Iconic Photos

Famous, Infamous and Iconic Photos

The Death of Omayra Sánchez

with 38 comments

omayra_sanchez_armero_colombie_19851

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

38 Responses

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  1. i am just hearing about the omayra sanchez saga and i must say i almost cried.

    Bodunde

    May 14, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    • I did cry. I only know about it because of a video on youtube about the worlds most beautiful eyes. Her picture was on there and someone had posted a comment about it asking them to remove it because they felt the picture was a rude way to remember her becasue of how she died.
      As soon as I read what they had to say I had to know more about her her image had been burnt into my head. I did as much research on her as I could but I would still like to know more.

      Alisha Collins

      January 6, 2012 at 1:34 pm

      • Hello, I’m from Colombia, I was born in 1990 so I can’t tell you that much about this girl, but my father was near Armero by the day of the catastrphe, He described that day as one of the most shocking days of his life. As he can’t sleep more than 4 hours, by 5 in the morning he is already drinking a coffee and listen to the news on the radio. That day he listened that the town of Armero, didn’t existed anymore; he couldn’t believe it, so he drove to the region. on his way, still far from Armero, his passed by a bridged over the Magdalena river, which waters were bringing such a number of dead bodies that he decided to go back, and just believed it: Armero didn’t exist anymore.
        I went to the region about ten years ago, and there are little kids from the towns nearby who spend their days riding their bicycles and showing tourists the remains of the town. the only thing you still can see are the concrete walls of the local hospital. the rest of the land is nothing else but a cemetery, full of crosses and flowers everywhere. The kids show you what they insist is the hole where Omaira died, but i didn’t really believed they could know the exact location, and that the hole would still be there. While my family and I drove by the place, my mom could not stop crying, and I really didn’t understand why, until I took a geology class and I studied it deeper, saw the pictures, watchedthe videos, and felt the tragedy.
        I’m glad I can’t tell you anymore.

        Sara

        February 7, 2012 at 1:13 am

      • I was succeeding in holding my tears back until I saw the video of her saying goodbye to her family, and especially her mother. That’s when I lost it. She was so calm, so collected, so brave, as she gave that heartbreaking, beautiful speech :( She was a gorgeous child as well.

        Claire

        February 6, 2014 at 4:03 am

  2. This is why I don’t like journalists. They are really just selfish and looking out for their own fame and they pretend that they are concerned about informing others. If they are concerned about informing others then they should help the person first and then let the person tell the story. But it’s really about the journalist and the journalists career, they should stop giving awards for this kind of thing.

    catandmouse

    May 23, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    • I wholeheartedly agree with you 100%… most…not all, journalists hide behind a veil of hypocrisy… yes, they should stop giving awards for this sort of thing… “the public has to be informed” my a$$!

      ever hear of the Ampatuan massacre? If you watched the entire saga unfold… you’d think only the “journalist” sect were the victims… the jounalist massacre angle was blown out of proportion… I friggin HATE self serving journalists

      markeaf

      June 24, 2010 at 7:04 am

    • that’s a load of crap. man, I believe that reporters and journalists do care more about the fame most of the time but this guy actually cared. He stayed by her side for days. He talked to her when no one else was listening. youre entitled to your own options about selfishness but in this case I think you’ve been selfish.

      april

      February 12, 2011 at 3:19 am

    • There was nothing you could do for her she was traped under all sorts of debris. Yes I agree with you about them being selfish but what could he do for her? I mean really they tried for two days and three nights to get her out. She was strong all the way to the end she was only worried about being late to school and missing something important she kept asking the men if they could take her to school. On the last night she told everyone not to worry anymore to go and get some rest if they could…
      I also agree wtih the awards they shouldn’t get something from publishing horrific accidents like this. But if they didn’t publish things like this then how would any of us even know tragic event or her name even?

