10 photos that moved us in 2017

Teen girl in India sitting on her bed and brushing her hair

Photography is the most powerful way to share our work. It takes you there as a viewer, letting you feel the humanity and possibility beneath a person's circumstances. Whether parents or children, refugees or farmers, everyone touched by Mercy Corps holds their own powerful story of change.

This year, because of people like you, Mercy Corps reached nearly 22 million people in more than 40 countries around the world. Three out of four of them — about 16 million people — are women, children or young people under 25. Nearly half of them are people facing conflict.

Here are 10 of them, shared through some of our favorite photos Mercy Corps gathered over the year. We wanted to shine a light in particular on some of our more complex images — photos that can be pondered over for minutes rather than moments. Each one is a dose of reality, but also a glimmer of hope, and a glimpse of the tenacity of the people Mercy Corps reached — thanks to your help — in 2017.

Guatemala

In Guatemala, Mercy Corps works with local schools to implement student councils that teach civic participation through skills such as registering to vote, campaigning for office, choosing a political party and casting a ballot. Those skills are crucial for boys like the one here because they also promote social cohesion at a crucial age. This photo is funny and simple — a shallow depth of field and an empty area around the boy force our eye to look directly at him.

From the photographer, Corinna Robbins:

Guatemala has had a lot of political upheaval in its history, and while the people there are rightly proud of their beautiful land and culture, there isn't a big sense of shared vision or democratic participation.

Mercy Corps partners with local democracy-building groups to create and support student council programs in underserved schools. I visited this Guatemala City school on its election day and was taken by how festive the whole environment was. It was a voting party, complete with a band! Middle school and high school students (like this budding young leader) had campaigned for office and the whole school had been trained on the election process. Students acted as election volunteers, poll observers, and of course voters. They used the exact same process and materials — from ballots to voting booths — as in grown-up elections.

This student caught my eye because he had gotten dressed for his final day on the campaign trail. I shot this picture just before the election results were to be announced, and I love how he looks like he's ready to let loose now that the campaign is over!

South Sudan

South Sudan experienced one of the worst crises on earth this year when a widespread hunger emergency spiraled into famine. But Mercy Corps sees a stronger tomorrow for South Sudan's people. Although this is a hard image, it’s still one of our favorites. The posture of our team member bending down and extending a giant helping hand to the child, who has his own tiny hand extended, is perfectly symbolic of the brave and tireless work our team is doing delivering emergency relief to those who need it most. This image tells an honest, gritty story.

From the photographer, Dominic Naur:

I remember going out through the streets of Bentiu in South Sudan with the Mercy Corps teams. They were trying to educate families about hygiene and assess the situation of the different households. Most of these families aren’t originally from here but have found empty homes, abandoned due to the fighting, which they use as temporary shelters.

Most of the mothers had to leave their children that day as they went out for a food distribution, leaving their children alone to look after each other. On the way out of a compound, one of the health workers stopped — then he reached down to say goodbye to a baby sitting alone near the entrance.

Iraq

In the aftermath of the brutal fight to reclaim Mosul, nearly 1 million people were forced from their homes, many of which were bombed and shelled with residents still inside. Mercy Corps was there immediately, aiding those who fled the violence — like this little girl and her family, cooling off in the sweltering summer heat — with emergency cash, hygiene kits, cooking materials and shelter supplies to help them survive.

From the photographer, Ezra Millstein:

It was 115 degrees in Mosul on the day that I ducked off a dusty side street and through a small nondescript doorway. Tucked away behind sandy walls was a small family compound, with a group of wide-eyed playful children clambering about. Their family had fled from ISIS, and there was nothing left of their house; they now shared this space with five other families. The family received a $400 cash distribution from Mercy Corps, enabling them to buy supplies to keep themselves going.

On this roasting hot day, Faiza Abdulrazak Aziz had put together an improvised pool for the kids to keep cool in the overwhelming heat. As they splashed happily about, it was a reminder of how kids everywhere are the same —  even in this dire humanitarian crisis, their innate joy and ability to enjoy something as simple as a pool of water remained.

