The photographic archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) contain some 140,000 images in various formats documenting 160 years of humanitarian action carried out by the ICRC and, more broadly, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. As an organization that works in situations of armed conflict and other violence, the ICRC has conducted its work on every continent since its founding in 1863 and is currently active in more than 100 countries. Photography has long been a central concern for the ICRC, not only as a record of the ICRC’s work in the field, but as one of its main communication tools. This article explores the various types of photographs in the ICRC’s archives, discusses how the practices of the archives service have changed over the years, and presents some of the risks involved in producing and archiving photographs and making them available online.

Photography as a central part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement’s activities

Photography was such an early part of the ICRC’s activities that the founders preserved photo albums containing portraits of the participants in the first Geneva conferences of 1863 and 1864. Perhaps more surprisingly, the archives contain photos that predate the organization’s founding, such as prints on albumin paper of the US Civil War (Gardner & Gibson, 1862) and the health services of the US Sanitary Commission, a non-governmental organization providing aid to wounded and sick soldiers in the Union army. These two examples might seem incidental, but they conceal a deeper meaning. The portraits of the founding figures of the Red Cross recall that all organized action is the result of an idea, while the pictures from a North American conflict preserved at a time when the first National Red Cross Societies were only just being formed [1]shows the ICRC’s interest in documenting and learning from international humanitarian activities for its own work in the future.[2] Indeed, from the start the ICRC’s photographic archives have been anchored by their focus on the organization’s past, present and future humanitarian action, as represented in several important categories of wartime humanitarian iconography. Past action is seen in the nature of the photograph itself, which necessarily transports the viewer to a moment in time gone by; present action, in the subject of the photograph, which bears witness to the accomplishments of international humanitarian law; and future action, in the photograph’s depiction of entire categories of people who would only later be protected under humanitarian law.

The photographs in the ICRC archives come from various sources. A large majority were provided by ICRC delegates and employees (a trend that increased over the 20th century), but a sizeable portion comes from the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and press agencies, and a small percentage from individual gifts and bequests. Before the First World War, the few photographs of non-European conflicts[3] probably came from the National Societies, since in that period the ICRC’s work mainly consisted of coordination activities carried out at its Geneva headquarters, with few exceptions.[4] This work was nevertheless important, and starting in 1914 it is reflected in images of the many volunteers working for the International Prisoners of War Agency, which played a vital role in processing information collected during visits to prisoner-of-war camps.

© ICRC | Geneva, Switzerland. 1914–1918 War. Rath Museum. Staff of the International Prisoners of War Agency, V-P-HIST-01816-27


In 1921, during the Russian Civil War, the International Committee for Aid to Russia was created[6] in a joint effort between the ICRC, the League of Red Cross Societies and various National Societies. This committee shone a light on the extreme episodes of famine affecting hundreds of thousands of Russian children. Images of its humanitarian action in Russia were used to craft a new famine narrative of triumph over hunger[7] and to show that the ICRC could work with other organizations in a cooperative network, similar to the more recent League of Nations or Save the Children Fund. Whether the photographs came from the Russian Red Cross or the ICRC was ultimately of little consequence;[8] what mattered was their unprecedented impact on the public. For perhaps the first time, war was visually linked with its devastating unintended consequences on the youngest members of society.

© ICRC Archives (DR) | Famine in Russia, 1921–1923. Children having received meals for several weeks from a food station run by the 3rd detachment of the Russian Red Cross, V-P-HIST-01097


In the 1930s, the Italo–Ethiopian War (1935–1936) and the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) marked the first major attempt to capture in images the direct, specific consequences of war on civilians. In centring the effects of mustard gas and aerial bombings, the photographs reflect humanitarian action not through the work or presence of the ICRC, but by serving as evidence, visual proof of the harm caused to people not directly involved in the fighting. Humanitarian action is seen here in the palpable pain and fear of a group of people that would not be protected in wartime by humanitarian law until the end of the next decade.

