As the custodian of the photographic records of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the audiovisual archives team is tasked with growing the organization’s collection. As well as adding newly captured shots, the team also acquires images that fill gaps in the ICRC’s long history. Using the recent discovery of previously unseen pictures as its starting point, this article discusses the origins of the pieces in the archives, as well as touching on the acquisition, review and digitization process.
Origins and location of the photographic archives
Although photography has long been a tradition at the ICRC,the deliberate process of documenting “field” operations on camera only began in earnest at the end of the First World War.In Geneva, it was the work of the International Prisoners-of-War Agency that was captured on film. But the first true action shots were taken by ICRC delegates, who decided – off their own backs – to record their activities on film, especially following the outbreak of the Russian Civil War. The photographs of the ensuing famine were a watershed moment in the visual representation of humanitarian action. Like the ICRC’s earliest films, produced in 1921, these images proved to be a powerful communication tool, bringing the realities of war home to a wider audience. Moreover, these photos marked a shift in perceptions: in the minds of the public, the ICRC was associated not only with its famous acronym and logo – the red cross on a white background – but also with images representing its work on the ground. During the Second World War, it became common practice to photograph delegates visiting prisoners of war and civilian detainees and to attach the pictures to the accompanying reports. Around the same time, the ICRC Information Department began collating photographs sent in by delegations and National Societies, using them, for instance, to illustrate the International Review of the Red Cross. In 1965, the ICRC and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) created a joint photo library. Sixteen years later, in 1981, the International Red Cross Audio-Visual Centre was officially inaugurated. These two moves cemented the place of photography at the heart of the organization’s communication strategy.
In the 1960s, the photo library team began adding original images to its collection – some copied, others lifted directly from the ICRC Archives – so they could be loaned and shared with a wider audience. But prior to this, adding photos to the collection had not been a routine practice, leaving gaps in the organization’s records. One way that these gaps can now be filled is by searching through the ICRC’s general archives, which are open to the public. Locating images taken between 1951 and 1975 is relatively straightforward: a detailed inventory denotes whether archive records from this period contain photographs. But go further back in time, and only basic inventories are available. So hunting down pre-1951 images involves going through records with a fine-tooth comb – a process that, while painstaking, can sometimes reveal hidden gems. And then there are the “forgotten photos”: chance discoveries found lying in drawers and cabinets among the ICRC’s photo collections. For all their value – in documenting the history of the organization or the countries where it worked – these images have somehow remained under the radar for many a long year, including when the ICRC’s audiovisual archives were digitized and published online.
An ICRC medical team visits the Brazilian Amazon
In late 2021, a request from the ICRC delegation in Brasilia led to the discovery of long-forgotten documents. The delegation was interested in compiling visual records of the organization’s work in Latin America in the 20th century, including photographs of a 1970 visit by an ICRC medical team to the Brazilian Amazon region. Although these images were held in the photo collections, they had spent years gathering dust in a drawer and had never been digitized. There were also doubts over who held the copyright in the photos. Some 50 years after the shots were taken, the ICRC got in touch with the presumed photographer, René Fürst, in order to clear up the ownership issue and to gather more information about this episode in the organization’s history in Brazil for the local delegation.
Fürst, a Swiss ethnologist and photographer, was hired as a guide, fixer and interpreter for the medical team’s visit because he was familiar with the region. Based on his testimony, and on information gleaned from contemporary correspondence and the mission report, it emerged that the visit had been arranged following the publication, in February 1959, of a Sunday Times article reporting mass atrocities committed against indigenous Amazonian communities. The article appeared in the wake of the Figueiredo Report, an investigative report commissioned by the Brazilian Minister of the Interior detailing the crimes committed by landowners and the Indian Protection Service (SPI) in the Brazilian Amazon region. The international outrage sparked by these revelations prompted the ICRC to act: “or several months now, the press have been covering the desperate situation facing indigenous peoples in the Brazilian Amazon region, including reports that the authorities have been complicit in organizing genocides and massacres … Although this is not an armed conflict for the purposes of the Geneva Conventions, the ICRC cannot remain unmoved by the suffering, particularly when it is caused by the actions of fellow human beings.” With the agreement of the Brazilian authorities, the ICRC decided to dispatch a medical team to the region, not to substantiate the reported crimes “ut instead to provide limited medical assistance in order to protect the health of the indigenous peoples”
In the ICRC’s view, economic development projects encroaching onto their lands posed a risk to the health of these communities, placing them in contact with Brazilians of non-native descent and leaving them vulnerable to the spread of novel diseases.. The medical team comprised four doctors from different National Societies – the Swedish Red Cross, the West German Red Cross, the Netherlands Red Cross and the Brazilian Red Cross – plus Fürst and Sergio Nessi, the ICRC delegate-general for Latin America. Together, they visited 36 villages, travelling 20,000 kilometres in the process. At the end of the trip, the three European doctors wrote a report “ontaining no attacks or accusations” – in keeping with the ICRC’s principle of neutrality – and setting out a list of medical and public-health recommendations designed to mitigate the risk posed to the indigenous communities. Mr Fürst did not sign the final report after Mr Nessi opted to omit his contribution But he came away from the visit with dozens of negatives and prints, copies of which he donated to the organization. The original intention was to build a long-term medical assistance programme in the Brazilian Amazon and to pass responsibility for running the initiative to the authorities. But the programme was gradually wound down after the ICRC withdrew from the region.
