In October, 2014, 43 students from a teachers’ college in Mexico disappeared in a mass kidnapping, sending shockwaves throughout the country and the world. Four months later, they were declared dead, at the hands of a drug gang, Guerreros Unidos.

After documenting the families of the missing students, all of whom were enrolled at the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers School in Iguala, Mexico, photographer Adriana Zehbrauskas realized something which is difficult to comprehend in our increasingly visual world: Aside from official documents and some cellphone images, most of the families had no photos of the loved ones they lost.

“Not only have these people been robbed of a future with their loved ones,” Zehbrauskas said, “but after a few years, they aren’t even going to have a memory of them.”

 

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(photos courtesy of Adriana Zehbrauskas)

This gave Zehbrauskas an idea. With support from a Getty Images Instagram Grant she won in 2015, she set up small photo studios throughout the different villages connected to the tragedy, and took family portraits of the residents. Then, she gave them a printed version and posted the images to Instagram so they could share the photos with their families and friends.

“I think the family portrait is an anthropological study of a period in time. It’s a tool for preserving history and documenting a memory,” she said. “Many of these people had never had their picture taken before. It was very meaningful to them that someone was paying attention to them — it was really beautiful.”

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Zehbrauskas was one of three recipients of the inaugural Getty Images Instagram Grant, awarded to photographers who document underrepresented communities around the world. The grant opens for applications again this year on March 15.

“This grant looks deeply under the skin for the stories that have a real beating heart and for people that have a real passion for the things they’re photographing,” said documentary photographer Maggie Steber who was one of last year’s judges. “It’s always the most joyful thing for me to discover people who are doing extraordinary work in obscurity — it really proves their dedication.”

 

For Zehbrauskas, who will be among the judges for this year’s competition, the grant provided the financial means for her to pursue her project and make a lasting impact on the communities she visited. She has plans to return to the villages soon to conduct photo workshops for children, teaching them to shoot with their mobile phones, so they can document their communities and produce a visual history.

“It’s so rewarding to be able to take these photos and teach the children how to take their own,” she said. “These photos aren’t for me, they’re truly for them, and that’s what this is all about.”

 

See the 2016 grant winners’ powerful work