© ICRC | Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939. Bombardment of Madrid. Residents evacuate the city. V-P-HIST-01847-18


The Second World War probably marked the high point of ICRC delegate visits to prisoners of war. By contrast with the First World War, when delegates were rarely photographed (they appear on a few postcards in a formal pose), in this period they were shown speaking with the authorities of military detention camps, assessing the camps’ infrastructure, and meeting with prisoners’ representatives.[9] In these rather artificially posed photographs, the delegates can be seen exercising the mandate entrusted to the ICRC in the 1929 Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War.[10] In this sense, the photographs also point ahead to the rights and protections that would be created under the expanded 1949 version of this convention.

© ICRC | 1939–1945 War. Fürstenberg, Germany, Stalag III B. Visit to prisoners of war; ICRC doctor-delegate meets with the prisoners’ representative, V-P-HIST-01693-02


The growing professionalization of photography after the Second World War was accompanied by the rise of photojournalism, and several well-known Swiss photojournalists – including Max Kettel, Jean Mohr and Max Vaterlaus – lent their services to the ICRC. The style of the photographs changed dramatically after the adoption of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. In Germany, Palestine, Greece, and the disputed territories of Kashmir, images of ICRC staff helping refugees and internally displaced people took on a more personal quality, while the figure of the delegate[11] became more understated and less paternalistic. Humanitarian action was reflected in the spontaneous shot, a moment in time capturing the atmosphere of hope or despair: a child receiving a cup of milk extended through barbed wire during the First Arab–Israeli War (1948–1949), a family perched on the collapsed Allenby bridge after the Six-Day War (1967), or a crowd in Biafra waiting for a food distribution. Photographs from the Nigerian–Biafran War (1967–1970), during which the ICRC conducted a major relief operation,[12] illustrate another aspect of wartime humanitarian imagery: depicting humanitarian action by emphasizing the scale of the logistical challenges involved. More than a quarter of the approximately 500 photographs taken during this war depict the means of transport used to carry or store the aid provided by the ICRC and the National Societies.

© ICRC/Max Vaterlaus | Nigeria–Biafra 1967–1970. Udo Camp. Children waiting in front of a food distribution centre run by the Swedish Red Cross, V-P-NG-N-00068-25


It should be noted that while prisoners of war rarely figure in current ICRC imagery, partly owing to the decrease in international armed conflicts and increase in internal conflicts in recent times, visits to civilian detainees have become one of the ICRC’s primary activities. In the cramped quarters of prisons and other detention centres (or even prisoners’ cells) where time seems to stand still, humanitarian action is reflected more in how the image protects the prisoner’s identity than in the assistance being rendered. The visual codes of the private conversation [13] convey the idea that, at least in theory, the ICRC has built a relationship of trust with the prison authorities, who will improve the detention conditions of the prisoners. In contrast with usual practice during prisoner-of-war visits in the Second World War, detainees usually appear with their back to the camera or turned away at a three-quarter angle. This discreet approach is similar to that used in images of psychosocial support programmes for the relatives of missing people and victims of sexual violence starting in the 1990s.

© ICRC/Thierry Gassmann | San Salvador, El Salvador, national prison. Visit to detainees and private conversation, V-P-SV-D-00034-02


In the 1980s, photographs of preventive action started to appear in the ICRC archives. The Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement recognize the ICRC’s right to take its own initiatives in situations of internal conflict.[14] On this basis, the ICRC has run cooperation programmes with security forces and worked in secondary schools in various regions, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean. Together with protection, assistance and cooperation, prevention is a central component of the ICRC’s work, and images of that strand of work reflect the role that the ICRC seeks to play among “those who can determine – directly or indirectly – the fate of people affected [by violence]”.[15]

© ICRC/Martin Mejia | Lima, Peru. Discussing the ICRC’s Let’s Explore Humanitarian Law programme in a primary school, V-P-PE-E-00108


