Daily Picture Show

Humanity In War: Frontline Photography Since 1860

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.

  • A truck brings water to displaced people in Gereida camp, Sudan, 2006.
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    A truck brings water to displaced people in Gereida camp, Sudan, 2006.
    Boris Heger/ICRC
  • Disabled German and Austrian servicemen released from captivity in Russia gather at Hallsberg station for a prisoner-of-war exchange under the auspices of the Swedish Red Cross, World War I.
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    Disabled German and Austrian servicemen released from captivity in Russia gather at Hallsberg station for a prisoner-of-war exchange under the auspices of the Swedish Red Cross, World War I.
  • Nurses from the Alliance of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies of the USSR in Azerbaijan shortly after the end of World War I.
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    Nurses from the Alliance of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies of the USSR in Azerbaijan shortly after the end of World War I.
  • Captured French colonial troops from Senegal in a German prisoner-of-war camp at Saint Medard, World War II, 1942.
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    Captured French colonial troops from Senegal in a German prisoner-of-war camp at Saint Medard, World War II, 1942.
  • An American soldier steals a kiss from a Red Cross volunteer, World War II, United States, 1942.
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    An American soldier steals a kiss from a Red Cross volunteer, World War II, United States, 1942.
  • German children return from Switzerland after hospital treatment, 1948.
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    German children return from Switzerland after hospital treatment, 1948.
  • South Korean military police interrogate North Korean prisoners of war in Pyongyang, Korean War, 1950.
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    South Korean military police interrogate North Korean prisoners of war in Pyongyang, Korean War, 1950.
  • For lack of a school building, the inmates of the Solwezi camp for boys attend lessons in the nearby forest, Zambia, 1979.
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    For lack of a school building, the inmates of the Solwezi camp for boys attend lessons in the nearby forest, Zambia, 1979.
    Luc Chessex/ICRC
  • A mine victim at an ICRC physical rehabilitation center in Huambo, Angola, 1980.
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    A mine victim at an ICRC physical rehabilitation center in Huambo, Angola, 1980.
    Anne-Marie Grobet/ICRC
  • Throngs wait to receive rice distributed by the ICRC in Mak Moun, Thailand, 1980.
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    Throngs wait to receive rice distributed by the ICRC in Mak Moun, Thailand, 1980.
    Yannick Muller/ICRC
  • Internally displaced children in Maychew camp, Ethiopian civil war/famine, 1985.
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    Internally displaced children in Maychew camp, Ethiopian civil war/famine, 1985.
    Dany Gignoux/ICRC
  • People leave their drought-stricken village in search of water and food, Sudan, 1999.
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    People leave their drought-stricken village in search of water and food, Sudan, 1999.
    Ursula Meissner/ICRC
  • Female government fighters in Ganta, Liberia, near the border with Guinea, 2003.
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    Female government fighters in Ganta, Liberia, near the border with Guinea, 2003.
    Teun Anthony Voeten/ICRC
  • Graffiti on the West Bank barrier that divides Israel from its occupied Palestinian territories, 2007.
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    Graffiti on the West Bank barrier that divides Israel from its occupied Palestinian territories, 2007.
    Christoph von Toggenburg/ICRC

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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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