Press "To Heal a World" at les Rencontres de la photographie d'Arles

Exhibition on view | Off-site - From 4 July to 25 September at Palais de l'Archevêché

Humanitarian images entered our lives over a century ago and are now a regular feature in the news. Such images often convey a sense of immediacy and certainty, setting a scene that allows for only one interpretation. We think we fully understand the event in question without considering what might lie just outside the frame. But the reality on the ground is always more complex that its representation, which is by nature incomplete.

The exhibition is a joint production by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum and the Rencontres d’Arles. The works presented are from the collections of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum (MICR) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).


By Pascal Hufschmid, head of project: video here.

By Nathalie Herschdorfer, curator: video here.

Presentation of the premisses at les Rencontres d’Arles 2021: video here.


Press release: Word | PDF


Nathalie Herschdorfer (b.1972, Switzerland) is a curator and art historian specializing in the history of photography. She is Director of the Museum of Fine Arts Le Locle, Switzerland (, where she has organized many important photography shows including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Noémie Goudal, Todd Hido, Alex Prager, Viviane Sassen and Hiroshi Sugimoto. She teaches photography and is the author of several books: Body: The Photography BookMountains by Magnum Photographers, The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of PhotographyAfterwards: Contemporary Photography Confronting the Past, and Coming into Fashion: A Century of Photography at Condé Nast – an exhibition produced by FEP ( and shown in 15 countries.


For the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Grant Mitchell and Sarah-Joy Maddeaux

For the International Committee of the Red Cross, Daniel Palmieri, Brigitte Troyon Borgeaud, Damian Gonzalez Dominguez, Marina Meier and Sabine Haberler Kreis

Davide Rodogno, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva

Valérie Gorin, Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies


Kläfiger museography is a studio for creating exhibitions and mediating environments. Specializing in three-dimensional visual development and interactions in space, the studio focuses on bringing ideas to life and connecting with audiences.


Notter + Vigne is a graphic design agency specializing in the fields of cultural promotion, publishing and institutional communication. Founded by Julien Notter and Sébastien Vigne and based in Lausanne.


  • Around 580 photographs 
  • 200 photographers 
  • 4 collections
  • 13 agencies
  • 18 Red Cross and Red Crescent national societies


160 Years of Photography from the Collections of the Red Cross



Humanitarian action has been represented in photographs for nearly 160 years. Ever since the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was founded in 1863, photography – invented only a few decades earlier, in 1839 – has served to document the situation on the ground and reveal the human dramas that unfold there.

To Heal a World lifts the veil on the vast photography collections held by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. The collections include both public images intended for mass communication and confidential ones for internal use.

Big names from the prestigious Magnum Photos agency can be found alongside countless anonymous photo-takers. All aim to draw attention and spark emotion by revealing the suffering of the innocent: refugees, prisoners of war and other people in distress.

By guiding us through a unique historical collection, To Heal a World encourages us to reflect on how we perceive humanitarian imagery – both past and present.



Photography began to be used for humanitarian action soon after the medium was invented in 1839. Red Cross organizations have produced and conserved photographs since the Movement’s founding in 1863.

150 years ago, field photographers had to have a firm knowledge of chemistry and optics and be willing to transport heavy, cumbersome equipment. Near the end of the 19th century, photography became cheaper, faster and accessible to amateurs without any knowledge of science, making it a powerful tool for mass communication. This shift gave an immediate boost to the Red Cross’s ability to raise funds and rally support.

Starting in the mid-20th century, the humanitarian crisis in sub-Saharan Africa began to draw global attention, which crystallized around the image of suffering dark-skinned bodies. Red Cross aid workers rallied to provide shelter, protection and emergency medical care to people in need. The images originally focused on humanitarian workers, before shifting to the victims. This iconography of suffering was addressed to a white Western audience accustomed to viewing people in distress as a homogenous bloc.

For the Red Cross, photography has always served as a tool for rallying support.



Humanitarian imagery focuses on people more than place. It tells a story with familiar roles: there are the benefactors, serving as heroes and heroines, and the victims, innocent people struggling in the face of natural disasters or suffering the ravages of war.

The humanitarian story is told through its recurring and clearly defined protagonists: the doctor or delegate, usually a white man, accompanied by the ever-comforting nurse.

These heroic characters are faced with a mass of anonymous faces, people awaiting food, care and protection. The victims are always in transit. The images depict a global humanitarian effort that aims to be seen as reassuring.

Photography shows us, informs us and alerts us.


Bearing witness

In addition to the hero and the victim, there is a third key figure in humanitarian imagery: the person behind the camera. Photographers document humanitarian action and keep the public informed about the situation on the ground.

Not only must humanitarian photographers document a crisis, they must also depict the action taken to save lives. The resulting images aim to inspire compassion – the viewer cannot help but be moved by the dire circumstances in which the subjects find themselves.

In the 1960s, the ICRC began to hire professional photographers rather than rely on the amateur efforts of its field staff. For the past 70 years, the Magnum Photos agency has produced images for the ICRC all around the world. The biggest names in the history of photojournalism all worked for the Red Cross: Robert Capa, Werner Bischof and Henri Cartier-Bresson, to name just a few.

The next generation of photographers – including Sebastião Salgado, James Nachtwey and Ron Haviv – have made an equally remarkable contribution to the humanitarian narrative of the 20th century. The experience of working with a diverse range of professional photographers has made it clear what makes a good Red Cross photograph: the image must express the Movement’s values, document the action taken with precision and – most importantly – treat its subjects with dignity.

Photographers inform and communicate. Their work is an act of bearing witness.



Photography has long been seen as objective and reliable, but all images are part of a broader discourse. They are used not only to link Geneva and the field, but also donors and beneficiaries.

Interpretations of a given image are also fluid. Our gaze and that of the photographer are never neutral, and every individual point of view is influenced by the social, political and cultural context. What they show us is never a purely factual representation of reality.

Is it still true that a picture is worth a thousand words?

Here, various experts provide an analysis of images that, at first glance, appear to allow for only one interpretation. Reassessing what the images actually show reveals just how complex they – and the humanitarian work they depict – truly are.

Photographer Alexis Cordesse spent three years in France, Germany and Turkey collecting the personal photos of women and men who had fled the civil war in Syria.


The scenes are familiar – parties, outings, life experiences. All photographs were taken in Syria during the years of armed conflict, just like many of the images in the Red Cross collection. But there are two crucial differences: who is behind the camera, and what lies outside the frame.



In the 21st century, images are being generated faster than ever. The pace has only increased over the past 15 years, with three billion images exchanged over the internet each day. Every year, thousands of digital images join the prints, negatives, glass plates, slides, posters, postcards and other documents held in the Red Cross photo archives.

The ICRC stopped using amateur photographs in the 1960s, but the rise of smartphones presents a new set of challenges. In a complex crisis environment, taking and sharing a photo can endanger humanitarian workers and jeopardize their objectives.

Nearly two centuries after its invention, photography continues to play a crucial role in telling the humanitarian story. It has never been easier to create and share images.



Media contact

North Communication

Laure Külling
Tel. +41 79 576 25 67

Exibithion views at les Rencontres d'Arles

– © Alessandro Mosalini
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– © Alessandro Mosalini
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– © Alessandro Mosalini
Download high definition

– © Alessandro Mosalini
Download high definition