Over the past twenty years, a trend in humanitarian work has emerged to take account of the growing number of civilians living through protracted war, which is characterized by low-intensity but seemingly endless conflict. In these situations, humanitarian action is reflected in the activities of everyday life, particularly through the ICRC’s programmes for economic security, building water purification and conveyance infrastructure, physical rehabilitation, and agricultural and livestock assistance, as well as its programmes to raise awareness of humanitarian law among the armed forces. Today, this type of work makes up a significant portion – and sometimes the majority – of the ICRC’s activities photographed in Afghanistan, Somalia and Palestine, and more recently in Iraq, Libya, South Sudan and Syria.

© Leonid Hayrapetyan | Nagorno-Karabakh, southern Caucasus. Agricultural and livestock assistance programme, V-P-AZ-E-00695


Despite the shifts in approach over the decades, portraying humanitarian action has remained the underlying aim. The subject of the photograph may have changed, but the intention has always been to make the challenges of humanitarian work more personal – to give them a human face. As we have seen, the focus shifted from soldiers – first the wounded, then prisoners of war – to the staff of National Societies and ICRC delegates, and more recently to civilians (in the broad sense of the word), who have gradually become the largest group of people helped by the ICRC and thus reflect the full range of its humanitarian action.

Photography as the ICRC’s primary means of communication

Although it is difficult to summarize how the collection that would become the ICRC’s archives was practically and intellectually organized after the 1920s, a brief timeline may help to outline some of the major trends.

After the First World War, the ICRC realized that it could use images to great effect to help raise money and establish its authority in the humanitarian field. There were two main reasons for this: first, the Great War had sapped the ICRC’s funds; second, the League of Red Cross Societies, which had been founded in 1919, had emerged as a significant competitor. At the same time, as the ICRC produced its first films and photography became a key documentary medium, the organization gradually began to consider whether it should turn its image collection into a fully fledged photographic archive.[17]

During the interwar period and the Second World War, delegates were encouraged to use their cameras more regularly. Around the same time, Jean Pictet, the ICRC director-general from 1946, attempted to restructure the organization’s Images Service by consolidating the photography materials that were spread across various departments. It is probably no coincidence that Pictet, the man responsible for laying the groundwork for the adoption of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, was so interested in this project. As a leading legal expert, he would have been acutely aware of the power of images to move the public and drive the development of international humanitarian law. Although several projects and reports aimed to implement Pictet’s recommendations, it would be more than a decade before the Information Service adopted a research-friendly policy that made it possible to loan out photographs.[18] This policy marked the beginning of a long-standing collaboration between the ICRC’s photographic archives and communication services. Paradoxically, since 1978, delegates’ employment contracts have specified that they cannot take photographs, video, or audio recordings without the explicit consent of a head of delegation. This limited delegates’ freedom to take pictures while on assignment, and since that time the ICRC has encouraged the use of professional photographers and videographers.

In 1981, the collaboration between archives and communications received a boost from the inauguration of the International Red Cross Audio-Visual Centre. This centre, a joint creation of the ICRC and the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, aimed to “produce and distribute a full range of audio-visual material on the history and activities of the Red Cross” and make them available to “all National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the media and the general public”.[19] In part because of their increased contact with photographers, archives staff found themselves tasked with running an image bank[20] in addition to their regular duties of managing, conserving and archiving photographs. In this connection, a gradual series of acquisitions between 1965 and 1984 brought the total number of available images in the archives to 54,000, making it easier to consult and reproduce prints for both internal and external publications.

In 1989, the ICRC made the photographs in its archives available for consultation in the form of contact sheets. After the updated Rules governing Access to the Archives of the ICRC were adopted in 1996, the archives were made open to the public without the need to request special access. These efforts to make the archives more accessible were accompanied by a sharp rise in the number of natively digital photographs in the second half of the 1990s: around half of the photos available to the public were taken in digital format. As for the analogue photos, they were progressively digitized between 2004 and 2007 in order to create an online archive.[21] Since 2016, over 100,000 images have been consulted through this online archive and, depending on the relevant restrictions in the terms of use, downloaded and used for non-commercial purposes. Promoting the audiovisual archives is now an essential part of the job for an ICRC photographic archivist, alongside the more traditional tasks of acquiring photographs, writing image descriptions, and processing research requests. These developments are the result of a process begun 35 years earlier that has made photography the ICRC’s primary means of communication.

