A surprising tale of three catastrophic photographs

Cathrine Gyldensted meets world-renowned war photographer Jan Grarup, who includes inspiration and hope in his photographs, to discover how photojournalism has an important role to play in the pursuit of a more constructive media

“You should go talk to Jan Grarup,” my friend told me. “He´s got some strong opinions on this, I assure you.” This surprised me. Why? Because Jan Grarup is synonymous with war photography of the most graphic kind.

For more than two decades Grarup has covered conflict around the world, including the Gulf war, the genocide in Rwanda and Darfur, the siege of Sarajevo, unrest in Somalia and the devastation in Haiti. He’s not afraid of getting to the frontlines and beyond in an effort to secure the most impactful and horrific images from wars, famine and natural disasters. If you read Time Magazine, New York Times or Le Monde, you’ve most certainly come across his photographs, probably on the front page.

So you can imagine my surprise when he was suggested to me as a relevant person to interview for my forthcoming textbook on constructive journalism. I’d been drawing mainly from a pool of experienced and insightful colleagues from news journalism – I wanted to explore their insights in order highlight their best practices to readers of my book. Yet the more I considered Grarup, the more sharing his experiences seemed vital. Here´s his tale of three surprising photographs:

“I got to Haiti very early after the earthquake had struck (see main image). As you can see, everything lies in ruins in Port-Au-Prince. We know now that more than 300,000 people perished. I knew I had to cover the catastrophe in a more comprehensive and nuanced way than normal.

“I’d already shot images of people looking through the rubble, and of Haitians desperate for food and water, when I noticed this couple walking past. She was nicely dressed, her hair was delicately arranged and they held hands. To me, this was a powerful image of resilience and hope, where you would think there was none to be found.”


Another shot taken following the Haiti earthquake in 2010 © Jan Grarup

“Here´s another one from Haiti. I was close to the normally very popular market area, Marché de Fer, and in the background you see the remaining gateway – everything else is destroyed. But suddenly this woman walks by me; tall, proud and with a promise of a new life.”

SHADOWLAND.Kashmir earthquake - Nov. 2005

A young girl in a makeshift hospital tent in Kashmir, Pakistan © Jan Grarup

“This is from a makeshift hospital tent in Kashmir where I met and photographed dying and suffering people. In the middle of everything, this little girl lies in a hospital bed, both her legs in plaster from hip to foot, lifted in a hoist. She’s obviously badly injured, but surprisingly she has a playful look on her face and stretches her arms toward the ceiling. I intuitively knew that I had a unique image that would encourage people to support the relief effort in the area. It leaves more of an impression on you than the usual death and suffering.”

After seeing these images, I asked Grarup why he wanted to add hope, meaning and resilience to his reporting. Why he too is pursuing a more constructive form of reportage, albeit in pictures instead of words.

“For human beings to really become engaged, I find that they need inspiration, hope and a path forward”

“For most of my career I believed that the way to get people to take action to better injustice, killings, poverty and suppression was to show them the ugliest and grimmest side of conflict,” he says. “I thought that seeing children killed by a grenade would force people to act. But I found that the reaction from my audience and among power-holders was mostly silence. Nothing happened. Not as much as I had expected, at least.

“Now I realise that people cannot connect to blanket despair, death and hopelessness. For human beings to really become engaged, I find that they need inspiration, hope and a path forward. I always include those elements in my pictures today, and I get much more of a response now from my audiences than previously. I am now portraying a more accurate picture of reality, and isn’t that what journalism is for?”