Jean Mohr obituary

Award-winning photographer and longtime collaborator with the writer John Berger

Jean Mohr, who has died aged 93, began his life as a photographer in 1949, with a camera he had bought for one of his brothers as a present. Working with Palestinian refugees for the International Red Cross in Jordan and the West Bank, Mohr was moved to use the camera himself. He went on to become well known for his photographic work with humanitarian organisations, and particularly with refugees, as well as his collaborations with the writer John Berger.

Of the images used in After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives (1986), another friend and collaborator, Edward Said, wrote that Mohr “saw us as we would have seen ourselves – at once inside and outside our world”. Yet, during a 2014 exhibition in Tel Aviv, Mohr explained that he had chronicled not only the Palestinian experience but also, with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, that of endangered Jewish communities in Iran, India and Tunisia. “In my entire life as a photographer,” he said, “I have been trying to build bridges between these two communities.”

The fathomless curiosity that drove his travelling was combined with a talent – rooted in a deep humility – for making friends wherever he went, be it through conversation, gesture, or animal impressions. Some sense of the sheer internationalism of his career is given in At the Edge of the World (1999), an autobiography in text and photo, which ranges from Soviet and post-Soviet Europe to North Korea, Sandinistan Nicaragua, the Central African Republic and Gerald Durrell’s zoo in Jersey.

Portrait of a Greek refugee in Larnaca, Cyprus, in 1976.
Portrait of a Greek refugee in Larnaca, Cyprus, in 1976. Photograph: Jean Mohr/Musée de l’Elysée

Though his work has been published as newspaper reportage, notably by La Tribune de Genève, the majority was made for United Nations organisations such as the World Health Organisation and the High Commission for Refugees. Such assignments often afforded him more time than is generally enjoyed by photojournalists working to tight deadlines. “When I have a good subject, or rather, when a good subject has me in its power,” Mohr observed, “I wait for the fascination, or at least my sense of interest, to die down.”

Mohr was given the name Hans-Adolf when he was born, in Geneva, the third of six children of Elisabeth Lempp and Wolfgang Mohr. Wolfgang, a translator for the International Labour Office and the International Committee of the Red Cross who knew 17 languages, was an anti-Nazi who applied to change the family’s German citizenship in 1936.

But though the Swiss citizenship finally came through in 1939, and Jean took a more French-sounding name, the memory of being called “sale Boche!” – dirty German – in the playground stayed with him to the end of his life. It gave him, he felt, an emotional understanding of victimisation and of guilt. Noticing the effect of his “blue eyes, fair hair, build and possibly even a touch of arrogance” among elderly rabbis in Poland in 1958, he wanted to reassure them by announcing that he was Swiss.

After attending the Brechbühl school and the Collège de Genève in Geneva, Mohr studied economics and social sciences at the University of Geneva, where he developed lifelong passions as a member of the mountaineering and cinema clubs, and aspired to become a painter. After a brief stint in advertising after graduation, he volunteered with the International Red Cross.

On his return from Palestine in 1951, he went to study painting at the Académie Julian in Paris. In 1955, he was involved in a scheme taking aerial photographs of farmland to be coloured by a girlfriend and sold on to farmers. When the business failed, he used the enlarger and two Leica cameras he was given in lieu of payment to set up as a professional photographer back in Geneva.

In 1956, he married Simone Turrettini; as well as an award-winning director on the Télévision Suisse Romande network, she became a constant companion on Mohr’s travels. Then in 1961, the English writer and artist John Berger moved to Geneva with his partner Anya Berger; he wanted to become a European intellectual, and she had found translation work at the UN. Wanting to learn photography himself, Berger got in touch with Mohr via their mutual friend, the film director Alain Tanner. Thus began the lifelong project of collaboration and photographic portraiture documented in the book John by Jean: Fifty Years of Friendship (2016).

A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor (1967) began when Berger saw a project Mohr had undertaken for the WHO following the work of a Dr Rons in the mining community of Charleroi, in Wallonia, Belgium. Convinced they could do better, Berger proposed a collaborative study of his friend and family doctor, John Eskell, a country GP in the Forest of Dean, in Gloucestershire. The resulting book creates fictionalised case studies from the lives of Eskell’s patients, and turns him into Dr John Sassall, as a means of reflecting both on the social role of medicine in the context of the relatively new NHS, and the position of the artist and intellectual in society. Praised as “the most important book about general practice ever written” by the Royal College of GPs, A Fortunate Man was reissued in 2015.

A Seventh Man (1975), subtitled “A Book of Images and Words About the Experience of Migrant Workers in Europe”, was part-funded by the half of Berger’s 1972 Booker prize that he did not give to the Black Panthers, and involved travelling alongside migrants who were largely Gastarbeiter displaced into Germany from peasant communities in Turkey. At first, its most receptive readers were in the global south, but acclaim for its prescience has grown steadily, and it was reissued in 2010.

Migrant workers in Athens in 1967, taken from the book The Seventh Man by John Berger and Jean Mohr.
Migrant workers in Athens in 1967, taken from the book The Seventh Man by John Berger and Jean Mohr. Photograph: Jean Mohr/Musée de l’Elysée

The next full collaboration with Berger was Another Way of Telling (1982), which refined the considerations of the earlier books into an essayistic consideration of the relation between text and image, and of the nature of photography itself. A 1988 televised version, by the artist and filmmaker John Christie, showed Mohr in moving and static image; as did Claude Goretta’s film A Photographer Among Men (1978).

Mohr’s other subjects and collaborators reflected his love of music and theatre; his many awards included prizes for human rights photography from Photokina Cologne (1978), and for contemporary photography from the Musée de l’Élysée, Lausanne (1984). In 1988 he received the first prize of the City of Geneva for the visual arts to be awarded to a photographer. In 2009, a large photographic archive of his work, consisting of original prints, slides and negatives, was donated to the Musée de l’Élysée.

Mohr is survived by Simone, their two sons, Patrick and Michel, and five grandchildren.

• Jean Mohr, photographer, born 13 September 1925; died 3 November 2018


Tom Overton

The GuardianTramp

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