Until 2010, the service formerly known as the ICRC photo library was attached to the communications division as part of a documentary centre. This fact alone is indicative of the primary role of photography at the ICRC: to faithfully record the organization’s humanitarian activities and make them known to the public. This focus on communications was underscored by the presence of a photographer in the photo library, who had a hand in determining the content of the photographs that would later be included in the archive. In 2011, the photo library was reassigned to the ICRC’s archives and library unit, marking a turning point in the way photography was viewed in the organization. The new role of the photo library – now renamed the photographic archive service – is to provide the ICRC’s communications services with current images to use on social media and other mass-publishing platforms and to promote the ICRC’s rich historical photo archives among academics, publishing houses and museums. To fulfil this dual role, the service regularly adds new images to the archives, with a relatively short amount of time between when a photograph is taken, archived, and made available to the public.

Humanitarian photography and the ICRC’s duty of protection

In an article published in 1996, the year in which the ICRC’s archives were opened to the public, Holleufer[22] noted the growing dominance of images in the public domain and warned that they could one day replace reality.[23] In a time when anyone with a mobile phone can snap a photo and share it on social networks used by hundreds of millions of people daily, has that vision come to pass? Furthermore, could the images produced, publicized and archived by the ICRC today be said to exhibit the tendency toward “news voyeurism”[24] observed by Holleufer? Our brief exploration of the photographs in the ICRC’s archives (see section I above) suggests that, in fact, beginning in the second half of the 20th century, the trend has moved away from staunch voyeurism toward a certain kind of modesty.[25] In addition, the growing number of photographs of aid and economic-development programmes seems to support the observation that images of the direct consequences of war on civilians have been replaced by those of long-term humanitarian action. Moreover, it is interesting to note that following the decline in photographs of the destruction of urban infrastructure, official buildings, public heritage sites and homes after the Second World War, this type of image has made a comeback since the Yugoslav Wars (1991–2001), effectively endorsing a kind of visual erasing of civilians gripped by the agony of war.

As mentioned above, public access to the ICRC archives is governed by the Rules governing Access to the Archives of the ICRC (RA-ICRC).[26] With regard to the audiovisual archives, the RA-ICRC does not apply to documents produced for public use (Art. 4, para. 2); however, it does apply to documents that were not made public when they were produced (Art. 5, paras. 2c and 3d), with a closure period of 50 or 70 years specified for these documents. In principle, the ICRC delegations are responsible for determining whether all or part of a photo report will be open to the public, or whether it will be for internal use only and therefore subject to the above closure periods. As stated in the introduction to the RA-ICRC, the aim is to balance the goal of transparency with the duty to safeguard the integrity of the ICRC’s work and of the individuals and communities concerned.

As an organization that handles data, including sensitive data, as part of its normal course of work, the ICRC is fully aware of the societal concerns that emerged nearly four decades ago regarding the protection of personal data. The ICRC has therefore adopted a set of Rules on Personal Data Protection (REG-ICRC) that are more restrictive than those in force in Switzerland,[27] based primarily on the standards contained in the European Union’s Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In accordance with the REG-ICRC, the ICRC does not process personal data except when there are lawful grounds to do so (Art. 1, para. 2 of the REG-ICRC). Lawful grounds, as defined in Article 6 of the GDPR, include the data subject’s consent, the data subject’s vital interests, the public interest, the legitimate interests of the data controller, the performance of a contract, or compliance with a legal obligation. Nevertheless, consent (i.e. a representation of specific, informed, and unequivocal free will by which a person agrees to the processing of their personal data) is the primary ground for the processing of personal data (Art. 1, para. 3 of the REG-ICRC) – although this can sometimes be disputed by virtue of the vulnerability of the people concerned and the nature of the ICRC’s humanitarian work in emergency situations (Art. 1, para. 3 of the REG-ICRC). Beyond the principle of lawfulness, other principles[28] must be complied with for data processing to take place, including transparency (Art. 2 of the REG-ICRC) and end use (Art. 3 of the REG-ICRC).

