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Humanitarians and Photojournalists: a Shared Struggle

They are the witnesses to the suffering on Earth. To mark its 50-year anniversary, the world-renowned NGO Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has joined forces with the Magnum photo agency to bring their photographic material on global crises past and present it into one collection. Witnesses: 50 Years of Humanity offers an extensive online exhibition.

To bring aid and bear witness. Photojournalists and humanitarians know what their common narrative is, marked by their encounters in the field. “The ones that have taken place in the midst of crises, whether in the most remote places in the world or in areas covered by cameras and international media,” says MSF in the introduction. For the NGO’s 50-year anniversary, this partnership with Magnum makes perfect sense. In parallel with an exhibition presented in Geneva in the summer of 2021, a book has been published in partnership with the authors of the weekly magazine L’Obs. And because the duty to bear witness should apply to everyone, an online file of rare quality retraces the key dates in the history of the NGO and gives viewers a glimpse, via text and images, of the major crises of the past 50 years and those of today and tomorrow.

MSF’s humanitarian mission since 1971

The international and non-governmental medical organization was created in 1971 by a group of French doctors and journalists deeply marked by the horrors of Biafra. In 1976, MSF took action in Lebanon, its first conflict zone. “We were treating people under sniper fire,” recalls a volunteer who served during the Lebanese civil war. Photographers from the Magnum agency, founded in 1930, were also there. Photographer Raymond Depardon recalls the particularly challenging reporting conditions: “No photos! I tried to negotiate. Then, a few minutes later, I heard the safety catch again. The bullet was ready to go again: at the slightest misstep, it could fire.” Sometimes, images were what helped doctors decide to leave home and help, as was in the case with the Afghan province of Nuristan, following a report by the same Raymond Depardon published in Paris Match in April 1979. 

The dates scroll down along the digital timeline. Humanitarian aid under threat in Somalia in 1991; the conflict in Rwanda and the international impotence in the face of the 1994 genocide; and Srebrenica in 1995, when MSF teams were forced to abandon the Bosnian enclave. “We were witnesses, we knew what was going to happen. We did nothing. […] Picking up my camera at least meant facing that responsibility: I don’t want to look away,” said Gilles Peress in 1996, about the UN’s decision to withdraw its blue helmets from the city, which would end in the massacre of more than 7,000 people and the deportation of 40,000 others. 

Sometimes, the images are missing. Like in 2014 with the Ebola epidemic in West Africa: 11,000 dead due to the inaction of the international community.” No photographer from the Magnum agency would be allowed to visit the site. A black frame indicates: “The absence of an image is not an error. Given the complexity of the health situation and the limited access, no photographer from the Magnum agency was able to go there.”  

The latest photo-reportages from 2021

With the pandemic, while the world stopped turning for a short while, MSF’s mission, like that of the photojournalists, continued unabated. The site gives a very special place to the latest Magnum reports from around the world. Zied Ben Romdhane traveled to Niger to cover the humanitarian crisis there. Gorgeous black and white photos filled with poetry and a sense of composition that clashes with reality, as seen in the shadows that beat hard against the walls of the brick houses of these populations affected by climate change. Niger, Children of the Rain, brings together everything that gives the agency its reputation: aesthetics at the service of the message. Niger is a country where MSF has been extensively involved. “With the photographer’s help, I thought we might be able to shed light on a deeper aspect of this situation. Above all, I wanted us to capture the causes and not only the visible consequences in everyday life and the wide-open spaces. I’ve always loved wide open spaces…” explains Ahmad Samro, an MSF program manager, who hails from one of the villages in the Nigerian region of Zinder. 

Greece and migrants, Sudan, Honduras, Iraq, Kenya… Seven high-quality dossiers with photos and text that can be consulted free of charge. 

Refugee crises and the scars of war

To complete this tribute site, two major themes are covered at length: The first, Whether Internally Displaced or Refugees—These People Must Flee To Survive, raises the crucial question of the management of population migrations, caused by conflicts or natural disasters. Humanitarians, if they are not already on site, arrive in the first days of these emergency situations, often at the same time as the photographers. The members of MSF found themselves confronted with a refugee crisis for the first time in the 1970s, in the face of Khmer terror. “I saw these men, women, and their children. As I listened to them, little by little I came to understand the extent of the horror that had played out there under the Khmer Rouge,” says Claude Malhuret, former president of MSF. The look of distress in their eyes was captured by the lens of Steve McCurry and Hiroji Kubota. Then come the images of Gilles Peress in Rwanda, the contact sheets of Jean Gaumy in Honduras and El Salvador in 1985, all the way to the Ethiopian refugees photographed in Sudan in 2020 by Thomas Dworzak. Claude Malhuret had already stressed this point back in 1977: “The world of today and that of tomorrow will be that of refugees.”

The second major theme, Conflict Zones and Violent Realities, bears witness to the involvement of the teams under the fire of war. For the team thrown for a few hours at the edge of the inferno, or even inside it, the first priority task is to adapt. It sometimes happens that this need arises in the sustained unleashing of weapons,” says Alain Dubos, a doctor, about the MSF mission in Chad in 1980. Being as close as can be to the civilian population, in the hell of conflict, is something Raymond Depardon experienced in Beirut and Afghanistan, as did Steve McCurry. Being as close as possible to bear witness, through photography, to show the faces of war, to give voice to the victims and put a face and soul to the statistics. “I lost faith in many things, but I continue to believe that documenting history is essential for history and collective memory,” recalls with conviction Emin Özmen, a photographer for Magnum Photos in 2012 during the war in Syria.

You can access the link for MSF’s 50 Years for free here.

You can order the book here:

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