The face of war, Jean Mohr has long believed, is not seen from behind a tank or through the barrel of a gun. It is found after, when the dust has settled and the soldiers have retreated, and the conflict’s other victims – the civilians who never asked for their hometowns to get caught in the crosshairs – are left to sort through the rubble.
It is these images that Mohr, an 88-year-old Swiss documentarian, has built his career on. Working with prestigious NGOs and humanitarian organizations as well as on his own with a simple single-frame Leica, he has traveled to some of the world’s hottest spots in the days after they stopped simmering to photograph the aftermath, the residue, and the lingering human stories of war.
On Monday, at the Jaffa Salon of Art in Warehouse 2 at the Jaffa Port, Israelis will be able to view several of those snaps as part of a new exhibition, “War from the Victim’s Perspective,” being launched to mark the 150th anniversary of the First Geneva Convention. Produced by the Musee de l’Elysee Lausanne and the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the exhibition focuses on refugees and conflict victims from several regions including Cyprus, Africa and the Palestinian territories.
“Some of the pictures, I suppose, could be taken in the wrong way, and seem like they are aggressive, because they show Palestinian victims, but they were taken without any aggression,” says Mohr in the lobby of his Tel Aviv hotel. He and his wife have traveled together to Israel for the exhibition and plan to spend their time on Monday prior to the show enjoying the beach and sun. “In my entire life as a photographer I have been trying to build bridges between these two communities.”
Mohr has visited Israel and the Palestinian territories a number of times, including just after the Six Day War and throughout the 1970s and 1980s. He has published entire books on the subject, and in addition to his work with Palestinians, he has chronicled, on behalf of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Jewish communities at risk around the world, from Tunisia to Iran to India.
“Israelis, as Jews, are not victims of war, but of something much more terrible, which is the Shoah,” he says.
Mohr was born in Geneva in 1925 to German parents, and his family – he, his parents and all five of his siblings – only received Swiss citizenship in 1939, just before Germany imploded and all of Europe slid into insanity. Growing up in Switzerland, he says, he felt guilty to be German and victimized to be an outsider. That duality of emotions was one of the chief motivators of his work.
“My photographs don’t pretend to be just art,” he says. “It’s difficult to deal with such subjects without being political, but there are different ways to be political… Sometimes I have an aesthetic reaction to a scene before me, but the political side is always present and in the foreground.”