colorized photos bring refugee stories to life

colorized photos bring refugee stories to life

On Monday’s World Refugee Day, Brazilian artist Marina Amaral has colorized twelve black and white archival photos from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spanning the 1940s to the 1980s The objective: to humanize these photos of the past.

A Czech father comforts his son in a displaced persons camp in Germany in 1949; ten years later, in the midst of the Algerian war, a little Algerian girl who has taken refuge in Tunisia stares at the lens of a photojournalist; on the other side of the world, in 1978, boat people fled Vietnam and went to Malaysia… Black and white photographs of refugees populate history books that are often leafed through without paying attention to the illustrations. On the occasion of World Refugee Day, Monday June 20, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has decided to highlight these forgotten photos: it has thus brought back to life twelve photographs from its 100,000 archives by giving them color, retracing at the same time 70 years of exodus across the world.

“We have selected these twelve photos for their composition, their geographical scope, as well as for the many decades they cover,” said Christopher Reardon, UNHCR communications officer. “We also chose them because they show things that the world needs: access to safety, food and shelter, but also having the possibility to return home safely or to be welcomed. in another safe country.” On May 23, the number of displaced people in the world passed the 100 million mark for the first time, or just over 1% of the world’s population.

For this project entitled “The Color of Flight”, UNHCR collaborated with the Brazilian Marina Amaral. Aged 30, this artist has made the colorization of archive images her specialty. Author of “The Color of Time”, a book that compiles 200 photos of personalities, places and historical facts restored and colored, she became known to the general public by giving colors to photos of Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein or again Elizabeth II. In 2018, his colorized photo of Czeslawa Kwoka, a 14-year-old child killed in the Auschwitz camp, went around the world.

>> To read also: “‘A century of refugees’, a photo book as a ‘weapon against indifference'”

“Colors allow us to connect on an emotional level”

Through this process, his objective is clear: to bring the reader closer to these photographs of yesteryear. “I want to create a bridge between the past and the present”, explains the artist, daughter of a historian mother and passionate about history since childhood. “As historical documents, monochrome photos are very important. But we don’t live in a black and white world, we live in a colorful world.”

“Black and white creates a barrier. It prevents us from understanding that the people we see in photos, even those taken over 100 years ago, were real,” she continues. “These people were like us, with their own dreams, ambitions, fears, struggles, etc. By putting colors on, we break down that wall and it becomes easier to identify with. Commitment is no longer just rational but also emotional.”

For “The Color of Flight”, Marina Amaral gave color to twelve stories, twelve times and twelve different places on the globe. In particular, it puts color back into the eyes of a little girl who stares at photojournalist Stanley Wright’s lens in 1959. The child took refuge in Tunisia to escape the Algerian war. Behind her, the damaged clothes of the four men, the old lady and the little boy who accompany her have also regained their beige and brown hues.


Marina Amaral also makes the sky and the sea blue in a photo from 1978 where the photographer Kaspar Gaugler shows a group of about ten boat people who fled Vietnam to arrive in Malaysia. As in the previous photo, the shades of white and gray of the wet clothes have turned into bright green, blue, orange…


A painstaking job

Behind each shot hide hours of investigation and painstaking work. “I always start by doing as much research as possible on the photos. I try to find and gather visual references that will help me to colorize them”, explains the artist. Original colors of a uniform, a vehicle, a building, even, when possible, visual elements on the protagonists themselves… All the details of the shots are sifted through.

It is thanks to her research that she was able to restore the exact colors of the plane which transported Asian refugees to Austria driven out of Uganda, in a snapshot from 1972. Shortly before, the despot Idi Amin Dada had announced to the community of Ugandan Asians, who had lived in the country since the turn of the century, that they had 90 days to leave the territory.

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


However, for the majority of the shots featured in “The Color of Flight”, searches have been fruitless. “Each photo was accompanied by a caption, but this one gave little or no information on the colors I should use”, laments Marina Amaral. “So I had to make artistic choices trying to stay consistent with the time and place where the photo was taken.”

The colorization process itself is then entirely done by hand using Photoshop software. With a simple touch pad, Marina Amaral affixes her colors detail after detail. A process that can take several hours or even days for a single photo.

“Their story does not end when we close our history books”

When asked about her favorite photograph of the series, Marina Amaral answers without an ounce of hesitation: “Karate Kid”. The photo, taken in 1983 by photojournalist Alejandro Cherep, depicts a group of children from Laos who took refuge in Argentina at the end of the Vietnam War. In the foreground, a little boy strikes a martial art 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,” says Marina Amaral. “For this photo, the UNHCR was able to trace this little guy, who now lives in Argentina and is called Kykeo. It’s amazing when one of the ‘characters’ whose photo I worked on jumps off the screen and materializes ‘in front of’ me!” she says. Today, nearly forty years later, Kykeo and the small group still live in Argentina. And the little boy became… a karate instructor.

For Marina Amaral, this “Karate Kid” thus symbolizes the entire objective behind her work. “Refugees are not historical figures frozen in a photograph, and their story does not end when we close our history books,” she concludes.

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