George Rodger (March 19, 1908 - July 24, 1995) was a self-taught British photojournalist, who became famous for capturing on film the horrors of Second World War. His works included The Blitz in the United Kingdom in 1939, and the first photographs of the death camps at Bergen-Belsen at the end of the war in 1945. His images of the piles of corpses in the Nazi concentration camps so shocked Rodger that he vowed to go to war no more and shifted his photographic focus from war to humanitarian subjects in Sudan, Uganda, and South Africa. Rodger is probably best known for his documentation of the domestic life and customs of the Nuba tribe in Southern Sudan.
He is also noteworthy because of his reputation for personal integrity and commitment to humanitarian causes. Rodger was not only a creative artist, capturing the essence of the external situation beautifully in his photography, he was also concerned about the internal aspects, the emotional experiences of those in his scenes. His personal trauma in filming war and the concentration camps was the result of his extreme empathy with his photographic subjects. It was this internal aspect that made his work great regardless of the subject matter.
George Rodger was born on March 19, 1908 in Cheshire, Great Britain to a family of Scottish ancestry. Rodger was taken out of St. Bedes College at age 17 by his parents, due to behavior problems. He worked on a farm for several months before joining the British Merchant Navy, where he sailed around the world twice from 1925-1929. While sailing, Rodger wrote accounts of his travels and taught himself photography to illustrate his travelogues. Rodger's true ambition was to become a writer, but he was unable to get his writings published.
After working odd jobs in America during the Great Depression, he returned to Britain in 1936. In London he was fortunate to find work as a photographer for the BBC's The Listener magazine. This was followed in 1938 by a brief stint working for the Black Star Agency.
Rodger was married twice. His first wife Cicely, who traveled widely with him in Africa, died in childbirth in 1949, and in 1952 he married his assistant, Lois Witherspoon, who remained his beloved wife until his death in 1995.
During the Second World War Rodger worked with Life magazine and continued on as a staff photographer until 1947. Although his photos of concentration camps at the end of the war made him world famous, he was so traumatized that he suffered from migraines, nightmares, and severe depressions through the rest of his life.
Rodger joined Robert Capa as a co-founding member of the Magnum Photos picture agency. After joining Magnum, Rodger spent many years in Africa photographing the Nuba and other tribes. Over his lifetime, Roger traveled hundreds of thousands of miles, and his works have been published in all major picture magazines, including Life. Roger finally stopped traveling in the 1980s, and died in Kent, Great Britain on July 24, 1995.
Rodger’s main aim in life was to document and record events. He applied his passion for writing to the task of writing captions and notes that capture the essence of his powerful pictures. He was a self-taught photographer, learning valuable skills as he traveled throughout the world during the late 1920s with the British Merchant Marines. With the outbreak of the Second World War, Rodger had a strong urge to chronicle the war. His photographs of the Blitz in London gained him a job as a war correspondent for Life magazine from 1939-1945. He covered the war in West Africa, Burma, Italy, and toward the end of the war followed the Allied liberation of France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany.
Most notably, Rodger was the first photographer to enter the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen in April of 1945, just after Germany's surrender. His photographs of the few survivors and piles of corpses were published in Life and Time magazines and were highly influential in showing the reality of the death camps. Rodger later recalled how, after spending several hours at the camp, he was appalled to realize that he had spent most of the time looking for graphically pleasing compositions of the piles of bodies lying among the trees and buildings. The profound emotions of that experience led Rodger to conclude that he could never work as a war correspondent again. Those images, well known all over the world, continued to haunt him until his death in 1995; he refused to look at them for 45 years.
He continued to work with Life magazine from 1945-1947 before being invited by his friend and famous photographer Robert Capa to be a co-founder member of Magnum Photos picture agency in 1947. Over the next thirty years Rodger worked as a freelance photographer, taking on 16 expeditions and assignments to photograph the people, landscape, and nature of Africa. Much of Rodger's photojournalism in Africa was published in National Geographic as well as other magazines and newspapers.
Rodger was especially interested in tribal rituals and culture in South Africa, Uganda, and Southern Sudan where his photographs remain a testimony to his life and work. In 1949, Rodger was granted permission to spend time with the Nuba tribe whose ancient way of life he observed and documented. His photos illustrate their sports such as spear-throwing, wrestling, and stick-fighting and he remarked that the Nubas were people whom "progress of any kind had passed by." He particularly was keenly interested in depicting how these so called ‘primitive’ tribes lived in a close relationship with nature. He returned to Africa 15 times to make documentaries of several tribes.
George Rodger is best known for his images of African culture and his photographic coverage of citizens during the Blitz in the United Kingdom during the Second World War. He was a prominent photojournalist who illustrated his humanitarian spirit and personal integrity in his powerful photographs. Rodger's photos cover a wide diversity of content, ranging from his unforgettable images from the Second World War, to African tribal rituals, and documenting the vanishing wildlife of Africa. Rodger’s later works emphasized how humans should live in harmony with nature.
Rodger’s integrity and commitment to humanitarian causes is illustrated by his famous picture of Albert Schweitzer with a kitten in his jungle hut in Africa. Rodger’s works continue to be showcased in photography exhibitions worldwide, poignantly depicting both man’s inhumanity and humanity.
Although his work was long overshadowed by his colleagues at Magnum Photos, tributes both to the man and his work reveal the true significance of his life. His colleague Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote:
Many of his images contribute to our collective memory: Blitz, Bergen-Belsen, Paris on the day after liberation. And George recorded the magnificent Nuba tribe long before Leni Riefenstahl and with infinitely more humanity. George Rodger belongs to the great tradition of gentlemen explorers and adventurers which is disappearing. His work is a moving testimony through time and space. Henri Cartier-Bresson
His work has proved an inspiration to photographers. Referring to a biography of his life, another Magnum Photos colleague remarked:
If George had only been a war photographer or only worked in tribal Africa, or only been a photo innovator of the picture story, or only been a founder member of Magnum-any one of these would have given him a place in photo history, but all of these along with his tragic personal history makes this book essential reading for anyone studying photography. Eve Arnold, photographer
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