      Alisha Collins

      January 6, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    • Sorry to reply to such an old comment, but I just have to say that rescue efforts were futile. If the trained rescuers weren’t able to free her, then a journalist wouldn’t have been able to either. Her legs were trapped beneath a concrete slab and without the proper equipment to a) drain the water and then b) lift the slab off of her, the only way they would have been able to free her would involve her having her legs ripped off. Without a doctor on hand, she would have bled to death in a matter of minutes, and if she didn’t bleed to death she would have succumbed to crush syndrome. There was nothing they could do for her and I believe that she knew it, even if they didn’t tell her. They figured that the most humane thing would be to let her go in peace, surrounded by people who cared, rather than bleed to death, in agony of having had her legs ripped off. The equipment that would have helped her eventually did arrive, but she passed several hours later. And thanks to the photographer, Omayra Sanchez will never be forgotten and us folks living in our cushy homes can see the true face of suffering, courage, and beauty.

      Claire

      February 6, 2014 at 4:16 am

  3. Everyone on the scene has their respective job. Journalists are probably not trained for rescue efforts. I’m not a journalist nor do I personally know a journalist. But it seems to me a journalist’s job is to tell the story, any story, with the skills they have learned which are of photography so you and I can better live the situation in our mind’s eye. If the picture had not been taken and posted on the internet, you and I would never have known her story, tragic as it is. In this particular instance, with her having been trapped for several days/nights, I would like to believe, if the journalists was capable, he probably did also help her as much as anyone could. I find it hard to believe he just stood in front of her snapping photos endlessly for several days. It seems humans have a morbid curiosity to visualize other humans / animals that are in demise along with other bizarre situations. Otherwise you would have not clicked the link that took you to the photo. IMHO

    Chicosat

    May 23, 2010 at 9:48 pm

  4. Why Journalist can’t make sure to spell at least the name of a country right? It’s Colombia, not Columbia.

    Eliana

    June 3, 2010 at 12:06 am

    • In English the correct spelling is Columbia.

      Tobi

      February 13, 2011 at 2:57 am

      • That’s not true. The spelling in english remain the same than spanish.

        Camilo Castro

        April 21, 2011 at 6:01 am

  5. I just found out about Omayra Sánchez horrible death. It made me cry. I wish something could have been done.

    Billy

    June 7, 2010 at 2:37 am

  6. Amazing no matter what…someone will find a way to complain. I think this Journalist did a magnificent job in taking this picture, more than he could have done being one trying to help, to no avail. He is the one who helped her, in the end. Helped the world see what is real. I cried, too. I can see from the pressure it has pushed blood into her eyes, yet she seems calm and peaceful. I am glad she didn’t die like this alone.

    Beverly

    July 16, 2010 at 3:54 pm

  7. The photographer didn’t help because they couldn’t. The whole tragic point was that she was pinned partially under concrete, and they could only release her through amputation … which would have caused her to bleed to death since medical aid was unavailable. They all wanted to help her – including the photographer. She was trapped for three days … he took this photo at the end of that time, hours before she died, to illustrate the need for aid and to underscore the failure of the Columbian government to evacuate people.

    inforodeo

    August 26, 2010 at 2:53 am

  8. R.I.P lets learn through mistakes,

    David

    October 13, 2010 at 2:19 pm

  9. Does anybody know how to spell her name correctly?
    The book says it’s Omaira but on the web says she’s called Omayra.
    I really must know.

    Alex

    October 21, 2010 at 5:07 pm

  10. If it wasn’t for the journalist, none of you would know one iota about the world, let alone your own neighborhood.
    Judging by some of the ignorant comments, it becomes obvious that critical analysis is not being taught in schools today.

    A journalist’s sole responsibility is to inform us of events, tragic or otherwise, that are taking place right now, or as close to realtime as is possible, so that we can then make informed decisions about how to conduct our lives, or attempt at helping others conduct theirs.

    Darcy

    October 24, 2010 at 7:30 pm

    • Touche! There was nothing the journalist could do except perform the single act that has now immortalized Omyra. 25 years down the line, the strength of a 13 year old in the last moments of her life can still be seen, all because a journalist did his duty.

      Salifu

      February 26, 2011 at 1:10 am

  11. I agree with all of you about the situation with the journalists not helping. Based on the story, the journalist and rescuers tried to help but couldnt. When they tried to pull her out, she said her dead brothers and sisters were holding on to her legs. Along with being stuck, she was also suffering from gangrene. So although they tried to help her, their efforts failed. This is very tragic and should be prevented.

