‘A bridge between past and present’: Colourised photos bring refugee stories to life

·6-min read
© Alejandro Cherep/Marina Amaral, UNHCR

To mark World Refugee Day on Monday, Brazilian artist Marina Amaral has colourised 12 black-and-white archive photos from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) dating from the 1940s to the 1980s.

A Czech father consoles his son in a camp for displaced persons in Germany in 1949; 10 years later, amid the Algerian war, a little Algerian girl taking refuge in Tunisia stares into the lens of a photojournalist. On the other side of the world, in 1978, boat people flee Vietnam and reach Malaysia. Black-and-white photographs of refugees fill history books that we often leaf through without paying close attention.

For World Refugee Day on Monday June 20, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) decided to give these forgotten pictures fresh life, colourising 12 photographs from its archive of 100,000 images, while also retracing 70 years of exodus around the world.

“We selected these photos in part for their composition and geographic scope, as well as the many decades they span,” said Christopher Reardon, Head of Global Communications Desk at UNHCR.

“But we also chose them because they show some things the world needs more of today, like access to safety, food and shelter, and the ability to return home in safety and dignity or be resettled to a safe third country.”

On May 23, the number of displaced people in the world passed the 100 million mark for the first time – just over 1% of the world's population.

For this project, entitled "The Colour of Flight", UNHCR collaborated with Brazilian artist Marina Amaral, 30, who specialises in colouring archival images. The author of "The Colour of Time" – a book that compiles 200 restored and colourised photos of historical figures, places and events – she has made a name for herself by colourising photos of Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein and Elizabeth II. In 2018, her colourised photo of Czeslawa Kwoka, a 14-year-old child killed at Auschwitz, went viral on social media.

‘The colours allow us to connect on an emotional level’

In colourising the photos, her aim is clear: to bring the reader closer to these photographs of yesteryear. "My main goal is to create a bridge between past and present," said Amaral, whose mother is a historian.

A history enthusiast since childhood, Amaral said she loves black-and-white photos. “As historical documents they are very important. However, I think it is hard to connect with them because we don’t live in black and white. We live in a colourful world.”

"That difference creates an emotional barrier which makes it difficult for us to understand that the people we are seeing in those photos, even in those taken more than 100 years ago, were real. They were just like us, with their own dreams, ambitions, fears, struggles, etc. Colours break that wall and allow us to connect on an emotional level and not just rationally.”

For "The Colour of Flight", Amaral has colourised 12 stories, at 12 different times and places around the world. In particular, she puts colour back into the eyes of a little girl staring into the lens of photojournalist Stanley Wright in 1959. The child has fled to Tunisia to escape the Algerian war. Behind her, the battered clothes of the four men, the old woman and the little boy who accompany her have also been restored to their beige and brown tones.

Amaral also turns the sky and the sea blue in a 1978 photo by photographer Kaspar Gaugler of a group of 10 boat people who have fled Vietnam to Malaysia. As in the previous photo, the white and grey shades of the wet clothes have been transformed into bright green, blue and orange.

A painstaking task

Colourising each picture requires hours of investigation and hard work. “I always begin by researching as much as I can about the photographs. At this stage I find and gather visual references that will assist me in the colourisation process.”

Original colours of a uniform, a vehicle, a building and even, when possible, visual elements of the protagonists themselves ... All the details of the photos are examined.

Thanks to her research, she was able to restore the exact colours of the plane carrying Asian refugees from Uganda to Austria in a 1972 photograph. Shortly before, Idi Amin Dada had announced to the Ugandan Asian community, who had been living in the country since the turn of the century, that they had 90 days to leave the country.

Many had British passports and were able to settle in the UK, but thousands more were left stateless. Austria was one of the many countries that welcomed them.

However, for the majority of the photographs featured in "The Colour of Flight", the search was unsuccessful.

“I had a caption accompanying each photo. However, they could offer little to no information in regards to what colours I should use,” Amaral said.

“So I had to make artistic choices. The colourisation itself is done entirely by hand, and it can take me anything from hours to even days to complete a single photograph,” Amaral added.

Amaral uses Photoshop to colour the photos. With a simple touch tablet, Amaral applies her colours detail by detail. The process can take several hours, even days, for a single photo.

‘Their story doesn't end when we close our history books’

When asked about her favourite photograph in the series, Amaral answered without a moment's hesitation: "Karate Kid". The photo, taken in 1983 by photojournalist Alejandro Cherep, shows a group of children from Laos who had taken refuge in Argentina at the end of the Vietnam War. In the foreground, a little boy strikes a martial arts pose while behind him, his four friends laugh heartily.

"I spend many hours ‘in the company’ of the people in the photos I’m working on, and I can't help but wonder what was going through their minds while they were being photographed," said Amaral.

"UNHCR was able to track down the little guy [in this photo], who is happily living in Argentina now and is called Kykeo. I can’t put into words on how amazing it is when one of the ‘characters’ whose photo I worked on jumps out of the screen and materialises in front of me,” she said.

Today, almost 40 years later, Kykeo and the little group still live in Argentina. And the little boy has become a karate instructor.

For Amaral, this "Karate Kid" symbolises the whole purpose behind her work.

"Refugees are not historical characters frozen in a photograph, and history doesn’t end when we close the history book."

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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