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Remembering Jean Mohr Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

9 November 2018

It seems as if photographers, if they are not cut down at an early age, live a long time. The Swiss photographer Jean Mohr, who died last Saturday at the age of 93 after tramping across battlefield after battlefield, is a good example.

His secret was no secret. "I am not a war photographer because being a war photographer means being there, taking risks," he once said. He didn't arrive until the shelling had stopped.

Why? Because war wasn't his subject. People were. And whether he was shooting for the Red Cross or the World Health Organization or collaborating on books with John Berger or Edward Said, he focused on the living in front of him, not the destruction left behind.

Like a fly on the wall, he would observe them in their daily round. He was welcomed because he did not intrude. He was discreet.

He was welcomed because he did not intrude.

His friend John Berger explained that "after a few minutes, he is there, he is taking pictures and people -- even people who are being photographed -- do not know."

That knack for becoming invisible served him well in his collaboration over 50 years with Said on Palestinian refugees. "He saw us as we would have seen ourselves, at once inside and outside our world," Said said.

He was born Hans Adolf Mohr on Sept. 13, 1925, in Geneva but ashamed of his German roots, used the name Jean. His parents had emigrated from Germany in 1919, dismayed by the political climate.

He earned a degree in economics and social sciences at the University of Geneva in 1948 and began work at an advertising agency. It was only in 1950, traveling with the Red Cross to the Middle East, that he became interested in photography.

After studying painting in Paris, he returned to Geneva in 1952 to freelance as a photojournalist. He received assignments from the International Labor Organization, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Red Cross, and UNESCO, among other international organizations.

In 1956 he married Simone Turrettini. The couple had two sons, Michel and Patrick, and several grandchildren.

In 1978, Mohr began his long collaboration with the author John Berger, which led to a series of publications and conferences on the relationship between word and image. In 1984, he received the Prize for Contemporary Photography from the Musée de l'Elysée in Lausanne and in 1988, the city of Geneva Prize for Plastic Arts, a first for a photographer.

Between 1960 and 1974, he produced a number of photo stories for the World Health Organization.

Speaking of his images of children from the Palestinian territories, Cyprus and Africa, he once said, "Little is enough for them to switch into playing a game. I had no problem showing them in difficult situations, because where there is the laughter of children, there is always hope."

In his long life, Mohr never failed to look away from the bombs and toward the laughter of children.

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