Photography and the Red Cross came into existence at about the same time, in the second half of the 1800s. Photographs of war quickly became some of the most disturbing, but also the most mobilizing, means of communication. Recognizing the power of a photo, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) began preserving and archiving images almost from the beginning. Now it's taking a look back through the archives in a new book called Humanity in War, a collection of over 200 photos dating back to the 1860s, covering both warfare and the humanitarian action that mitigates it.
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Award-winning war photographer James Nachtwey, whose work is featured in the book, writes in the introduction, "Although it has not always been regarded like this, the fact is that documentary photography and humanitarian work exist symbiotically: one of the primary functions of photography is to complement and support the work of humanitarian agencies."
Divided into chapters by date, the photos take us from the trenches of World War I France, to a Nigerian feeding center during the Biafra conflict of the late 1960s, to the West Bank barrier today. Children wait to be repatriated from Switzerland after World War II; young women stare at a dead body in the Torola River during El Salvador's civil war in 1986; a man stands amid the ruins of his home in Lebanon in 2007. The photographs — taken by both photojournalists and aid workers in the field — show the total devastation of war, as well as the power of an image. Without these photos from the frontline, war would be just an idea to those not fighting it, and it certainly would not have a face. It's the faces, after all — the people in photos, the humanity in war — that makes us care. Nachtwey continues:
Photographs are not cold documents that merely prove something happened. They put a human face on events that might otherwise appear to be abstract or ideological ... Photography gives a voice to the voiceless. It's a call to action.
Humanity In War was released last month to coincide with International Red Cross and Red Crescent Day. It can be purchased online and in select cities.
Images courtesy International Committee of the Red Cross.
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