Features / Photography

Shot in Nigeria, Elena Heatherwick’s photographic story for the IRC is one of tragedy and resilience


Matt Alagiah


Elena Heatherwick

One of photographer Elena Heatherwick’s favourite times of day to shoot is in the early morning. “It’s not just because of the gentle light, but also because it’s a time of day when lives can’t just stop because I’m there with a camera,” she says. “Breakfast is being cooked, sleepy faces are being washed, bodies are dressing up and getting ready for work or school. Amidst the hustle and bustle, I’m almost forgotten and those are the moments where good pictures often start to appear.”

The photographer, whose project documenting the lives of Liberian midwives we featured last year, is talking here specifically about a recent series she shot in collaboration with the global humanitarian and post-conflict development organisation, International Rescue Committee (IRC). The project saw her spend the best part of a week photographing a family in Yola, north-eastern Nigeria. In fact, although the family was of interest, Elena’s primary focus was on one member of that family in particular – a young 21-year-old called Musa.

Musa’s story is one of tragedy and resilience and, sadly, one that has been far too common in Nigeria over the past decade. He was just 11 when his father, a policeman, was killed – at that time, there were high levels of violence in Nigeria, with armed group Boko Haram marauding across the northeast of the country. “After he was killed, everything fell apart,” says Musa. “My mother was afraid that her children would be targeted, or that we would join the police out of vengeance, so she decided we should leave. Yola is now home for me.”

So Musa and his siblings joined the growing ranks of young refugees and internally displaced people (IDP) both in Nigeria and around the world. It was to help young people like him that the IRC teamed up in 2017 with the Citi Foundation’s Pathways to Progress initiative to create a programme called Back My Business.

This programme seeks to provide refugees, young people displaced within their own countries, and vulnerable youth worldwide with support to generate reliable income and contribute to their local economies. Across the two-year programme, nearly 1,000 young people across three cities – Athens in Greece, Amman in Jordan and Yola – are being supported to build their entrepreneurial skills, setting them on the road to starting their own businesses.

For his part, Musa runs a stall in central Yola, selling motor oil and spare parts for motorbikes and “keke napeps” (tuk tuks) next to a local garage. When his father was killed, Musa was, despite his youth, appointed head of the family. “Now that I’m the eldest,” he says, “I feel like the whole family is looking to me.” He has eight siblings, and also lives with his aunt, uncle and cousins. As part of the IRC’s Back My Business programme, he received training, was given a mentor and a grant to help him on the road to setting up his venture.


Elena Heatherwick: Musa for the International Rescue Committee


Elena Heatherwick: Musa for the International Rescue Committee

So it was that last year Elena was asked by the IRC to join a trip to Yola to document Musa’s life, his family and his business, as well as the positive change that the Back My Business programme has made for him. She was part of a larger team, which included filmmaker Euan Robinson (an edit of his film is below). “When you Google Yola, you see images of death and destruction, you read stories of unimaginable hardship,” says Elena. “This project focused on people pushing on and succeeding despite their circumstances. It’s hard to describe the strength and elegance of the people we met without falling on clichés, but hopefully, the pictures can help illustrate that.”

She and the team first met Musa outside his shop on a busy, dusty street in Yola. “He seemed shy and polite, a huge smile charming us instantly despite the language barrier,” Elena recalls. “We spoke to him and arranged to meet that evening at his house. No pictures, it didn’t feel right.” That evening she went to Musa’s house, but again didn’t take any pictures. “We would get to know Musa and his family and talk to them about the way we hoped we could work together.”

In the end, Elena spent pockets of time with Musa over the course of five days: “a few hours one morning, late afternoon at his shop (a busy time for him), another day we visited him after work, we went with him to watch a local football match.” Some of the most extraordinary images from Elena’s series were taken during that morning session. Just as she points out, the family practically forgets her presence, and the presence of her camera, in the rush to get ready for the day. It’s clear that in these shots Elena has captured fleeting moments; very few feel more posed. The warm morning light is also perfect, gently catching and amplifying the colours of the vibrant clothes worn by the women in Musa’s family.

Partly thanks to the time span and partly thanks to the IRC team she was with, Elena says the project never felt rushed. “I didn’t have a strict shot list and I felt like the IRC team trusted me,” she explains. “I’m so grateful to have been allowed to work in that way: instinct and collaboration rather than a shot list and instructions.”


Elena Heatherwick: Musa for the International Rescue Committee


Elena Heatherwick: Musa for the International Rescue Committee

What comes across most throughout the series is the extraordinary character of Musa, a young man with a lot of responsibility on his slender shoulders. When asked about this, he is clearly aware of it. “Age doesn’t matter; it is what you have been through and the wisdom this gives you,” he says. Yet it’s also clear he is fully devoted to making his business work: “Almost everything I do is related to my business. Any free time I have gives me an opportunity to think where and when to do things for the business.”

Eventually, he wants to use the profits earned through the enterprise to invest in his education. “I love reading, but unfortunately I had to leave school early,” he explains. “I know the business can help me pay to go back to school, but I know I have to be patient and work to expand the business first. My dream is to have a university diploma.”

For Elena, capturing Musa’s personality was all about building a connection with him, and sometimes that required putting the camera away. “A camera has the potential to both unite and divide the photographer and the people we meet,” she says. “If I ever feel my camera is creating a divide, I put it away, forget the photos and focus on the encounter.”

This sensitivity is a quality that Mary Engleheart from the IRC was looking for when she decided to work with Elena, having not worked with her in the past. “The most important thing for us when taking creatives to the field is being confident they will put the needs of the people we serve first, and be able to make them feel at ease in front of the camera,” she says. “Elena is an absolute master at creating a supportive environment.”


Elena Heatherwick: Musa for the International Rescue Committee


Elena Heatherwick: Musa for the International Rescue Committee

Despite this, looking back, the project as a whole has provoked Elena to ask herself some challenging questions – some relating to the very nature of her craft. “Personally, I struggle with the fact that I’m very aware I’m leaving with pictures and always questioning what I’ve given them in return,” she says. “I don’t have an answer yet that I feel I can fully stand behind but it’s something I think about a lot when I’m sat at home editing the pictures.”

She also, however, acknowledges that this challenge somewhat pales into insignificance against the backdrop of what the shoot in Yola was about. “The IRC [field office] in Yola is made up of Nigerians who care deeply about their country and who are fiercely proud of their work and their community,” she says. “So even though I question my role as a photographer in the midst of it all, I know that the individuals who make up the organisation who commissioned me are making a huge difference, their personal connection to the cause is what drives them.”

To sum up the project, Elena singles out a quotation by Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri, who says of the Nigerian people: “The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering.”


Elena Heatherwick: Musa for the International Rescue Committee


Elena Heatherwick: Musa for the International Rescue Committee


Elena Heatherwick: Musa for the International Rescue Committee


Elena Heatherwick: Musa for the International Rescue Committee


Elena Heatherwick: Musa for the International Rescue Committee


Elena Heatherwick: Musa for the International Rescue Committee