Colourised photos bring refugee stories to life

To mark World Refugee Day on Monday, Brazilian artist Marina Amaral colored twelve black and white archival photos from the 1940s to 1980s of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

A Czech father comforts his son in a camp for displaced persons in Germany, 1949; Ten years later, in the middle of the Algerian war, a little Algerian girl fleeing to Tunisia stares into a photojournalist’s lens. On the other side of the world, boat people flee Vietnam in 1978 and reach Malaysia. Black-and-white photographs of refugees fill history books that we often leaf through without paying attention to the illustrations.

On World Refugee Day, Monday 20 June, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) decided to breathe new life into these forgotten images by colorizing twelve photographs from its 100,000-image archive, while tracing 70 years of flight around the world.

“We selected these photos in part for their composition and geographic scope, as well as the many decades they span,” said Christopher Reardon, head of UNHCR’s Global Communications Desk.

“But we also chose them because they show some things that the world needs more of today, like access to safety; food and shelter; and the opportunity to return home safely and with dignity, or to be relocated to a safe third country.”

On May 23, the number of displaced people worldwide surpassed 100 million for the first time – just over 1% of the world’s population.

For this project, entitled The Color of Flight, UNHCR collaborated with Brazilian artist Marina Amaral, 30, who specializes in coloring archival images. As the author of The Color of Time, a book compiling 200 restored and colorized photographs of historical figures, places and events, she is best known for coloring photographs of Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein and Elizabeth II . In 2018, her colorized photo of Czeslawa Kwoka, a 14-year-old child who was killed in Auschwitz, went viral on social media.

“The colors allow us to connect on an emotional level”

When coloring the photos, her goal is clear: to bring the reader closer to these photographs of bygone times. “My main goal is to build a bridge between the past and the present,” says Amaral, whose mother is a historian.

Amaral, who has been passionate about history since childhood, says she loves the black and white photos. “As historical documents, they are very important. However, I think it’s difficult to connect with them because we don’t live in black and white. We live in a colorful world.”

“This difference creates an emotional barrier that makes it difficult for us to understand that the people we see in these photos were real, even in the photos taken more than 100 years ago. They were just like us, with their own dreams, ambitions, fears, struggles, etc. Colors break through that wall and allow us to connect on an emotional level and not just rationally.”

For The Color of Flight, Amaral colored 12 stories from 12 different times and places around the world. In particular, she brings color back to the eyes of a little girl staring into photojournalist Stanley Wright’s lens in 1959. The child fled to Tunisia before the Algerian war. Behind her, the battered clothes of the four men accompanying her, the old woman and the little boy, have also been restored to their beige and brown tones.


Amaral also colors the sky and sea blue in a 1978 photograph by photographer Kaspar Gaugler of a group of ten boat people fleeing Vietnam for Malaysia. As in the previous photo, the whites and grays of the wet clothes have been converted to vibrant greens, blues, and oranges.


A tedious task

Colorizing each image requires hours of research and hard work. “I always start by doing as much research as I can about the photos. In this phase I find and collect visual references that will help me in the coloring process.”

Original colors of a uniform, a vehicle, a building and, if possible, even visual elements of the protagonists themselves … All the details of the photos are examined.

Her research enabled her to recreate the exact colors of the plane carrying Asian refugees from Uganda to Austria in a 1972 photograph. Shortly before, Idi Amin Dada had told the Ugandan Asian community, who have lived in the country since the turn of the century, that they had 90 days to leave the country.


Many held British passports and were able to settle in the UK, but thousands more remained stateless. Austria was one of the many countries that welcomed her.

However, the search was unsuccessful for most of the photos in “The Color of Flight”.

“I had a caption for every photo. However, they were able to provide little to no information on what colors I should use,” Amaral said.

“So I had to make artistic decisions. The colorization itself is done entirely by hand and it can take me hours to days to complete a single photo,” added Amaral.

Amaral uses Photoshop to colorize the photos. With a simple touch tablet, Amaral applies her colors detail by detail. The process can take several hours or even days for a single photo.

“Your story doesn’t end when we close our history books”

When asked about her favorite photo from the series, Amaral didn’t hesitate to reply, “Karate Kid.” Photo taken in 1983 by photojournalist Alejandro Cherep shows a group of children from Laos who had fled to Argentina after the Vietnam War. In the foreground, a young boy strikes a martial arts pose while behind him his four friends laugh heartily.


“I spend many hours ‘in the company’ of the people in the photographs I work on, and I can’t help but wonder what was going through their minds as they were photographed,” Amaral said.

“UNHCR was able to locate the little guy [in this photo]who now lives happily in Argentina and is called Kykeo. I can’t put into words how amazing it is when one of the ‘characters’ whose photo I was working on jumps off the screen and materializes ‘in front of me,'” she said.

Today, almost forty years later, Kykeo and the small group still live in Argentina. And the little boy has become a karate teacher.

For Amaral, this “Karate Kid” symbolizes the whole purpose of her work. “Refugees are not historical figures frozen in a photograph, and history does not end when we close the history book,” she concluded.

This article has been translated from the original into French.

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