View photographs of the ICRC Medical Mission to the Brazilian Amazon Region.
Watch the film of the ICRC Medical Mission to the Brazilian Amazon Region.
The first field visit by a serving ICRC president
In 2021, the archive team discovered several new photos while compiling an inventory of series B G 59/I/GC. These were added to the 400 or so existing images in the collection, all taken in 1948 in Mandatory Palestine and in the first few months after the proclamation of the State of Israel. The report for May 1948 (dated 3 June), which was written by Jacques de Reynier, the head of the ICRC delegation in Jerusalem, provides fascinating insights into the background behind a set of photos documenting a landmark occasion: the first reported visit to a delegation by a serving ICRC president.
When Mr Ruegger arrived at Government House on 27 May 1948, the “thrice-holy city” – a corpus separatumunder the terms of the United Nations-endorsed partition plan – was a scene of violent clashes between Jews and Arabs. By this time, the ICRC delegation in Jerusalem had already witnessed several days of fighting, primarily between the Arab Legion and Haganah, following the British withdrawal on 14 May. In his report, Mr de Reynier described how the delegates were “ut off from the rest of the world”, surrounded by the parties to the conflict and unable to contact other local delegations, while the ICRC headquarters in Geneva could only be reached through the United States Consulate General. The Consul General, Thomas C. Wasson, was assassinated on 23 May. And with hundreds of civilians trapped in the Old City, including elderly people, women and children, and many wounded and sick, there were fears of mass killings. According to Mr de Reynier, the arrival of Mr Ruegger had a “iraculous” effect: his presence at the Zion Gate on 29 May brought a welcome ceasefire, allowing those civilians in greatest need to be evacuated to the city’s Jewish Quarter.
Among the Jerusalem delegation’s records are four photographs of Mr Ruegger in no-man’s land on 29 May, with Mount Zion in the background. The hand-written caption accompanying these prints with white borders suggests that they were taken during (or, more likely, shortly before) the evacuation. Despite Mr Ruegger’s relaxed demeanour, one of the images shows a line of vehicles apparently heading towards the entrance to the Old City.
Two years later, Mr de Reynier published a book, entitled A Jérusalem, un drapeau flottait sur la ligne de feu and including a preface by Mr Ruegger, in which he alluded to this operation – or, perhaps more accurately, this intervention – through the prism of his understandably “harrowing” personal experience as a “elegate on a perilous assignment, for whom the loneliness, the uncertainty and the scale of the unfolding disaster are more dangerous than the bullets”.
View photographs of Paul Ruegger’s visit to Jerusalem in spring 1948.
Adding photographs to the collection
Every photograph that the ICRC receives, locates or rediscovers goes through a review process to determine whether it should be added to the collection. The archivists assess each image against a set of criteria that form the basis of the organization’s acquisition policy, which is summarized in the box below.
Image acquisition policy
Potential additions to the collection are reviewed against the following criteria:
- Does the image include metadata indicating where and when it was taken, what it depicts and who took it?
- Does it have historical value?
- Does it have documentary value?
- Does it have symbolic value?
- Is it representative of the ICRC’s work?
- Is it unique in terms of its content, medium or format?
- Does it have artistic value?
- Is it well composed and shot (photographic merit)?
- Is it well preserved?
The archivists may also consider other criteria such as the photographer’s reputation, the emotion the image conveys, its interest for future research, and the intent of the protagonists (the photographer, the subjects, the person who commissioned the photograph, etc.) at the point at which the shot was taken.
In the two examples discussed earlier in this article, the images clearly pass the test for inclusion in the collection because they are unique and representative of the ICRC’s work. Although the photos taken in Palestine fall short of the highest standards on photographic and artistic merit, they are symbolically and historically important to the organization. The images from Brazil, meanwhile, hold documentary value and are extremely well executed.
The next step in the process is to digitize any hard-copy photos that the archive team has decided to add to the collection.
Digitization serves a dual purpose: it avoids the need to handle the original, thereby protecting it from damage, and it makes the image easier to access and share. The ICRC started digitizing its photo collection in 2005. To date, the team has made digital copies of 21,000 black-and-white photos, 24,000 colour prints and 23,000 black-and-white negatives. Initially, these scanned images – along with digital photographs acquired since the late 1990s – were included in a database that could be viewed at the organization’s headquarters. Since 2016, almost all scanned and natively digital photos have been accessible online through the ICRC’s audiovisual archives portal, which currently hosts more than 110,000 images.