Myanmar

Photography is all about waiting. Ezra, our staff photographer at Mercy Corps, clearly took his time for this shot, waiting for the water to be still and for the people on the bridge to be perfectly spaced out, adding a pleasing balance to this image. In so many of the places where we work, life depends on the water and the land — including Myanmar, where Mercy Corps is helping farmers grow a stronger tomorrow for their families.

From the photographer, Ezra Millstein:

On the last day of my first assignment for Mercy Corps, after a long day of shooting, I stopped by the U Bien Bridge at sunset. This 170-year-old bridge outside Mandalay is three-fourths of a mile long and is believed to be the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world. As the sun set behind it, the traffic of monks, students and families out for an evening stroll blurred into dusk, and I tried to capture that motion. It gave me an opportunity to reflect on the time I spent meeting Mercy Corps staff and beneficiaries, and the bridges that connect us.

South Sudan

This Madonna-and-child image from the hunger crisis in South Sudan feels automatically familiar. We can know so much about this woman and her life from this moment. She is a beautiful young mother, sitting quietly in her hut, gently fanning a chubby baby as she nurses. She is looking up toward the illuminated entrance, and the photographer waited for that moment — right when we can see her face and her eyes — to take the photo. The light is as tender as the moment.

From the photographer, Jennifer Huxta:

This photo was taken on April 30 when we visited a family who is part of the host community in Nyal, an opposition-held area in Unity State. We had been interviewing people who had been displaced by the conflict and had fled to Nyal, so we wanted to talk to some original residents as well.

Nyal town is in the middle of the Sudd, a giant swamp in the Nile river, and most days are very hot and humid. The woman, Angelina, was cooling her child, Nyaladu, with a grass fan. She told us about how conditions in the town had deteriorated over the years. Her husband lives in an IDP camp in Juba and Angelina takes care of five kids on her own. She was frank and open, and after she had calmed the child she looked up toward the door, and I was drawn to the subdued emotion in her face. I realized she probably didn’t have a minute to herself.

Somalia

Technically, this photo is perfect. But what makes it great is the rich, complicated story it tells. Somalia is home to one of the worst hunger emergencies in the world, with nearly 3 million people facing crisis levels of hunger due to conflict and drought. Mercy Corps is there, with emergency resources to help people survive — people like this girl, collecting firewood in a crowded refugee camp, with something precious enough to keep under lock and key. Her expression tells the story: fierce, strong, even challenging.

From the photographer, Peter Caton:

This image was taken in Baidoa, Somalia. The situation in the refugee camps was really dire when we were there. It was also a very tense security situation; while we were on our shoot a roadside bomb only eight kilometers away killed over 30 soldiers, which only heightened the tension.

We were there to photograph Mercy Corps distributing water in the many camps that dotted the town. Inside the camps, however, there were sights we were not prepared for, as sick and dying children lay in cots inside many of the small, makeshift tents. As soon as we entered the camp, we were surrounded by a wall of suffering refugees. It was difficult to shoot the story as we were highly visible and we could only spend less than an hour a day for security reasons.

On one of the days in the camp, I noticed from afar a stunning young girl who had an expression on her face that I sensed could tell a million stories. As I put my camera to my eye it was fortunate that she didn’t change her pose. At that moment, I knew she would become the face of the Baidoa crisis.

India

This image makes me feel like we are getting a secret peek into Jyolita’s life. The darkness of this photo and her introspective gaze out the window conjure up a quiet intimacy. For girls like Jyolita, life on a tea estate can be a life without much of a future. But thanks to a Mercy Corps partnerships with a local organization, Jyolita was able to master the art of doll making, which has given her options. Now she can start her own business, so when we see her looking out the window we can imagine her dreaming of a brighter future as she absent-mindedly brushes her hair.

From the photographer, Aditya Kapoor:

When I arrived in Assam for my assignment for Mercy Corps, Jyolita was one of the first beneficiaries I photographed. She seemed shy and introverted at first but it didn’t take us long to get acquainted. Before pulling out my camera I make it a point to get to know people a little. Since neither of us spoke a common language, it all began with smiles, and she decided to show me around her house and introduced me to her love for making dolls.

