Susan Sontag said in 2003 that disasters were part of the quintessence of modern life. And the truth is that none of us can contradict it. It’s enough to watch a news release, or the long line of posts on Facebook, to realize with surprise how deeply and deeply rooted in our everyday life “the image of the least fortunate” regardless of the strength who threw him into suffering.
Elderly women dressed for a piece of bread, unskilled and flamboyant children, smiling naïve in front of a heap of debris they call “home,” outraged families, wounded people, lost souls, crushed by nature’s rage, or life. Emotional, controversial or simply painful topics. Some leave us as unassuming as the beggar in the corner of the street that we have seen so often that we almost no longer see it. Others make our hearts glimpse and the eyelids often struggle over tears that are barely mastered. And often the difference lies only in the art with which it is put before our eyes, the story.
Though pain and suffering have existed since the world, humanitarian photography was truly born in the second half of the nineteenth century, once the attitude towards illness and poverty has taken an important turn from plausible acceptance to the will to change something. Because it can not be called humanitarian photography other than that picture created as a testimony of the decision to act and to make others act.
After two decades, humanitarian photography has its own history today and its own professionals. People like Stephanie Sinclair, Jessica Dimmock, Luca Catalano Gonzaga, Andrew McConnell, Jeffrey Chapman, Mia Baker, Karl Grobl and many others. Some use the title of humanitarian photographers, others have been named photojournalists. But most of them agree that humanitarian photography is not universally taught, and it’s not a job to choose from on a list. It’s an art that chooses you and a career where the soul means more than the talent to find an interesting frame.
In a world full of ideal images and strident colors, humanitarian photography strives to bring the value of reality back to light again. Through stories in which life often hangs a thread of hope and a helping hand, imagery that should ever make us think only really works when the cadres manage to draw attention. By composition, by colors or by their lack, by people and situations. Surprised in a desolate field, in fresh ruins or in a corner of the slum, often in difficult conditions and in questionable security, humanitarian shots struggle every day along the way with fashionable pictures and posters for a spot in the eyes of the viewer.
And if you think long breaks from loved ones and endless journeys in unfriendly areas are the photographer’s greatest challenges to appeal to humanity, you will be surprised. Because the foundation stone in this area is the fine balance between the emotions the photographer allows to feel and the distance he needs in order not to shake his hand in front of the story that we are emotioned to tears, hundreds of kilometers away.