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Happiness is a Red Dress

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For too many years, well for all my working life, I have been scrambling around the world’s war zones and pitiful refugee camps looking for, and getting dreadful images depicting desperation, horror, and hopelessness.

And I do it very well indeed. This what I do. This is what I unfortunately specialise in – war!

Emerson and I had been invited to a family home in one of the more grim slums, or barrios, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The purpose was for Emerson to interview the teenagers in the family, to get their unique take on life in the slums.


While Emerson was conducting an interview I was doing what comes naturally to my particular species of photographer. I was looking for the worst possible image to convey the horrid reality of growing up in this poverty stricken barrio.


Should I juxtapose a crying child with dog faeces in the foreground, or should it be a broken and filthy toilet? So my mind tumbled and whirred on in the usual, rather predictable manner.


But this was different! I wasn’t in a war or a refugee camp, although some may beg to differ given the location.


I was in a loving home of a family who, against all the odds, had made a clean and very livable house built of, well, not very much!

Now was not the time to dwell on the desperation and the lack of everything, now was the time to look, somehow, for hope and happiness in this barrio.


Rather awkwardly I asked the teenage girls “Was there one thing that made them truly happy? Any one thing?”  They both said in unison and with huge smiles of happy memories – “Wearing their ‘coming out’ ballgowns when they turned sixteen.”


Before I could ask a follow up question the dresses appeared as if by magic, presented to me with pride.


I asked if they would wear them for a photograph, lots of giggling and mild embarrassment followed, but not enough embarrassment to get in the way of the dresses being put on in a blink of an eye.


I thought I would turn this into a fashion shoot and treat the girls as if they were super models. A little difficult for me as I had never been near a fashion shoot. But I had seen enough movies to give a good impression of a fashion photographer, or maybe a faint resemblance of a caricature of a fashion photographer.


We had so much fun; the smiles, giggles, and laughter just rippled through the barrio, creating, for just a short wonderful time in this horrible place, a glow of hope and happiness that had not been seen before. Or at least, not for a very long time indeed.


They said “We feel like queens today, real queens, maybe princess, or both.”

And for those few short minutes while we play-acted a vogue fashion shoot in the mud streets they were the happiest girls in the world, and the world smiled back.

Sebastion Rich

Sebastion Rich

Sebastian Rich has been an award winning photographer/cameraman in hard news, documentary for 30 years. British journalist Jon Snow described him as "The finest news cameramen of his time." Sebastian has fimed and photographed every major war and conflict from El Salvador to Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and many more. One notable characteristic of his work is the poignant, sensative images of children suffering in war and famine. His most recent book is "Where Fools Rush In"

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