This shot is often titled “New shoes”. It was taken by photographer Gerald Waller in 1946. It shows an Austrian orphan boy reacting to being given a new pair of shoes by the American Red Cross. The picture was first published in the December 30, 1946 issue of LIFE Magazine. The caption read: “Werfel, a 6-year-old Austrian orphan beams with unbound joy as he clasps a new pair of shoes presented to him by the American Red Cross”
The story went on to read: “For many of Europe’s children there was a Santa Claus this Christmas. When a big box from the American Red Cross arrived at Vienna’s Am Himmel orphanage, shoes and coats and dresses tumbled out. Like the youngster (above), the children who had seen no new clothes throughout the war smiled to high heaven. But for thousands of other European children there was no Santa Claus…”
You can view the photo in its original context here.
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I came across this image for the first time in 2014 and it immediately joined the well populated but cherished list of my favourites. Some images are so powerful in one singular aspect that other aspects need not be present or even balanced to make them great. This is one of them. I think the greatest strength of this image comes from the “moment” it captures. The composition is simple; the shot was made in black and white, there is no colour; there is no eye-contact with the subject; yet, with just a glimpse Werfel’s joy is superimposed onto your spirit. In days like ours where many things are taken for granted it’s difficult to imagine something as basic as a pair of shoes being able to elicit such an elemental expression of unrestrained joy from anyone. But therein lies one of the beauties of shooting children; their emotions are raw and un-edited. In this shot Waller certainly captured an unguarded moment. I also could not have described the moment better than the article did; smiling to “high heaven”. The image makes very insistent use of contrast. The pair of shoes currently on Werfel’s feet are a jarring contrast to the pair he squeezes appreciatively against his chest. The beaten and old is contrasted against the new. There is a strong possibility that the old pair had been through war days. World War II ended in 1945. I can only imagine what a new pair of shoes would have meant to that child; peace after a long and terrible war, brighter days ahead, knowing that you were still cared for in the absence of your family.
If I reduced this picture to it’s bare representation, it’s a picture of a boy who received a pair of shoes. Yet when I first saw it, it still stirred a warmth within me that made me slow down realize that I myself was guilty of taking simple joys for granted. It reminded me that we all need to cherish what we have because on a planet with seven billion souls you can be assured there are millions out there who suffer for a lack of the things we take for granted. Is it possible to learn so many things from one photograph? Yes, I can say from experience that powerful photographs do have the ability to open our eyes and change our attitudes.
I’d certainly love to hear your thoughts on the shot.