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The Death of Omayra Sánchez

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This picture was taken by Frank Fournier in Columbia on Saturday 16 November 1985, a few days after the eruption of the Nevado Del Ruiz volcano. The landslide provoked by the eruption had already killed 24,000 people as the local authorities had taken no preventive measures despite the warnings of vulcanologists. In this natural catastrophe, the young Omayra Sánchez was caught in the town of Armero in debris transported by the mud. For two full days and three nights, rescue workers tried to free her with the whole world following her ordeal on TV or in the papers. The crane and the hydraulic pump that were needed to clear the debris didn’t arrive in time. Omarya’s hips had been injured by metal bars and her legs were trapped. She was exhausted and despite her impressive faith and calm, she died of a heart attack on 16 November.

Fournier himself won the World Press Photo prize in 1986 for this portrait–which reflected his own feeling of powerlessness. Omayra’s agonizing demise, surrounded by journalists and photographers, was followed live on television all over the world, and started a major controversy: in such a situation, wouldn’t it have been better to offer help rather than to take pictures? Is it possible to show the suffering of others without violating their right to have their privacy respected? For the photographers, it is of the utmost importance that the public be informed. For others, broadcasting the drama of Omarya’s death was obscene.

— from “Controversies: A Legal and Ethical History of Photography”, an exhibition in Bibliothèque Nationale

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

June 5, 2009 at 5:59 am

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