerian kidnap victims wins $11,500 German Peace Prize

Girl holding pens in front of her face
(Image credit: Emeke Obanor)

You’ve heard of the Nobel Peace Prize, but did you know there’s a German Peace Prize for Photography? This biannual award honors image-makers who promote peace in a variety of ways, and it has just announced the 2021 winner as Nigerian photographer Emeke Obanor.

Obanor will receive a €10,000 (approximately $11,550 / £8,500 / AU$15,800) prize for his series Heroes. These images focus on some of the girls and women who survived being kidnapped by the terrorist group, Boko Haram. In the photos, objects such as pens and books cover their faces, both protecting their anonymity and acting as a metaphors for the positive power of education.

(Image credit: Emeke Obanor)

"The girls recalled that the radicalization sessions were endless,” says Obanor. "[Boko Haram’s] aim was to erase the memory of school: the rhymes, alphabets and letters the girls have learnt. Pressure was mounted on the girls to hate western education."

Some of the victims, however, managed to escape their ordeal alive. "Some girls gained freedom when they failed to detonate the bombs strapped to their waists and surrendered to security authorities, while some gained freedom after military raids in their camps," says Obanor. 

"On returning from captivity, many of the girls were traumatized and stigmatized [...] But a group of girls persevered in the face of terror, economic hardship, Islamic extremism, cultural and gender bias to dare to return to school and become educated amid grim realities."

(Image credit: Emeke Obanor)

In awarding the prize, a jury statement praises the series as: “countering the atrocities of the Boko Haram sect with graceful and clear images... Concentrating on a few pictorial elements, [it] portrays young women who have the courage to go back to school in the hope of a better and free life.

"Obanor has an extraordinary feeling for sensitive and profound portraits," they add. "Through the aesthetic simplicity of his portraits, the legible details in the picture and the background knowledge of the suffering of these girls, a tension builds up in the viewer that makes one think. With this outstanding work, Emeke Obanor shows us not only his hopeful heroines, but also their further path towards a self-determined future in peace."

The prize adds to a long list of awards for Obanor, who was also a finalist in the Luis Valtueña International Humanitarian Photography Award and the Photography 4 Humanity Global Prize Competition in 2020.

(Image credit: Emeke Obanor)

Other German Peace Prize for Photography finalists for 2021 include Iranian photographer Ako Salemi for his series Afghanistan: The Color Awakens, about women’s struggle for freedom in the country; Spanish photographer Antonio Aragon Renuncio for I Wanna Be Messi, about a center for children with disabilities in Togo; Iranian photographer Hamed Sodachi for Sunrise, which looks at the human struggle between war and peace; and German photographer Reto Klar for his series Life between Home and Hell: Refugees in Camp Moria on Lesbos.

Giving peace a chance

The German Peace Prize for Photography is organized by the Felix Schoeller Group, a paper manufacturer, in partnership with the German city of Osnabrück, known as the 'City of Peace' since the Peace of Westphalia was negotiated there in 1648. Almost 400 entries sent in from 95 countries around the world, and work by the finalists will be on display at the Museumquartier in Osnabrück until 06 March 2022.

The aim of the prize is to “honor works that conceptually interpret the topic of 'Peace' by means of the medium of photography,” said the organizers. "Here, the term peace may be very broadly interpreted. For example, it may express peace between peoples, peaceful coexistence in a country or a family, or the inner peace of individuals."

For more information, visit the German Peace Prize for Photography website

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Tom May

Tom May is a freelance writer and editor specializing in art, photography, design and travel. He has been editor of Professional Photography magazine, associate editor at Creative Bloq, and deputy editor at net magazine. He has also worked for a wide range of mainstream titles including The Sun, Radio Times, NME, T3, Heat, Company and Bella.