Nurse holding a baby

Behind the Camera: World Health Organization Photographers

By Ginny A. Roth ~

The National Library of Medicine’s (NLM) collection of approximately 600 The World Health Organization (WHO)  photographs is an emotional, visual documentary of the strength and spirit of humanity; aspects that cannot be conveyed by caption alone.  By commissioning photojournalists, WHO presents stories of global health that transcend barriers of language and distance.

“In a picture, it should be possible to discover new things every time you see it…  you can look at a picture for a week and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life.”

Artist Joan Miró

A midwife helps a woman through childbirth; two other woman offer assistance, one of which is beating a tin tray, the traditional way to make the baby cry.
A traditional midwife, the dia, makes her first delivery after being re-trained in the fundamentals of safer childbirth. Meanwhile, a neighbor bangs on a tin tray in time-honored fashion to make the baby cry. 1958, India. Photo by Eric Schwab
National Library of Medicine #101437217

WHO empowers developing communities worldwide to take control of their own healthcare needs. Since its inception in 1948, WHO provides medical supplies and training in vital healthcare practices, allowing once desperate populations to thrive. WHO disseminates information on health in various newsletters and publications that are globally distributed. WHO’s primary goal through imagery is to inform the public of timely global health topics and developments in healthcare.

In 2020, NLM presented a  special display, World Health Organization: Picturing Health for All, featuring a selection of images from the Library’s collection of WHO photographs that highlight some of WHO’s work in the 20th century.  Among the 14 photographers whose work was represented in the display, here are 3 whose body of work is truly a testament to the veracity of Miró’s statement.

Eric Schwab

Mother holding child
A little boy, Ede, recovered from yaws, a widespread, disfiguring treponemal disease causing deep-seated infirmity if untreated. His recovery took just ten days after receiving a single injection of penicillin. Nigeria, 1956.
National Library of Medicine #101437309

Eric Schwab (1910–1977) was a Jewish French/German war correspondent for the Agence France-Presse (AFP), after the organization was re-founded in 1944 in liberated Paris. During his career he photographed for the International Labour Organization, UNESCO, and the United Nations Development Programme.

Schwab began his career as a fashion photographer in Paris, but his life changed abruptly in 1939 after joining the military at the onset of World War II. He was taken prisoner in 1940 and held with French troops after the Allied defeat at Dunkirk.  Schwab escaped from a train bound for Germany and returned to Paris to join the French Resistance.

After joining AFP as a war correspondent, Schwab followed Allied troops through Germany in 1945, and was among the first photographers to witness the horrors of German death camps upon their liberation. During this time, Schwab produced his most well-known and haunting photographs at the gates of Dachau and Buchenwald. Although much of his work was printed in the media, his name was not attributed to his photographs, so his full body of work is not known.

Schwab went on to photograph for WHO in the 1950s in all corners of the world . His photographs earned him a place in Edward Steichen’s 1955 exhibition The Family of Man (page 36 of exhibition program) at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.

See more photographs by Eric Schwab in NLM Digital Collections

Dominique Darbois

Young, smiling boy walking with crutches
A young boy, Shigenori, was paralyzed by polio when he was 1 year old. Many years later, with help from WHO and UNICEF by the provision of fellowships for Japanese health personnel to go abroad and study the latest methods of rehabilitation, Shigenori learns how to walk with crutches for the first time. Japan, 1957.
National Library of Medicine #101438643

Dominique Darbois (1925–2014) was a French photojournalist who, in 1941, participated in the Free French Forces. As a member of the Resistance, and Jewish, she was arrested and imprisoned at an internment camp in Drancy, France. After France was liberated in 1945, DuBois became assistant to the French photographer Pierre Jahan, which prompted her career as a photographer for various French and foreign magazines.

Darbois is primarily known for her 20-volume set of books called, “Enfants du Monde” (Children of the World), for which she surveyed over 50 countries over the course of 26 years, from 1952 to 1978. The series was created specifically for young readers for the purpose of exposing them to other ways of life and to non-Western cultures. For this series, she describes her philosophy:

“All diverse, they resemble each other, enriching themselves – and enriching us with their differences… After all this time spent exploring places and humans, I hope to have succeeded to convey my conviction that this world, in its diversity and complexity, is one  : ours, our common world.”

Darbois was the only female photographer represented in the special display, and one of the few women represented in the WHO photograph collection.

See more photographs by Dominique Darbois in NLM Digital Collections

Homer Page

Nurse holding a baby
The helping hand of medical assistance reaches further out into the villages of Afghanistan with the completion of training of the country’s first group of auxiliary nurse midwives. This photographs shows something of the varied duties of Ziagul, a 17-year old girl of Kabul, who recently graduated. Ziagul is holding a healthy young baby at Tangysaidon. Afghanistan, 1960.
National Library of Medicine #101437107

Homer Page (1918–1985) was an American photographer who began his career photographing the streets of San Francisco around the shipyards where he worked during World War II.

By 1944 Page was working full time as a professional photographer, and in 1947 he taught photography at what would become the San Francisco Art Institute, where Ansel Adams was director of the department of photography. Page moved to New York City in 1948 after receiving a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation to photograph the city.

During a photography conference in 1949, Page came to know Edward Steichen, who was the head of the photography department at MoMA. Page, like Eric Schwab, contributed to Steichen’s The Family of Man exhibition at MoMA in 1955 ( see pages 48, 63, 75, 76, 132, 157, 173 and 190 of the exhibition guide). His photographs also appeared in publications including Harper’s Magazine.

Page produced several photo stories for WHO from 1957 to 1960. Though most of his photographs focused on health in the United States, he also traveled to Latin America, Asia and Africa to photograph topics including rural health, yaws, and trachoma.

See more photographs by Homer Page in NLM Digital Collections.

All photographers have their own personal stories that inform their work but which are rarely seen. However, as you learn more about the person behind the camera, it is possible to catch glimpses of their lives and become aware of how their experiences inform their approach to their subjects. I believe it is not entirely possible to compartmentalize one’s own personal journey from that of the one being photographed. Both journeys are reflected in these photographs of the human condition, which is often as upsetting and tragic as it is joyous and hopeful.

Additional images related to the World Health Organization are available in the Images from the History of Medicine collection in NLM Digital Collections.

Learn more about the history of the World Health Organization in the archived 2019 NLM History Talk “The World Health Organization’s Alma-Ata Declaration of 1978: What Was It Then, Where Is It Now” by Theodore Brown, PhD.  

Informal portrait of Ginny RothGinny A. Roth is the Curator of Prints & Photographs in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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