Although photographers are not always aware of it, taking a photograph counts as processing personal data. Each time photographs are taken of a food distribution or family reunification in which the ICRC is present, the ICRC must obtain the consent of the people concerned (or their legal representatives) or find other grounds for lawfulness, as well as ensure compliance with the principles mentioned above. With regard to the principle of transparency, the photograph must be accompanied by a minimum amount of appropriate information; with regard to end use, it must be used to fulfil the ICRC’s humanitarian mandate. Although lawfulness may seem like the easiest principle with which to comply (even if the person concerned does not give consent, the ICRC may always claim that it has an interest in taking photos to publicize its work), this is not necessarily the case for subsequent types of data processing, such as archiving photos and putting them online, especially if they contain sensitive personal data. In humanitarian work, sensitive data can be defined as “personal data that, if divulged, may lead to discriminatory or repressive measures being taken against the natural person concerned”.[29] These factors must be taken into account on a case-by-case basis, depending on the situation in question.

It must be said that the 2016 launch of the ICRC’s online audiovisual archive was not without its challenges, and it still raises several important questions. Many of the tens of thousands of photos published online present aspects that could concern sensitive data. For example, if a person in a photograph is recognized in a care facility, an armed group or a place of detention an infringement of their personality rights may occur.[30] Although the act of making a document available online does not in itself constitute a risk for the people concerned, it is nevertheless clear that this mode of access cannot be compared to consulting public documents on the premises of an organization.

The issues discussed above, which are in no way exhaustive, highlight the multifaceted nature of the ICRC’s duty of protection toward the people it seeks to help (and more broadly, toward all people affected by armed conflict), of which photography represents only a small part. The tasks of archiving and making photographs available online raise many questions, including with regard to ethical implications, accessibility for research purposes and personal data protection.


In this article, we have highlighted a focus on humanitarian action as the core characteristic of the ICRC’s photographic archives. Although the ICRC indisputably endeavours to represent its work in the field as accurately as possible, the changing visual codes in the humanitarian field have led to a broad transformation in visual style that transcends the purely documentary function of photography. The professionalization and growing accessibility of photography in the second half of the 20th century made it the ICRC’s primary means of communication, despite raising important questions with regard to balancing the need to inform the public with the obligation not to cause harm to people made vulnerable by armed conflict and other violence. These questions, far from being resolved, will remain pertinent as new information and communication technologies emerge that will play a significant role in the work of the ICRC’s photographic archives and, more broadly, on humanitarian organizations as a whole.

* The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ICRC.

