Archives of WHO

Picturing health: 35 years of photojournalism at WHO


Since its very beginnings, WHO has recognized the power of photographs to communicate – a power that transcends barriers of language, distance and time. Photography was employed early on as a way to inform the public of new developments in healthcare and medical technologies, to give a face to initiatives and projects that might otherwise seem far away, and to increase understanding of global health concerns. Utilizing some of the most renowned photojournalists of the post-war era, the Organization commissioned photographs that were as aesthetically powerful as they were informative, documenting health conditions around the globe.

These images and reports were distributed to a wide audience through WHO publications, the first of which was the WHO Newsletter, published from 1948 to 1958. In 1958 the Organization began publishing the World Health (Santé du Monde) magazine. This magazine, which was published until 1998, used photography as a means of communicating the activities of the Organization as well as concerns and innovations in the field of public health.

The primary goal of WHO’s use of images was to inform. By tools such as printed photo reports, filmstrips, and especially through the magazine’s illustrated stories, the WHO Division of Public Information sought to make health work “understood to the man in the street" (WHO Newsletter, February 1953). The Division of Public Information was responsible for contracting with freelance photojournalists, commissioning photo reports and building and maintaining an extensive bank of images for reuse in subsequent publications.

One of the earliest photo stories commissioned by WHO was David Seymour’s 1950 portrait of premature babies in Paris. This was just two years after the signing of the WHO constitution, and three years since David Seymour had founded the Magnum Photo Agency with Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Among many others, notable photographers with whom WHO worked during the 1950s included Edouard Boubat, Robert Doisneau and Eric Schwab from France and the American Homer Page. In the 1960s and 1970s French photographers Marc Riboud, Jean-Philippe Charbonnier and Claude Huber, Erling Mandelmann from Denmark, Englishman Peter Larsen, Paul Almasy from Hungary, and Swiss photographers Monique Jacot and Jean Mohr were some of the numerous freelance photojournalists who travelled the world to produce WHO photo reports. In India renowned photojournalist T.S. Satyan covered health work in South Asia, and Charles Blackwell contributed material from the United States. At WHO Headquarters, Didier Henrioud and Tibor Farkas coordinated these efforts and contributed their own photographic reports, while A.S. Kochar worked in the SEARO regional office in the same capacity.

Though the primary motivation behind all these efforts was educational and informative, the images produced for WHO are often striking in their emotional impact and formal beauty. This is hardly surprising, given that some of the most renowned names from the golden age of photojournalism produced them. As Claude Huber explained, going on assignment for the World Health Organization meant that "one was going to see the state of the world! We felt we had a mission, and that drove our aesthetic." This was an age when photojournalism was infused with humanism.

Towards the end of the 1980s, changes in technology and in WHO administration led to a restructuring of the photographic service of the Division of Public Information. Publication of the World Health magazine was discontinued in 1998, and the Divisions’ extensive files remained dormant until they were transferred to the Records and Archives Service (RAS) at WHO Headquarters in 2004. These files contain nearly every image published in the World Health magazine, as well as report files with contact sheets, field notes, drafts of captions, correspondence and prints from the photographers themselves. These report files provide insights into how the photojournalists worked - how they made choices, and how they organized their stories. They provide a rich and contextualized look at the visual history of WHO, the work of the Division of Information, and the field of photojournalism.