David Seymour: founder of Magnum and human rights photographer


With his camera, David Seymour captured the plight of child victims of war. His portraits were also famous. His artistic trademark: expressing sympathy.

“Chim was motivated by his feeling that children were always the greatest victims of wars,” notes Carole Naggar, biographer of David Seymour. Seymour, who everyone called Chim, was one of the founders of the world famous photography agency Magnum.

Seymour left Poland as a Jew in 1932 and returned from the United States in 1948 to photograph children and youth in devastated post-war Europe. His photographs have highlighted them as victims of wars and conflicts.

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“His photography, especially his work on children for UNICEF, was groundbreaking,” Naggar said. His sensitive images of young war survivors are still moving today and have influenced countless photojournalists who have worked in war and crisis zones.

An early start to documenting people’s suffering

As early as the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), Seymour took famous photographs of Republican troops fighting against fascist dictator Francisco Franco. As a socialist, he sided with the Republican troops in his photographs and photographed the suffering civilian population. It was a novelty.

At the time, Seymour – born November 20, 1911 – still bore his Polish name Dawid Szymin.

A decade later, when Chim accepted the newly founded UNICEF commission to take photos for the Children of Europe photo project in 1948, he had long become a successful photojournalist. In addition, he co-founded the world-renowned Magnum Photos agency in 1947, along with his friends and colleagues Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson and George Rodger.

“He hoped to draw international attention to the plight of children orphaned and maimed by war, often suffering from malnutrition and disease,” Naggar said. Instead of his usual daily fee of $ 100, he accepted at the time a total of $ 2,600 for the UNICEF mission that spanned several months. He eventually shot 257 rolls of film.

With sensitivity and deep empathy, Chim photographed children in Greece, Italy, Austria, Poland and Hungary in the summer of 1948.

The photographer, who obtained American citizenship in 1942, was now called David Robert Seymour.

Taking photos in post-war Germany and France

As early as 1947, he had photographed the daily life of children in France and Germany among the ruins and remains of the Second World War.

The Children of Europe photo book was released in 1949 and was intended to document the work of the United Nations and UNICEF. The children’s relief organization was founded after the war on December 11, 1946 and celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2021.

“Chim was truly the premier human rights photographer,” said Naggar, who has written about Seymour’s life and work in books and articles. “It started a tradition of photographers working with human rights organizations.”

Among those who followed in Chim’s footsteps were Magnum photographers Bruce Davidson, Thomas Dworzak, Martine Franck (who often worked with children and the elderly), Paul Fusco, Susan Meiselas, Sebastiao Salgado, Fazal Sheikh, Chris Steele- Perkins, Larry Towers and others.

Seymour became vice president of the Magnum photo agency in 1948 and its president in 1954, following the death of Magnum co-founder and president Robert Capa in Vietnam.

Chim was considered an exceptional businessman and negotiator, but he also continued to take photos himself.

Return to europe

In 1950, Seymour moved to Rome and developed his own new style of portrait photography: actors, artists and musicians cried out to be photographed by him. According to Naggar, it was the sensitive and trustworthy nature of the photographer that turned these personal shots into dynamite.

“Chim’s specialty was discovering stars before they became stars. Among them were Irene Papas, Joan Collins, Gina Lollobrigida, Ingrid Bergman and countless others,” Naggar said. He took portraits of Sophia Loren, Pablo Picasso and Audrey Hepburn.

“With the young starlets, Chim had the means to become a friend, a confidante and to gain their trust, so that the portraits speak more of intimacy and spontaneity than of glamor,” added Naggar.

The Seymour family: victims of the Holocaust in Poland

According to his biographer, Seymour’s move to Rome in 1950 was an attempt to distance himself from the experiences of previous years.

During World War II, Seymour, then an American soldier, was stationed in London. His job was to assess images and aerial photographs of attacks by Allied forces on Nazi Germany. The work of the “interpreter of the photograph” was also important in preparing for the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944 – known as “D-Day”.

Chim, born in Warsaw on November 20, 1911, returned to Poland in 1948 for the Children of Europe photo project. There he saw destruction in his homeland and got a clearer idea that his parents and much of his Jewish family were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Faith in humanity and compassion

So when he moved to Italy in 1950, he said, his goal was to “reinvent himself”: “I am Mediterranean,” he said. He felt that Italy and Greece were the cradle of civilization and loved to be surrounded by history, Naggar said.

He continues his sensitive photographic work, for example photographing Italians with literacy difficulties who are learning to write, and the reconstruction of a school after the civil war in Greece.

Carole Naggar, who is publishing a new book on David Seymour at the end of 2021, said: “He was also full of humor and generosity … a man of deep political convictions with deep humanity and empathy whose influence on the field of the photograph was huge. ” For her biography, she noted that she viewed every contact print of her photographs to fully understand Chim’s working methods – right down to the last of her images during the Suez War.

In the summer of 1956, the Egyptian army of President Gamal Abdel Nasser occupied the Suez Canal, a major international waterway. France, Britain and Israel would not agree to this, and the Suez War against Egypt ensued.

Seymour visited the region in November 1956 to photograph the crisis.

Then, on November 10, as Chim was heading towards an Egyptian post with his French photographer colleague Jean Roy, the vehicle came under fire. The two journalists were shot dead. David “Chim” Seymour was only 44 years old.

This text was adapted from German by Louisa Schaefer.

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