“Above all, I sought to testify as a witness.”
When I first saw an announcement about the current photography show at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum — “War from the Victims’ Perspective” — I anticipated the sort of harrowing images you’d expect from such an unambiguous title: immense suffering, ravaged lands, makeshift hospitals overflowing with the wounded, and depictions of death. But a viewing of the sixty images by Swiss photographer Jean Mohr reveals something much more unexpected and contemplative.
In his involvement with humanitarian aid over 39 years with various international organizations, such as ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) and WHO (World Health Organization), Mohr’s vision as a photographer has been largely shaped by his firsthand experiences with refugees and war survivors, placing him in the front rank of humanist photographers. His eloquent black and white portraits are not those of anonymous victims but intimate visual documents of men, women, and children he has met in his travels. In most cases, you can feel a sense of trust and openness between the subject and the photographer that is rarely evident in contemporary media coverage of people traumatized and displaced by war and other calamities.
Mohr has stated in interviews that part of his process of traveling to crisis regions with the ICRC or other aid organizations is spending time in the field, getting to know the refugees and learning their stories. Unlike the work of such acclaimed war photographers as Robert Capra, Don McCullin, or the late Tim Hetherington, who risked their lives to capture the violent reality of men fighting and dying, Mohr focuses on the aftermath and the people whose lives have been shattered and uprooted by the conflict. In this regard, he shares some of the same global concerns in his subject matter as Sebastião Salgado, the Brazilian social documentary photographer who is the subject of Wim Wenders’s recent Oscar-nominated documentary, The Salt of the Earth.
A traveling exhibition produced by the Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne, and the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “War from the Victims’ Perspective” focuses on three geographical regions (Palestine, Cyprus, Africa) and is divided up into four thematic galleries, “Portraits of Exile,” “The Children’s Diaspora,” “Temporary Landscapes” and “Life Goes On.” The exile section, in particular, with its evocative images of displaced people and temporary encampments recalls Dorothea Lange’s 1930s photographs of Dust Bowl migrants. In one, we see a road running through a camp of 300 tents for refugees in Lefkaritis, near Larnaca, Cyprus in 1974. Outside each tent you can see a woman seated alone or with others in a line that runs far into the distance. The scene has an epic sense of scale, something that is repeated in Mohr’s overhead view of a displaced persons’s dormitory in Cyprus. This one is devoid of people but evidence of their existence is everywhere in the hundreds of tiny, one-room cells with beds and belongings that fill up an entire airplane hanger-sized warehouse.
Some of the photographs that depict structures or homes damaged or abandoned after deadly attacks become compelling compositions of architecture in flux, such as a scene of a building’s facade with an open window adorned with splintered wood shutters, hanging askew. The rough textures and ruined surfaces created by multiple bullet holes in the exterior wall suggests an abstract painting, rendered in black and white. Other images create a sense of mystery that draw you in, such as The White Man’s Image in Africa, Uganda, 1968 with its eerie masked subject. Or they border on the surreal, such as the charred remnants of a crashed plane viewed from above. Framed against its parched, arid surroundings, the ruined shell could be the carcass of some giant metallic bird.
But it is Mohr’s photographs of children that are the most moving and remarkable aspect of the exhibition. In many of the shots, the subjects are smiling, totally engaged with the photographer, or they are playing with friends, seemingly oblivious to their bleak surroundings. In The Photographed Photographer (1979), two little girls on a semi-deserted street in Jerusalem huddle together mischievously while one of the them pretends to snap a photo of the man taking their picture. In another, two young Kurdish boys in an encampment race past the cameraman as he captures their gleeful sidelong glances. One of the most memorable portraits is of a boy and girl frolicking amid the wreckage of an abandoned car as if it is their only private playground.
Despite their impoverished circumstances, Mohr captures both joy and an indomitable resilience among so many of his child subjects. Even in the midst of such catastrophic conditions, life goes on and much of Mohr’s imagery bears this out with refugees attending church or school or going to market and honoring daily rituals under completely improvised and makeshift conditions. At the same time, his work calls attention to the plight of people in crisis situations that are in danger of being ignored or forgotten. When you see these images of Kurds, Palestinians, and Africans compiled over the last four decades, it calls into question one’s own awareness of global issues, which can sometimes seem too remote for active engagement, but have social and moral consequences for all of us. With a compassionate eye and an innate sensitivity toward his camera subjects, Mohr bears witness to the human condition in ways that educate, enlighten, and inspire change.
“War from the Victims’ Perspective,” which is in honor of the 150th anniversary of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the First Geneva Convention, runs through June 28 at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta.
Jeff Stafford writes about art, film, music, gardening, and other favorite topics for various digital publications.