Famine in Bihar, 1951

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 (he was on the same plane as the famous architect Le Corbusier, who was on his way to build the city of Chandigarh.) There he covered on famine in Bihar for LIFE magazine. Although Indian nationalist leaders had long blamed the colonial state for frequent famines in the subcontinent (includinga bitter one in Bengal during the Second World War), the independent India proved equally inadequate to address droughts and floodings that often led to starvation conditions in vast swarths of the country. ‘Baba murita’ (Sir, we are dying), one of the famine victims told the LIFE magazine reporter who accompanied Bischof through the Darbhanga district of Bihar.

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.

diary, Werner Bischof

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. Bischof used a low angle to emphasize the emaciated woman’s plea for help, making the viewer looked up to her. Her infant child mimicked her hand gesture, suggesting that the cycle of poverty and hunger might extend to a further generation – a metaphor Look magazine will make clearer in the subsequent images in the essau.

The photo prompted a letter 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. Yet, distribution problems slowed the process of getting the food to victims. Another photograph in Bischof’s essay in Life showed workers sacking and unloading grain slowly by hand from a ship in Calcutta Docks.

The photos were republished as ‘Hunger’ in Look magazine in 1953 — the famine in Bihar and Madras had dragged on for years and the magazine was able to republish two year old photos in the similar context. “The young ones start like this … and they wind up like this,” the magazine captioned, juxtaposing a begging child and a begging old man (Page 75).

Later, Bischof put together a longer photoessay, covering Damodar Valley Project, a major reservoir being built to control the monsoon floods. The trilogy included: “Hunger in Bihar”, “Stahlwerk” (Steelwork), and “Der Staudamm in Damodar Valley” (The Dam in Damodar Valley). He went on to work in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Indochina, and died in a road accident in the Andes on 16 May 1954. He was 38.

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