“There's always a reason for optimism when it comes to children”

Award-winning photographer Jan Grarup reflects on his photographic storytelling mission to document how UNICEF supplies change the lives of children and their families.

Photographer Jan Grarup in a school class in Haiti.
12 August 2022

Award-winning photographer Jan Grarup this year took on the challenge of telling the story of how UNICEF supplies change the lives of children and families in some of the world’s toughest places. He travelled to three different countries on three different continents – Haiti, Lebanon and Uganda – to document the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children.

A selection of 31 images, each embodying UNICEF’s resolve to reach the world’s most vulnerable children, makes up a reportage that celebrates 60 years of UNICEF’s global supply and logistics operations in Denmark.

In this interview Jan Grarup speaks about his findings and impressions during the making of this story.

Why was it important for you to be a part of this project?

I think it's important to show that the world is very divided in terms of how we are living. Through this project I had the opportunity to travel to places that need more than aid. What they need is help getting back on their feet. For me it was important to show the way UNICEF Supply Division works in the long term, beyond emergency aid.

Photographer Jan Grarup in Lebanon.
Photographer Jan Grarup in Lebanon

How do you expect or hope people who visit this exhibition will react to the photos?

My hope is that people will look at the photos and realize that what Supply Division is doing is not defined by just one effort. It has many different aspects, whether it is school bags or school supplies, medical supplies, aid for pregnant women, infants or COVID-19 vaccines.

What was it like to return to the places you have been before?

I've been to many of these places before. Haiti, for example, I visited in really harsh times after the 2010 earthquake. Returning in 2022, after another earthquake in late 2021, there were a lot of things I recognized in terms of the destruction and how people were trying to cope and survive.

One of the things that really inspired me in Haiti was the huge efforts people were making to help, even in extremely remote places. It was absolutely incredible to meet these people who travelled extreme distances to remote regions, sailing on from there to small islands to deliver UNICEF school supplies, and to realize how much it meant to the children in these schools to receive supplies.

Photographer Jan Grarup in Haiti.

What has this project taught you about the reality that children face today? Is there any reason for optimism about the future of children?

There's always a reason for optimism when it comes to children. Children have this amazing ability to adapt, adjust and survive even the harshest conditions. I've been working with UNICEF for many years in conflict zones, in natural catastrophes or famines in many different places. Of course, there are a lot of things to be optimistic about, mainly that people care, that people are genuinely concerned about what is happening in developing countries.

I think that we are looking forward to a younger generation, younger than myself, that is in many ways much more realistic, but also much more engaged with what is happening in the world. They are taking a stance on equality and in terms of the differences between low-income countries and the part of the world where I live.

"UNICEF ensures aid gets through".


What is special about the work that UNICEF does?

It doesn't matter where you go, you will always see children trying to adapt and survive. But there are still millions of children around the world who are living in terrible conditions and for whom a vaccination can mean the difference between life and death. UNICEF is one of the few organizations helping people to survive.

UNICEF ensures aid gets through, which means that it's an organization that you can believe in. It's an organization that was put on Earth to actually help and people realize that. People seek out UNICEF even though they must walk for hundreds of kilometres or travel over long distances.

For me it was striking to see both the joy and also the relief of mothers who have been traveling with their infants and have finally arrived in a place where they can receive the support that they need.

Jan Grarup, UNICEF staff and a member of his team pose for the photo.

This project is about the power of supplies to help children survive and thrive. Do you see supplies differently now that you've made this journey?

Working with Supply Division gave me an insight into how massive an operation it can be, to get supplies across huge distances to remote areas, whether it’s school supplies, COVID-19 vaccines or warm clothes for children in Lebanon and refugees who came from Syria.

It has been interesting to see how Supply Division orchestrates and makes things work. I have to emphasize: I’ve been working with UNICEF for many years, but I had never understood the magnitude of these operations.

Students receive education supplies at Le Bon Samaritain School in Île-à-Vache, Haiti, February 2022
A photograph that is part of the exhibition #SuppliesSaveLives at Kongens Nytorv, Copenhagen, Denmark 15–31 August 2022, with free admission.

Was there one story that stood out for you regarding supplies that were helping a child or children?

I remember being in a back alley in Lebanon where refugee children from Syria had been running around barefoot in the snow and had received shoes and warm clothes. Then my next stop was Haiti, where I saw the joy of children receiving school supplies on a remote island. Then it was back to Uganda where we saw children who had been home from school for several years because of the COVID-19 pandemic and had been obliged to work in a stone quarry to survive.  

You have to realize that this is not just a simple supply operation, it’s multi-faceted, it’s everything from warm clothes to helping children who have been forced out of school. It’s everything you can imagine.

The 31 images that made up the exhibition #SuppliesSaveLives, shown at Kongens Nytorv, Copenhagen, Denmark 15-29 August 2022.