Jyolita is 20 and comes from a conservative family on a tea estate. She is the only girl in her family, and to continue her studies she would have had to move off the estate to a nearby city as there are no schools or colleges in her district. Her parents wouldn’t allow her to move, so she had to drop out.

Thanks to Mercy Corps, now she is able to earn a living outside the tea plantation thanks to her doll making, which she has mastered. This training also provides a chance for her to interact with other girls in the community and not lead a life in isolation.

Jordan

Taking a portrait of a subject that can’t be photographed is never easy, but here Ezra rose to the challenge and created a beautiful scene that tells a rich story. While we can make out the two people, the sheer curtain between us and them symbolizes their precarious situation as undocumented refugees. More than half the 1.4 million Syrian refugees in Jordan are undocumented, which makes it hard to find legitimate work or enroll their kids in school. Mercy Corps is helping families like this one with emergency cash so they can buy what they need, as well as assistance in securing documentation.

From the photographer, Ezra Millstein:

It's a rare challenge to capture a portrait without showing someone's face, but this family of Syrian refugees in Mafraq was in hiding due to their illegal status in Jordan. Because they don't have proper documentation, they have to stay in their house almost all the time. Cash from Mercy Corps is helping them meet their basic needs while we help them get documentation.

Having them stand behind the curtain was the best way to show how they were there just below the surface, but essentially anonymous. It struck me as one of the strongest examples of how Mercy Corps is helping those on the fringes in the direst need.

Puerto Rico

There is so much emotion in this photo. The photographer, Jonathan Drake, followed this woman as she returned to her home after Hurricane Maria and captured the moment she found a photo of her mother. I love how she’s framed between drying clothes as she pulls the photo to her face and kisses it. Hurricane Maria took so much from Puerto Rico's people, and Mercy Corps is committed to providing the emergency cash and support they need to get back on their feet. This photo tells why — because anyone who has ever lost something precious can feel her emotion.

From the photographer, Jonathan Drake:

Mariluy welcomed me into her destroyed home despite the shock and trauma she still felt weeks after Hurricane Maria. We gingerly made our way over pieces of her house, drenched clothes, and sentimental items she was salvaging from the chaotic mix of debris and water. She wept occasionally as she described what had happened on the night of the storm, what she has lost, and her family’s uncertain future. Pausing in a living room with only a partial roof, and with wet clothes hung up on makeshift lines, she reached down to some treasured mementos, including maracas her daughter used in her youth and pictures of family members. Then she kissed the Polaroid of her mother.

I think this image works because of Mariluy’s generosity in honestly showing a stranger her world turned upside down precisely when she was most vulnerable, in trusting an outsider to not only tell her story but to help reach out to other strangers living far away and in more fortunate circumstances, so that they might find it in their hearts to perhaps do something to help her or those like her.

Her dignity as she told her story, sometimes quietly weeping and other times sharing very personal moments, was poignant and compelling. Mercy Corps’ mission to find tangible ways to assist people like Mariluy in a way that is respectful of their humanity involves listening carefully to their stories, never shying away from the painful reality of their situation.

Syria

As the crisis in Syria nears its seventh year, it would be easy to feel discouraged. But Mercy Corps is working to build a stronger future for Syria’s people, like this farmer, Abu Goubran. Mercy Corps connected him to a landowner who was interested in benefiting from his farming expertise and provided resources to improve the farm, like a greenhouse that lets them grow organic produce. Together, they have seen yields increase dramatically. In a country facing so many challenges, that support is a ray of hope — captured here so beautifully in the eyes of his 1-year-old granddaughter, Wia.

We can't do our work without you.

The individuals in these powerful photographs are just a few of the people Mercy Corps helped this year. Together with your support, we helped children and families around the world survive crisis — and gave them the chance to hope again. Mercy Corps is working to transform lives like these around the world, but we need your help in the year ahead. Here's how you can join us.

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