More than the humanitarian gaze

by Kjersti G. Berg, Olaf Knarvik and Synnøve Marie Vik

Jørgen Grinde (1915-1991) trained as a photographer in his hometown, Bergen, Norway, before the Second World War. From 1946 to 1973, he worked in the Photographs and Exhibitions Service in New York, as part of the United Nations (UN) Department of Public Information. He travelled to the Middle East, first from December 1956 to May 1957 and then again from April to May 1959, to document the UN’s work in the region, covering both military and humanitarian operations.

As a result of those travels, 8,500 of his photographs now belong to the Picture Collection at the University of Bergen Library. Nearly five hundred of his images entered the official UN Photo Archive. They remain in frequent circulation, used in communications and public relations, in newspapers, exhibitions, and on posters and in other forms of information material across the world.

We do not know when Jørgen Grinde’s collection was donated to the Picture Collection. For decades the collection was sitting on a shelf in the archive. In 2017, photo archivist Olaf Knarvik started working on organising the collection, digitising a selection of the images, and researching the subjects and situations depicted. Historian Kjersti G. Berg reached out to Knarvik in 2020, and together, they agreed that the image material should be available to a larger audience.

We could not be happier to finally see Grinde’s images presented in an exhibition at the University of Bergen Library, from January 26th to May 15th 2023. While the exhibition focuses on a careful selection of Grinde’s photographs, this book offers more, both in terms of images and text.

Humanitarian photography produced for the United Nations’ (UN) humanitarian work is made in service of “the good”, to mobilise empathy and support for the aid work and to increase monetary support to the aid organisations, so that the refugees’ basic needs are covered, and their human rights are protected.

We have come to easily recognise the “humanitarian gaze”. No greater subject of humanitarian aid has been photographed as much as the refugee. The motifs of these images often repeat themselves: refugees receiving rations, women and children (rarely men) wandering, slumped on a rock, disheveled, queueing for food or vaccination. The images reflect the desire of the viewer, and of the agency, to be convinced, and to convince, of a shared humanity. The logic, of course, is that if one accepted these unfortunate souls as human, then support, aid, and protection, would be forthcoming.

But what does such a gaze and imperative conceal? In short, the political. The choices of motifs and aesthetics produce an image of the refugee: bereft of politics, both abject and aloof, with little to no agency of her own. The world is not of her making, and she cannot remake the world.

Certainly, Jørgen Grinde’s photographs also convey humanitarian motifs, but as we search his 8,500 images more carefully, other forms of everyday life and living pierce through. His photographs and contact sheets call on us to look again, to expand that gaze, to watch a string of still footage and see motion, play, desire, care, humor, will and willfulness, and dignity amidst such harsh loss.

Grinde’s photographs offer us a pathway to see the familiar motif again, to recalibrate what a humanitarian photographic collection can say, and what it might tell us about Palestinians and their histories. His images compel us to consider the possibilities of different stories.

With the exhibition and publication More than the humanitarian gaze, we invite the audience to further reflect upon how refugees are presented through photographs. We believe that Grinde’s photography offers a unique entry point to Palestinian history. The collection helps add nuance to our expectations and preconceptions of refugees, especially today when refugees are a sensitive and polarising topic in many countries.

In Part I of this book, we are thrilled to present six essays commissioned for this occasion. These essays are written in response to a selection of Grinde’s photographs chosen by each author. They are reinterpretations of the images, centering Palestinian experiences.

Mezna Qato’s For the one in the back turning to smile at her mates transports the reader into the extraordinary circumstances of Palestinian school children at the time. Ilana Feldman unpacks the conflicted binary of the arrival and presence of the United Nation’s Emergency Force in Gaza in 1957 in Welcome Men of Peace. Sanabel Abdel Rahman’s Returning to Jasmine is a beautiful piece of short fiction, narrated in first person by a young schoolgirl.

Øyvind Vågnes illuminates how Joe Sacco’s drawings of refugee camps in his comic work were informed by archival photography in “I understood what I was about to draw”: Joe Sacco on UNRWA Photography and the making of Footnotes in Gaza. Yazid Anani connects the disturbing ties between colonialism and ecological damage entrenched in the UN’s tree planting program in the essay Eucalyptus in Gaza – A Tragedy in Hula Valley. Nadi Abusaada’s essay, The Image and the Imaged, traces different visual perspectives at play in these images, connecting them to the humanitarian gaze.

We are forever grateful to all the contributors for expanding our perspectives on and appreciation of these images in new and unexpected directions.

Part II of the book contains the expanded exhibition of Grinde’s photographs, 76 images in total, narrowed down from a collection of about 1,700 photographs specifically on UNRWA and Palestinian refugees. Each section is accompanied by short introductions.

We have been fortunate enough to have received input and feedback by an advisory board. The suggestions provided by Synnøve Bendixen (University of Bergen), Are Knudsen (Chr. Michelsen Institute), Øyvind Vågnes (University of Bergen) and Mezna Qato (University of Cambridge) at various stages of this exciting work have been invaluable.

This book is supported by Chr. Michelsen Institute – via the project SuperCamp: Genealogies of Humanitarian Containment in the Middle East, The Fritt Ord Foundation and Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies. Finally, thank you to the University of Bergen Library for hosting the exhibition, to everyone at the Picture Collection and to the exhibition team.