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Humanity in war

Phil Coomes | 09:13 UK time, Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Colombia, 1999.

Photographs can provoke strong reactions. The belief that they can change the world is probably a little misplaced, though they can certainly influence opinion, and that can lead to support for aid agencies helping those caught in events beyond their control.

A new book and forthcoming exhibition by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) draws from its archives images taken on the frontline of conflicts since 1860, and includes many powerful images.

The ICRC archives date back to the 1860s and cover most of the major conflicts from the last century. Despite its title, this is not a collection of war photographs; there are few soldiers on show.

Children in Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1972.Flicking through the collection, I'm struck by the pictures taken at quieter moments, away from the conflict lines. A few frames that caught my attention include one by Andre Jolliet (right) showing three children wearing helmets left behind after the Indo-Pakistan conflict of 1971.

It's a lovely picture, great light, composition and colour, but the context changes the reading of the picture and I want to know more of these boys' lives. Photography's not very good at that: it provides a stage for questions, but without supporting text, it rarely has any answers.

The book includes many pictures of ICRC operatives, including a couple helping to evacuate a wounded man from El Salvador in 1987, another of a delegate counting staff wages on his bedroom floor in Uganda in1990 and yet another of a man using the phone of an ICRC worker to call relatives to let them know he is okay.

But the picture of ICRC staff that is a worthy document (shown at the top of this article) is a simple picture by Boris Heger of combatants in Colombia in 1999 being instructed in international humanitarian law.

Seven fighters with scarves around their faces and AK-47s on their laps listen attentively. It's a real insight into the work of the ICRC, and not something that is widely seen. We are used to the pictures of aid agencies helping the wounded in field hospitals or refugee camps, but this is different. Even in war, there are rules.

Overall, the book leaves you with a feeling that not much has changed; through the years: the names and places alter, but the central struggle to survive amid conflict remains - but then I guess that's fairly obvious.

You can see a selection of pictures from Humanity in War on the ICRC website.

Humanity in War: Frontline photography since 1860 will be at the Oxo Tower gallery in London from 7 July 2009.

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