The power of an image

From the children of Biafra to football star Zlatan Ibrahimović


In the complex topography of humanitarian relief, there is, or I should say there was, a country which represents a milestone in the history of humanitarian aid. Its name is Biafra. During the summer 1968, Nigerian forces bombed Biafran towns and implemented blockades that lead to mass starvation. Shocking images of starving children with bloated bellies and pleading eyes were diffused by the Western media. The tiny state of Biafra was swept away by the civil war but the emblematic photo published on LIFE’s cover in July 1968 remained as a living memory of their tragedy. The word “Biafra” acquired a “totemic meaning and became synonymous with starvation and hunger” as writes Brian Horrigan in an exhibition devoted to the culture of 1968.

I was born that same year. Growing up, whenever I did not want to eat whatever was on the table, my parents would tell me to think of the children of Biafra who didn’t have anything to eat. That reminder marked me for the rest of my life. I had the chance to serve on the frontline of several humanitarian crises. Whether in the muddy streets of Prishtina in Kosovo, in the dusty markets of Baghdad in Iraq, or on the sunny hills of Tibnin in Lebanon, I witnessed how crucial imagery is to bringing awareness to humanitarian emergencies. Be it through photography, television or much more recently social media, imagery enables humanitarian organisations to raise awareness and inspire donors’ generosity.  

As Denis Kennedy of the College of the Holy Cross writes, “The image exists thanks to the work of the humanitarians who are out there helping the victims; conversely the humanitarians exist thanks to the images’ power that allow them to bridge the distance between the victim and possible donors”. It symbolically established an ever-continuing symbiotic relationship between humanitarianism and images. Our challenge as humanitarians is to bridge this distance between the people suffering and those who can help.

A call to action

Thirty years after the Biafra crisis, I was the communication officer at the European Community Humanitarian Office ECHO (Brussels) in charge of the ECHO Annual Report. That year, the Report’s cover page was devoted to the Rwandan crisis. In 1996, following the Rwandan genocide, 1,600,000 Rwandese Hutu fled the country, mainly to neighbouring Zaire. This mass exodus triggered further strife within and between both nations. By the beginning of 1997, the vast majority of refugees who had fled in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide returned. The refugee crisis caused by an internal genocide ended with a new war.

Emma Bonino, at the time the EU commissioner for humanitarian aid and a human rights activist, decided to send a clear message to the world. To do so, she chose a rather stark image for the cover page: three Rwandan children sitting on a consignment of humanitarian aid. “The despair on their faces could be that of anyone of any age. The photo does for more than words ever could to convey just how helpless people feel when faced with [...] hunger,” she declared.

The choice was controversial: some governments were shocked by that image and complained that we should have showed the solution (i.e. humanitarian relief) instead of the problem. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled back into Rwanda as the international community stood impotent to change the outcome of events. The message sounded like a call to action.  

Marina Catena

Marina Catena is the director of the United Nations World Food Programme for France (Paris). She worked at the European Commission (Brussels) as communication expert for the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) where she elaborated a number of awareness campaigns. Marina is specialised in post-conflict and peace keeping work and served in Kosovo and Iraq. She is also a lieutenant of the Italian Army (reservist) and served as a Blue Helmet in Lebanon after the July 1996 war for the UNIFIL peace keeping operation.