[1] The first National Red Cross Societies were founded in 1864 in the German Confederation.
[2] Théodore Maunoir, one of the five founding members of the ICRC, authored a report on the work of the US Sanitary Commission in June 1864 (T. Maunoir, “Note sur l’œuvre des comités de secours aux Etats-Unis d’Amérique”, in Secours aux blessés : Communication du Comité international faisant suite au compte rendu de la Conférence internationale de Genève, Imprimerie J-G. Fick, Geneva, 1864, pp. 179–187).
[3] In particular, the Spanish–American War (1898), the Second Boer War (1899–1902) and the Russo–Japanese War (1904–1905).
[4] D. Palmieri, “Une institution à l’épreuve du temps ? Retour sur 150 ans d’histoire du Comité international de la Croix-Rouge”, International Review of the Red Cross (IRRC), No. 94, 2012, p. 89.
[5] V. Gorin, “150 ans de regard sur l’humanitaire : Les archives photographiques du CICR”, IRRC, No. 94, 2012, p. 162. This article provides the most complete recent analysis of the photographs in the ICRC’s archives.
[6] The International Committee for Aid to Russia was created through the mediation of the ICRC on 15 August 2021.
[7] See M. Coudreau, “Le Comité international de secours à la Russie, l’Action Nansen et les bolcheviks (1921–1924)”, Relations internationales, No. 151, 2012, pp. 49–61.
[8] None of the approximately 200 photographs in the ICRC archives relating to the Russian famine can be attributed with certainty to the ICRC or ICRC delegates.
[9] The prisoners’ representative was a prisoner of war freely elected by secret ballot every six months by the prisoners of war in a camp. This person was responsible for representing the prisoners of war to the Detaining Power, the Protecting Power and the ICRC (P. Verri, Dictionnaire du droit international des conflits armés, ICRC, Geneva, 1988, p. 63).
[10] Article 79 of this Convention provides that the ICRC be charged with a duty to transmit information regarding prisoners of war.
[11] See V. Gorin, op cit., pp. 161–168.
[12] The response in Nigeria–Biafra was the ICRC’s largest since the Second World War. See e.g. M.-L. Desgrandchamps, “‘Organiser à l’avance l’imprévisible’: La guerre Nigéria-Biafra et son impact sur le CICR”, IRRC, No. 94, 2012, p. 227.
[13] In situations of international and non-international armed conflict, the ICRC is entitled under the Geneva Conventions to access all places of detention that house “protected persons” within the meaning of the Conventions and to meet with them in private. (Dictionnaire pratique de droit humanitaire, MSF:, accessed 10 July 2022).
[14] See e.g. Le rôle du Comité international de la Croix-Rouge (CICR) dans les situations de violence qui n’atteignent pas le seuil d’un conflit armé, Doctrine, IRRC, No. 96, 2014.
[15] ICRC, La doctrine du CICR en matière de prévention, ICRC, Geneva, 2010, p. 5.
[16] See e.g. J–F. Golay, Le financement de l’aide humanitaire : L’exemple du Comité international de la Croix-Rouge, Lang, Bern, 1990, pp. 37–40.
[17] See e.g. I. Herrmann, “Décrypter la concurrence humanitaire : Le conflit entre Croix-Rouge(s) après 1918”, Relations Internationales, No. 151, 2012, pp. 91–102,, consulted on 12 July 2022.
[18] V. Gorin, op. cit. p. 171
[19] “L’image au service de la Croix-Rouge”, IRRC, No. 734, April 1982, p. 125.
[20] J. Rosselet, Travail de diplôme présenté à l’Association des bibliothèques et bibliothécaires suisses, 1996, p. 6.
[21] The ICRC’s audiovisual archives are available at and contain the ICRC’s photo, film, and sound recording collections.
[22] Gilbert Holleufer advised the office of the director general on communications issues and oversaw research and development in this area.
[23] G. Holleufer, “Ethique et images de l’humanitaire”, IRRC, No. 822, December 1996, p. 655.
[24] G. Holleufer, ibid. p. 657.
[25] Article 13, paragraph 2 of the Third Geneva Convention relative to the treatment of prisoners of war also provides that prisoners of war must at all times be protected against public curiosity. For an interpretation of this provision for photography, see G. Risius and M. A. Meyer, “La protection des prisonniers de guerre contre les insultes et la curiosité publique”, IRRC, No. 802, August 1993.
[26] These Rules are available online at:
[27] Art. 2, para. 2e of the Swiss Federal Data Protection Act expressly excludes personal data processed by the ICRC from its scope of application.
[28] Other principles must also be complied with, which are not discussed here.
[29] ICRC, Handbook on Data Protection in Humanitarian Action, ICRC, 2021, p.14.
[30] Data protection law aims not to protect the data themselves, but the personality of the people whose data are be processed.