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UNICEF Photo of the Year: Walking Barefoot through Misery

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A girl stands in a Haitian slum without shoes, without money, but full of pride: The image won the 2008 UNICEF photo of the year competition. Belgian photographer Alice Smeets is the youngest to ever come out on top in the contest.

The girl trudges barefoot through the water, which is full of old shoes, dilapidated tins, and plastic bags. Two black pigs graze on an island of trash. They are ideal pets: they are impressively robust, and they feed themselves mainly off garbage. Blue skies and clouds are reflected in the filthy water. In the background stand the dwellings of the "Cité Soleil" slum, the "city of the sun," its huts corroded by rust.

The girl walks through, ankle-deep in the brackish water. Her hair is done up in braids with white bows. She's wearing a spotlessly clean, ruffled white dress. Nobody knows her name.

Not even Alice Smeets, who took the photo in Haiti in July, 2007. That summer, in the largest slum in Port au Prince, the 21-year-old from Belgium shot the 2008 photo of the year as chosen by the United Nations Children's Fund.

"I Couldn't Believe It Was T rue"

"Actually, the picture is a snapshot," Smeets told SPIEGEL ONLINE. She took the picture of the girl and then told her she could run back to her friends. "That's how the picture came about. As a portrait it wasn't even particularly good."

Smeets is the youngest photographer ever to win the prize, which has been advertised worldwide since 2000. Her photo prevailed against 1,449 others that were submitted by 128 photographers from 31 different countries. "I only starting taking pictures two years ago. I was surprised even to be nominated," says Smeets. Photographers can't submit their photos themselves -- they need to be recommended.

Smeets was nominated by GEO photographer Tina Ahrens after she tried to get her own Haiti pictures published. "At first I couldn't believe it was true," says Smeets of hearing that she had won the award.

Energy in Misery

The jury for the contest, led by photography professor Klaus Honnef, specified first through third place winners, along with 11 honorable mentions. At the prize announcement in Berlin, UNICEF patroness Eva Luise Köhler, wife of German President Horst Köhler, said "the photo shows us the courage and energy of a little girl who is growing up in the face of adversity."

Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world. Almost half of its inhabitants are under 18, and four out of 10 children live in abject poverty. "For me the message of the photo is: No matter how bad things are for people in Haiti, they are very proud and want to carry on," explained Smeets. "For me, the girl appears like an angel in her surroundings. The people there have strong faith, which helps them not to give up. I think the picture makes the situation for people in Haiti clear."

Fascination with Haiti

In July 2007 Smeets travelled to Haiti for the first time, after having quit her bachelor's degree course in photography at Lüttich after just one year. She had never been to a developing country, and she wanted to her pictures to emphasize that she had the mettle to work as a documentary photographer.

At a workshop in New Jersey she met Philip Jones Griffith, a photographer with the Magnum agency. He offered Smeets a position as an assistant and she immediately took it. While at university in Lüttich, she had felt under-challenged. The seminars dwelt mainly on the technical aspects of photography. Smeets says she was more interested in the real world than being stuck in a photo studio.

Her fascination with Haiti has only grown since taking her award-winning shot, and she returned in May and June 2008. She said some have become mistrustful now that she has found success. "They often told me: You're taking pictures which you're going to sell to become rich," she said.

The UNICEF photography contest seeks to highlight the lives and lifestyles of children throughout the world. Smeets, for her part, says that photography can draw people's attention to problems they might not otherwise have noticed. "You can give people a voice. If the picture is good, than it stays in your head," she said.

In March Alice Smeets will again travel to Haiti. She wants to find the girl that she met in the "Cité Soleil" whose name she doesn't know -- and who helped her win her greatest triumph.

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