This photo was taken by Frank Fournier in Colombia 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 failed to take preventive measures despite the warnings of vulcanologists.
In the town of Armero, 13-year old Omayra Sánchez was caught under the debris transported by the mud. For two full days and three nights, rescue workers tried to free her with the whole world watching her ordeal on TV (it was live broadcast by Spanish television TVE). The crane and the hydraulic pump needed to clear the debris didn’t arrive in time. Omarya’s hips had been injured by metal bars and her legs were trapped (held down by bricks and clutched in the arms of her dead aunt).
At the beginning of her 60-hour long ordeal, she was lucid, talking and joking with the rescue workers around her, eating sweets and singing songs. As the end came, she said goodbyes (adios to her mother) and began to hallucinate, fretting that she was going to be punished for missing school. A New York Times article from the day she died (November 16, 1985) reported that:
She was exhausted and despite her impressive faith and calm, she died of a heart attack on 16 November, hours after Fournier took the photo.
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….
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. 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….
When I took the pictures I felt totally powerless in front of this little girl, who was facing death with courage and dignity….
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.
The photograph was published on the cover of Paris Match a few days later, titled: “Farewell Omayra, the one we will never forget”. On the inside, the reporter Michel Peyrard traces the ordeal of Armero through the story of the young girl and several other inhabitants. The issue immediately prompted the outrage that the ‘vulture-like’ reporters and the photographers who were there had failed to get her out.
Fournier made the best-known shot of the girl, but other reporters were there (TVE’s Evaristo Canete, Gamma’s Eric Bouvet who lent Fournier spare film and ferried his negatives back to Paris). Fournier won the World Press Photo prize, but questions lingered: 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 Fournier and other journalists, 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