Jean Mohr, 93. Photographer Who Found Heart Amid Bleakness, Dies

Jean Mohr, 93. Photographer Who Found Heart Amid Bleakness, Dies


Jean Mohr, a Swiss photographer who brought a humanist’s eye to refugee camps, the Palestinian territories and places of distress all over the world, died on Saturday in Geneva. He was 93.

Martin Dahinden, the Swiss ambassador to the United States, confirmed his death on Twitter. Swiss news reports said the cause was cancer.

Mr. Mohr built his reputation shooting photographs for aid groups like the Red Cross and the World Health Organization. He also collaborated on books with two acclaimed writers, John Berger and Edward W. Said.

In all his work, his interest lay not in the cataclysmic event but in its effects — on the landscape, the society and, especially, the individual people.

“I am not a war photographer,” he said in a video made for a touring exhibition of his work, “War From the Victims’ Perspective,” in 2014, “because being a war photographer means being there, taking risks.”

Instead he sought to capture the humanity within the aftermath, whether in panoramic shots or close-ups.

One picture in that exhibition showed a displaced-persons dormitory in Cyprus — no people, but evidence of human habitation everywhere. Another consisted of a single aging face, one that reflected the effects of hardship but also retained dignity.

Mr. Mohr explained why he thought the people in such situations welcomed him and his camera.

“They invited me not because my approach was more gentle, but because people could identify with it,” he said. “You can’t identify with a corpse, but you can identify with someone at a well drawing water to take to a camp a few kilometers away.”

Hans Adolf Mohr was born on Sept. 13, 1925, in Geneva. His parents had emigrated from Germany in 1919 and were dismayed by the rise of Hitler; from an early age their son rejected his Germanic origins and used the name Jean.

He received a degree in economics and social sciences at the University of Geneva and briefly worked in advertising. Then he moved to the Middle East and spent two years working with Palestinian refugees on behalf of the United Nations Relief and Work Agency and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

He studied art in Paris before, at age 30, discovering photography. Thereafter he worked taking photographs for international organizations all over the world.

Not all his pictures were of war zones and refugee camps; he documented a rehabilitation hospital in Laos, dissident artists in Moscow, a tour of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Whatever the subject, the label “humanist” was invariably attached to him and his pictures; he had the ability to infuse an image with heart and respect.

“When he works with people, he becomes almost invisible,” Mr. Berger, the critic, essayist and novelist who died last year, once noted. “That is to say, after a few minutes, he is there, he is taking pictures and people (even people who are being photographed) do not know. And I believe that this gift — because it is a gift to John — comes because of an extraordinary discretion, a discretion that is related to how he can relate to others. So it gives people the opportunity to keep their own presence and their own soul.”

Mr. Mohr collaborated with Mr. Berger on three books: “A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor” (1967); “A Seventh Man,” about migrant workers (1975); and “Another Way of Telling” (1982). All were praised for the intricacy of the collaboration.

“Jean Mohr’s defining characteristic — the one repeated by others, the one certainly in evidence every time I met him, and perhaps the one which made the eloquence of his photographs possible — was his humility,” Tom Overton, who has edited two books about Mr. Berger, said by email. “John Berger admitted himself somewhat less humble when he claimed the three books they worked on together ‘considerably extended the narrative dialogues that are possible between text and images in book form.’ Looking back now, they still haven’t really been surpassed.”

In 1986 Mr. Mohr was involved in a similar collaboration with Dr. Said, the literary scholar, called “After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives.”

“He saw us as we would have seen ourselves, at once inside and outside our world,” Dr. Said, an advocate of Palestinian independence who died in 2003, wrote in that book of Mr. Mohr’s photographs.

Richard Ben Cramer, reviewing the book for The New York Times, wrote: “This is not a normal tandem of word and image, neither a coffee-table book with a long, glorified caption nor a work of prose propped up here and there by sheaves of shiny pictures. Mr. Said writes to the photos so assiduously and with such effect as to make one powerful essay. And at times, we realize with a sobering lurch, he writes not to the pictures but from them.”

In 1956 Mr. Mohr married Simone Turrettini. She survives him. His other survivors include two sons, Michel and Patrick, and several grandchildren.

Mr. Mohr’s “War From the Victims’ Perspective,” which focused on images from the Palestinian territories, Cyprus and Africa, was seen in more than 20 countries. Some of its 60 pictures were of children, smiling and playing amid desolation.

“The children in these photos are miraculous,” Mr. Mohr said in the video made for the exhibition. “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.”



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