The Pick - Humanity in War

February 24, 2011

Humanity in War

National War Museum, Edinburgh From 25 February until January 2012

The Red Cross, founded in the 1860s, has a history that runs closely parallel with that of photography. The archives of its International Committee (ICRC) now contain more than 100,000 images. A striking selection was recently published in the book Humanity in War: Frontline Photography since 1860, in which war photographer James Nachtwey notes "the adversarial attitude that had often characterized the relationship between the ICRC and photographers", at least until the famine in Somalia in 1992. Yet it is photographers' work that provides perhaps the most compelling record of a century and a half of wartime suffering, and the ICRC's bold attempts to relieve it.

This exhibition distils the story into just 30 images. It opens with some of the first conflicts recorded on camera: injured soldiers during the American Civil War (1861-65); and what looks like an elaborately staged scene of French internees in a Swiss chapel during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). But we are soon in the 20th century, as a young woman in an overcoat much too big for her riffles through the "missing in action" card index at the International Prisoners-of-War Agency during the First World War.

The mid-20th century proved challenging for any organisation fighting to ensure that countries abided by the Geneva Conventions they had signed up to. A small group of women are dwarfed by the vast mountains of relief parcels in a warehouse in Basel just after the Second World War. A little girl carries an even smaller child down a churned-up road in South Vietnam in 1972, as soldiers bristling with weapons stride past.

Yet the exhibition also assembles some poignantly hopeful images from even the most ferocious war zones. A wide-eyed child queues up for meat and fish vouchers during the Biafra conflict of 1968. Another cheerfully sticks out his tongue for an ICRC doctor in Zimbabwe in 1979. A whole group peep into a tent during the Ethiopian famine of 1985. Others play wheelchair basketball at a camp on the border between Thailand and Cambodia in 1992. A family is reunited by the ICRC in the Congo in 2001.

Two of the most compelling photographs come from the Middle East. One shows a young man on a beach holding a Red Cross flag as four Egyptian soldiers repatriate a fellow combatant on their shoulders at the time of the Yom Kippur War of 1973 - a tiny moment of dignity and calm in a region convulsed by fighting.

The exhibition ends with graffiti on the separation wall in the West Bank, where a curtain is pulled away to reveal a beautiful desert island. As so often with these pictures, one feels caught on a knife-edge between hope and despair.

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