The Henan Famine images: from the Harrison Forman collection

Seventy years ago, in 1942, the Henan province in China experienced a disastrous famine that left at least three million people dead. The catastrophe was documented by journalist Theodore White and photojournalist Harrison Forman. Forman’s photographs and notes have been preserved and digitized by the UWM Libraries Digital Collections and the American Geographical Society Library, making these unique and important documents of a terrible and forgotten tragedy available to the world to discover, learn from, and re-use.


Henan province (China), mother and children in famine-struck region

Henan province (China), mother and children in famine-struck region

Forman’s photographs, in particular, have recently begun to receive wide attention due to the anniversary, and to the recent release of a movie dramatizing the famine, Back to 1942, directed by Xiaogang Feng, and starring Adrien Brody (who plays Theodore White), Tim Robbins (who plays a missionary), and Fan Xu (who plays a wealthy land owner).

Building upon the buzz from the movie, a recent article was published in the Chinese language magazine, The Bund, featuring 29 images from the UWM collection. The author of The Bund article interviewed UWM Metadata Specialist, Susan Dykes. Susan has spent the past two years researching Forman and his collection for an NEH grant to preserve and digitize nitrate negatives from the collections of the American Geographical Society Library. Thanks to the NEH, and with Susan’s research and burgeoning expertise, many of Forman’s images and his diaries have been digitized, described, and made available online.

The Harrison Forman Collection contains over four hundred photographs documenting the suffering by the Chinese people, as well as a diary Forman wrote as he witnessed first-hand the most famine-stricken areas. In the diary, Forman talks about witnessing starving people and the desperate acts they undertook to ensure survival for themselves and their loved ones. He notes conversations with government officials and missionaries who offered their perspective on the causes of the famine, including inadequate crop yields due to drought and the impact of war during the Japanese occupation of China.

Following their trip, Forman and White met with Chiang Kai Shek, Chairman of the Nationalist Government of China, to show him evidence of the humanitarian crisis and the overwhelming need for disaster relief to save the starving Chinese people in the Henan Province.

You can view Harrison Forman’s images of the Henan famine in our digital collections, as well as the diary he kept during his visit.

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