Famine in Bihar

Werner Bischof began his career as an abstract still-life photographer, but covered humanitarian photojournalism for the new cultural magazine “Du” in 1942. His photos on the aftermath of the Second World War received international acclaim. In 1947, Du devoted an entire issue to his pictures of European refugees, many of them children. Although he detested “superficiality and sensationalism” in magazine business, he covered many aid and humanitarian relief efforts for them.

In 1951 Bischof travelled to India on the first leg of a tour through Asia and the Far East. There he photographed a young temple dancer for Magnum, and covered on famine in Bihar for Life magazine. Stunned by the bitter poverty of the Indian people, he captured striking images without exploiting or sensationalizing his subjects. He wrote in his diary: “On Monday I start working on the famine story — not an easy task because the government doesn’t like having this documented. In the long run I don’t think anyone can overlook these images of hunger, that people can ignore all my pictures — no, definitely not. And even if only a vague impression remains, in time this will create a basis that will help people distinguish between what is good and what is objectionable.”

The most famous image was a worm’s-eye view photo of a begging mother with a child in her arms, that cast her as a modern day Madonna. The work both prompted a letter of congratulations from Edward Steichen, then curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York,  who assured him that his photos will force the politicians to act. His Bihar work is cited as influencing the Congress’s decision to make a large appropriation of surplus wheat to alleviate the situation. It sent 136 million tons of wheat and a 190 million dollar loan.

Bischof went on to work in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Indochina. Bischof died in a road accident in the Andes on 16 May 1954, only nine days before Magnum founder Robert Capa lost his life in Indochina – a terrible double blow for the agency and for photojournalism. Bischof was 38.

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