    Dontavious

    October 27, 2010 at 11:12 pm

  12. Yeah “catandmouse”: journalists are known for their impressive skills of amputation…. get friggin grip on reality. NOBODY could help her. No journalists, no medics on scene, nobody had the medical know-how to amputate her legs, especially that high up!! Amputation in non-sterile environments have enough risks even with the best of specialists, but in this situation, not only is the victim in a filthy environment, but also under water and gangrenous! Even if a specialist was on the scene, her chances would have still been up in the air. To blame this journalist of being selfish is ludicrous!! He was making sure this girl didn’t die in vain, he made sure that her voice was loud enough to reach the ears of the entire planet, and the entire planet responded with outrage.

    John

    November 7, 2010 at 8:07 pm

  13. ich finde diese Geschichte schlimm das niemand hat helfen können ,ich hab versucht Omayra so darzustellen mit meinen Augen das bild begleitet mich jeden tag wenn ich morgens es betrachte ,es ist schade das man nicht ihr Leben retten konnte .ich hoffe das durch die fehler auch die Behörden lernen und bei ähnlichen dramatischen Ereignissen sich anders verhalten

    helga

    December 31, 2010 at 12:25 pm

  14. everyone is saying that the photographers and reporters are heartless should have helped, but the fact is that they couldn’t have helped. her legs were trapped and they couldn’t help pull her out, they had to wait for a pump to pump the water out but when the pump arrived it was broken and they couldn’t do anything about it. there were rescuers there and everything but she was trapped and they couldn’t do anything other than be there for her.
    in a way they did help, because they helped raise awareness and they were there to reassure her so you can’t blame them for her death

    claire

    February 10, 2011 at 6:27 pm

  15. R.I.P Omaira

    claire

    February 10, 2011 at 6:28 pm

  16. Just found out about the story of Omayra and I cannot blame the journalist who was there with the rescue team and they couldnt do anything to help her just reassure her.the picture is just full of messages … I still cant believe how strong she was and she still thugh :) . R.I.P omayra

    shamss

    February 18, 2011 at 2:00 pm

  17. i know he wasn’t trained but there was more than one person filming. I just feel like he could have like done something. I just idk I feel like a lot of times people do less than they are capable of.

    BUT i do respect him for immortalizing this. I just believe honestly he could have done more than taken a picture. BUT it is so great that he did that. (please don’t attack me. I just learned about his.)

    Brittany Elizabeth

    July 30, 2011 at 8:30 pm

  18. I recently have read a short story about omayra in my english class. Honestly, I cried all the way through. To think that one girl could possibly has such a huge impact on the world is unbelievable. While I do stand by the opinion that media could have done more to help, there is no need to fight about it people, would she really want to be remembered like this?

    Maya

    February 27, 2012 at 3:04 pm

  19. I couldn’t say media didn’t do anything for help. Because of the poor facilities in the region,there was no enough help reached to omayra. At the same time beacuse of the same media only, we all know about omayra.

    Hashley George

    March 31, 2012 at 2:10 pm

  20. I’m sorry Omayra. May you R.I.P.

    Cynthia

    May 30, 2012 at 3:48 am

  21. I’m doing an essay right now on Omayra Sanchez. The reporter wasn’t selfish, you know. He actually did care, but some of you pathetic ingrates probably won’t listen to a person like me just because I called you ingrates.

    Jonathan Abeloe

    October 4, 2012 at 9:13 pm

  22. [...] L’histoire n’est pas sans rappeler ce gagnant d’un prix Pulitzer, ou ce cliché récipiendaire d’un World Press Photo. [...]

  23. A child beyond help. A chilling reminder that despite all our advances in technology at the time, we are still unable to save single life given 3 days of entrapment.
    Forcing the entire world to feel powerless, against the power of nature. Her expression exudes courage in the face of death, yet still the viewer is aware of the only inevitable outcome.
    The image Appalled most audiences but highlighted an integral flaw in the world today. However In my personal opinion I do not believe the blame should be passed on to the photographer but instead society as a whole. Thrown into such a helpless situation the most respectful action was to immortalise her message

    Daniel

    December 10, 2012 at 12:15 am

  24. Looks like a zombie… icky.

    Jim Smith

    May 29, 2013 at 7:25 pm

    • I think she was actually very pretty.

      Claire

      February 6, 2014 at 4:19 am

  25. I agree with what Claire said.

    Bash

    March 4, 2014 at 4:06 am


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