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24 September 2014

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You are in: Manchester > People > Your stories > Shooting War

George Rodger (c) Magnum Photos

George Rodger (c) Magnum Photos

Shooting War

George Rodger was the embodiment of the adventuring WWII photojournalist. He walked 300 miles through the Burmese jungle to escape the Japanese - and was one of the first photographer to enter the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945.

Hale-born George Rodger was working as a 'stringer' or freelance photographer for an agency when the Germans started bombing London in 1940. In his book 'Far On The Ringing Plains', he said he wanted to show the resilience of the British during the Blitz.

"I showed in pictures what the little people of Britain, the everyday, man-in-the-street people, chose to endure rather than capitulate – the wrecking of their homes and the loss of their loved ones."

Flemish collaborator (c) Getty Images

Flemish collaborator (c) Getty Images

His work caught the eye of Life magazine, who gave him a four week assignment. It ended up taking two years, covering 75,000 miles through Africa, the Middle East, India, Afghanistan, Burma and China. 

The magnitude of his task is described in his book 'Desert Journey' in which he recalls breaking down in the desert:

"We were 50 miles from water and the nearest garage was 750 miles away. It was the kind of country where one dies fast without water. Never had I seen anything more desolate, and the vastness was frightening."


If that wasn’t enough, he was travelling completely independently of the military. He had no official assistance with travel - or help getting his pictures out of the war zone. 

Montgomery accepts Nazi surrender (c) Getty Images

Montgomery accepts Nazi surrender (c) Getty Images

He covered the war in West Africa and Egypt then later headed to Burma, where it’s thought he was the only English photographer to cover Britain’s retreat there. In 1942 he escaped the Japanese invasion by trekking '300 miles through the bamboo forest and what seemed like a thousand mountain ranges'.

Rodger returned exhausted, but after taking a year off he was made a staff photographer for Life magazine. He ended up covering the liberation of Bergen-Belsen in 1945. It was an experience which obviously scarred him, as he explained:

"I didn’t know until then – despite over five years of war – what effect the war had had on me personally. When I discovered that I could look at the horror of Belsen – the 4,000 dead and starving lying around – and think only of a nice photographic composition I knew something had happened to me, and it had to stop."

"When I could look at the horror of Belsen – and think only of a nice photographic composition I knew something had happened to me, and it had to stop"

George Rodger on how war scarred him

Rodger’s experiences led him and three other photojournalists, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and David 'Chim' Seymour, to set up the Magnum photography agency after the war. They set up the agency as a co-operative where all members would own the copyright on their pictures.

Despite being able to pick and choose his assignments, Rodger didn’t stay away completely from war photography, taking incredibly powerful pictures of Palestinian refugees and the Mau Mau in Kenya.  Post war, his pictures of Africa’s people and its wildlife received world wide recognition. But it is for his images of conflict that he is best remembered.

The Imperial War Museum North is commemorating 100 years since his birth in Hale, with more than one hundred of his photos, documentary film and interviews with his widow and other war veterans.

Contact: George Rodger’s War Photographs is on at the special exhibitions gallery of IWM North until 27 April. Free entry.

last updated: 11/04/2008 at 09:51
created: 08/02/2008

You are in: Manchester > People > Your stories > Shooting War

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