Humanitarian action in photos

Frédéric ThomasFrédéric Thomas is a research fellow at CETRI - Centre tricontinental (Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium)
160 years of photography from the collections of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, Nathalie Herschdorfer et Pascal Hufschmid Textuel, 2022 (Bilingual English-French)

This text was previously published on the CETRI website, under the title « Photographier l’action humanitaire : champ et hors-champ » (in French only) :

This book takes a look back in pictures at the history of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, by attempting “to identify a visual grammar of humanitarian action”. It also analyses developments in the use of photography and, at the same time, of the visual codes in force. Although photography seemingly played no role when the Red Cross and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) were founded in 1863, fifty years later, during the First Balkan War (1912-1913), the humanitarian institution’s activities were photographed and showcased for the first time. A few years later, the Geneva-based organisation commissioned pictures to be taken.

Creating photographs

Daniel Palmieri focuses on recent developments, from World War II, which “saw the massive development of the use of photography by the ICRC”, to the post-war period, when professional photographers started to be hired “with the first professional photographers being commissioned”, including several members of Magnum Photos, such as Robert Capa and Werner Bischof. The book also contains an emblematic shot by Bischof: Hungarian children photographed in 1947 leaving for Switzerland to receive medical care. In the early 1980s, a “paradigm shift” took place, with “a ban on delegates taking and using cameras on deployments, without the formal permission of the relevant ICRC departments”.

Throughout history and despite their diverse nature, these photographs “undeniably have something in common”, as highlighted by Nathalie Herschdorfer and Pascal Hufschmid in the introduction: they aim to grab the public’s attention – mainly in the West – in order to garner support, primarily funding. Hence the visual narratives presenting “idealised or dramatised” versions of reality on the ground, with a dual focus, based on the expectations of the (western) public and on promoting humanitarian action. Consequently, this style of photography focuses on “recurrent and well-defined protagonists”: on the one hand “the benefactors – the heroes and heroines” – and on the other, the victims.

On several occasions, the emphasis is placed on how pictures are put together – notably through composition, which does not make for a passive record, “the off-camera and different filters applied to the shot”, as well as the interpretation of it, which is dependent on the culture and context in which the picture is disseminated and viewed. Moreover, this interpretation changes with time. However, some of the authors seem to fall into the trap of stating that contemporary humanitarian photography is now more staged than in the past, as it has lost its immediacy and spontaneity. In fact, 21st century humanitarian photography is no more staged than the previous century’s shots; it is just done differently.

Proof is provided by the self-same photographs contained in the book. It is glaringly apparent in the photographs shot for the Red Cross in 1941 in the USSR, entitled “The first aider is the soldier’s help and friend. Join the women’s volunteer brigades on the frontline”, or in France in 1949, “Please save my child – Help the Red Cross”, which have an “activist” slant. This is achieved more subtly with Auguste Bauernheinz’s shot of injured French prisoners during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. If we take a closer look at this picture, which appears to have been shot unposed, we can see that several of the injured men are staring at the camera, others are striking a pose; in other words, what on the face of it looks like a shot taken on the spot, is in fact a posed photograph.

On the other hand, photographs taken by victims, which, apart from the odd exception, are not part of the ICRC archives, and of which there is a fine example here – the photographs taken by Talashi between 1990 and 2019 of men and women who had fled war-torn Syria, by not being dramatic, underline the falseness of of the division between spontaneous and posed images; the real issue is different compositions, editing and positioning.

Between critical analysis and what is off-camera

Any selection of photographs gives rise to comment. Consequently, Davide Rodogno offers a brilliant analysis of the Madonna and dead or dying Child iconography, using a photograph of a woman and child in Turkey (1919-1922), with this image so often appearing in the humanitarian visual grammar. Brenda Lynn Edgar picks apart the numerous contradictory interpretations of a recent shot depicting a “Migrant consoled by a woman” and the stereotypes it conveys. Finally, Jérôme Sessini, a Magnum Photos photographer, looks back at one of his own photographs, taken in Lebanon in 2006 during the conflict between Lebanese Hezbollah and the Israeli army. His text “The image can not tell the whole story” offers a truly clear-sighted and humble analysis of the conditions and limitations of his work.

It seems that the iconography of the child, a core visual code of humanitarian action, dates back to humanitarian action during the Russian famine of 1921-1923. The dreadful photographs reconfigured the humanitarian visual matrix by focusing on suffering children; who, in the second half of the 20th century, would mainly be Black famine victims in Sub-Saharan Africa. The suffering and passivity of these victims, on the one hand, and the heroic efforts of white humanitarian workers, on the other, will frequently appear to a western public “as a homogeneous block”.

Unfortunately, the particular context of the humanitarian assistance in the USSR in the 1920s is not examined. Was not the overexposure of suffering children authorised and even encouraged, because of the excessive political emphasis of this action in a polarised world in which the superiority of western capitalist civilisation over the collapse of communist barbarity could or even should be proved?

In more general terms, it is a pity that the controversies in which the Red Cross has been involved, from World War II to Rwanda, including Biafra, are not analysed using photographs. Equally, there is no examination of any distinctive features of the Red Crescent’s iconography in comparison with its sister organisation. The book seems to waver between critical analysis and promoting an institution and its work throughout history. Readers therefore have to content themselves with little-known or symbolic photographs, which help us to understand our own way of looking at humanitarian photography over time, and with analysis that leaves them rather dissatisfied.


Translated from the French by Gillian Eaton

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