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Last Updated: Friday, 30 September 2005, 15:35 GMT 16:35 UK
Picture power: Tragedy of Omayra Sanchez
The World Press Photo foundation celebrates the 50th anniversary of its annual photographic competition this year.

In the second of five pieces by photographers talking about their award-winning work, Frank Fournier describes how he captured the tragic image of 13-year-old Omayra Sanchez trapped in debris caused by a mudslide following the eruption of a volcano in Colombia in 1985.

Frank Fournier's winning photo

Red Cross rescue workers had apparently repeatedly appealed to the government for a pump to lower the water level and for other help to free the girl. Finally rescuers gave up and spent their remaining time with her, comforting her and praying with her. She died of exposure after about 60 hours.

The picture had tremendous impact when it was published. Television cameras had already relayed Omayra's agony into homes around the world.

When the photo was published, many were appalled at witnessing so intimately what transpired to be the last few hours of Omayra's life. They pointed out that technology had been able to capture her image for all time and transmit it around the globe, but was unable to save her life.

I arrived in Bogota from New York about two days after the volcanic eruption. The area I needed to get to was very remote. It involved a five-hour drive and then about two and a half hours walking.

Dawn was just breaking and the poor girl was in pain and very confused
The country itself was in political turmoil - shortly before the explosion, there had been a takeover of the Palace of Justice in Bogota by leftist M-19 guerrillas. Many people had been killed and this had a big impact on the way people in the remote town of Armero were helped. The army, for example, had been mobilised in the capital.

I reached the town of Ameroyo at dawn about three days after the explosion. There was a lot of confusion - people were in shock and in desperate need of help. Many were trapped by debris.

I met a farmer who told me of this young girl who needed help. He took me to her, she was almost on her own at the time, just a few people around and some rescuers helping someone else a bit further away.

'Eerie silence'

She was in a large puddle, trapped from the waist down by concrete and other debris from the collapsed houses. She had been there for almost three days. Dawn was just breaking and the poor girl was in pain and very confused.

Frank Fournier. Picture Michelle Poire
People were asking: 'Why didn't you help her? Why didn't you get her out?' But it was impossible
All around, hundreds of people were trapped. Rescuers were having difficulty reaching them. I could hear people screaming for help and then silence - an eerie silence. It was very haunting. There were a few helicopters, some that had been loaned by an oil company, trying to rescue people.

Then there was this little girl and people were powerless to help her. The rescuers kept coming back to her, local farmers and some people who had some medical aid. They tried to comfort her.

When I took the pictures I felt totally powerless in front of this little girl, who was facing death with courage and dignity. She could sense that her life was going.

I felt that the only thing I could do was to report properly on the courage and the suffering and the dignity of the little girl and hope that it would mobilise people to help the ones that had been rescued and had been saved.

I felt I had to report what this little girl had to go through.


By this stage, Omayra was drifting in and out of consciousness. She even asked me if I could take her to school because she was worried that she would be late.

I gave my film to some photographers who were going back to the airport and had them shipped back to my agent in Paris. Omayra died about three hours after I got there.

At the time, I didn't realise how powerful the photograph was - the way in which the little girl's eye connect with the camera.

There was an outcry - debates on television on the nature of the photojournalist - how much he or she is a vulture
The photograph was published in Paris Match magazine a few days later. People were very disturbed by it because Omayra's plight had been captured by television reporters and relayed around the world. Then my picture of her in the last few hours of her life was published after she had died.

People were asking: "Why didn't you help her? Why didn't you get her out?" But it was impossible.

There was an outcry - debates on television on the nature of the photojournalist, how much he or she is a vulture. But I felt the story was important for me to report and I was happier that there was some reaction; it would have been worse if people had not cared about it.

I am very clear about what I do and how I do it, and I try to do my job with as much honesty and integrity as possible. I believe the photo helped raise money from around the world in aid and helped highlight the irresponsibility and lack of courage of the country's leaders. There was an obvious lack of leadership. There were no evacuation plans, yet scientists had foreseen the catastrophic extent of the volcano's eruption.

People still find the picture disturbing. This highlights the lasting power of this little girl. I was lucky that I could act as a bridge to link people with her. It's the magic of the thing.

There are hundreds of thousands of Omayras around the world - important stories about the poor and the weak and we photojournalists are there to create the bridge.

The question of the power of the press is more important today that it ever has been because it is so much under pressure from the business side of things.

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