Digitizing photographs is a costly process: scanning technology and storage capacity represent an expensive investment, while cataloguing additions to the database is a time-consuming activity. And all of this comes with an environmental cost, too. For these reasons, the archivists take a selective approach, choosing only to digitize the highest-quality photos or those that best represent the organization’s work. However, all original copies – including of non-digitized photos – are retained in the collection.
Before the images can be published online, the archivists have to consider aspects relating to copyright and related rights. These issues arise for photos that were taken by someone other than an ICRC employee or a photographer commissioned by the organization, as well as for older photos where the rights were not properly transferred. It can sometimes prove difficult – or even impossible – to identify the copyright holder or the heirs to their estate, especially for images captured decades ago. In cases where the archive team cannot determine who took a photo (or that person’s heirs), or where serious doubts persist as to their identity, the image is classed as an “orphan work”. The photos taken in Palestine fall into this category.
Filling gaps in the ICRC’s history
The recently digitized and published images referred to in this article will almost certainly appeal to researchers and to anyone else interested in learning more about these little-known episodes in the organization’s past. The photos from Brazil are especially valuable because, prior to their discovery, the online collection featured just 30 or so images relating to the ICRC’s work in the country in the 20th century.
Meanwhile, the eight photos found appended to reports by the ICRC delegation in Palestine (1948–1949) fill an important gap in the documentary record relating to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. These images take pride of place between the tall figure of ICRC delegate Jean Courvoisier close to the front line with a flag in his hand, and the last-known photos of Count Folke Bernadotte on the roof of Government House.
With the acquisition, digitization, captioning and copyright verification process now complete, these photos can at last be viewed online in the ICRC’s audiovisual archives.
 The ICRC Library’s Heritage Collection includes a selection of “Portraits of the first Red Cross members”, likely taken around the time of the 1863 and 1864 conferences.
 The collection includes photographic records of Dr Carl de Marval’s visit to the field during the First Balkan War (1912–1913).
 Edouard Frick and George Montandon, both on assignment in Russia between 1918 and 1921, were among the first delegates to take photos of their work.
 The International Bulletin of Red Cross Societies was established in 1869. Renamed the International Review of the Red Cross in 1919, it is one of the longest-running journals on humanitarian law, policy and action.
 “Pictures in the service of the Red Cross”, International Review of the Red Cross (IRRC), No. , April 1982, pp. .
 N. Lewis, “Genocide: from fire to arsenic and bullets: civilization has sent six million Indians to extinction”, Sunday Times, 23 February 1969.
 The report by public prosecutor Jader de Figueiredo Correia was submitted to the Minister of the Interior in March but was reportedly lost in a fire, in mysterious circumstances, shortly afterwards. In 2012, it finally resurfaced in the archives of the Museo do Índio (Museum of the Indian) as part of an investigation by the Brazilian National Truth Commission.
 ACICR B AG 280/036-006, “ction en faveur des Indiens du Brésil”, 10 March 1970.
 ACICR B AG 280/036-006, “Action en faveur des Indiens du Brésil”, 10 March 1970.
 B. Aakerren, S. Bakker and R. Habersang, “ICRC Medical Mission to the Brazilian Amazon Region”, IRRC, No.
 ACICR B AG 280/036-008, “Extrait du procès-verbal de la séance du Conseil de présidence”, 18 June 1970; by avoiding criticism of the Brazilian authorities in its report, the ICRC hoped to gain their trust with a view to obtaining future permission to visit political prisoners detained by the regime.
 R. Fürst, Indiens d’Amazonie. Vingt Belles Années 1955–1975, 5 Continents Editions, Milan, 2019, p. 97. This recently published book includes the text that Mr Fürst originally penned as the introduction to the report, but which was eventually omitted. Also see the correspondence on this subject in ACICR B AG 280/036-006, where Mr Nessi criticizes Mr Fürst’s report as being “too direct and too personal”.
 Mr Fürst built up a unique collection of thousands of photographs, taken during his many years spent in the Amazon region. Most of these images are now held at the Ethnography Museum Geneva and some have been reproduced in the following publications: R. Fürst, op. cit., note 12, and R. Fürst, Xikrin. Hommes-oiseaux d’Amazonie, 5 Continents Editions, Milan, 2006.
 At least according to Jacques de Reynier; see: ACICR B G 59/I/GC-019, “Rapport mensuel No.3”, May 1948, p. 7.
 A proposed special international status under which Jerusalem would be neutral, demilitarized and under the governance of the United Nations.
 ACICR B G 59/I/GC-019, “Rapport mensuel No.3”, May 1948, p. 3.
 ACICR B G 59/I/GC-019, “Rapport mensuel No.3”, May 1948, p. 6.
 ACICR B G 59/I/GC-019, “Rapport mensuel No.3”, May 1948, p. 7.
 Bibliographie”, IRRC, No, 385, January 1951, p. 63.
 Count Folke Bernadotte, the United Nations Security Council mediator in Palestine, was assassinated in Jerusalem on 17 September 1948.