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UNICEF in Emergencies & Humanitarian Action

UNICEF's first international photographer

The new book Chim: Children of war showcases the powerful images that set a standard for photographic advocacy for children.  Watch in RealPlayer


By Ellen Tolmie

In 1948, photographer David ‘Chim’ Seymour chronicled the situation of children in five European countries that had been devastated by World War II. A new publication highlights the assignment that would set a standard for photographic advocacy for children.

© Elliott Erwitt/Magnum
“As a photographer…I speak the language of pictures,” Seymour wrote for an article profiling his work on children in the February 1949 edition of the UNESCO Courier.

NEW YORK, United States of America, 8 July 2013 – In early 1948, UNESCO Director of Mass Communications and Public Information John Grierson telegraphed the photographer David Seymour to advise that he was “most anxious discuss immediate photographic journey to eastern European countries”. Seymour, nicknamed Chim, eagerly accepted the assignment. Its focus would be the situation of children in five war-devastated European countries and the relief response of United Nations agencies, including UNICEF, which had been created in December 1946, less than two years before. The countries were Austria, Greece, Hungary, Italy and Poland.

So it happened that UNICEF’s first major international photography assignment was actually commissioned by UNESCO. The work from this assignment has been newly edited by photography historian Carole Naggar for her book Chim: Children of war, recently published in the United States of America by Umbrage Editions. Naggar writes that the assignment became a ‘labour of love’ for Seymour, extending over six months. The result is one of the most powerful photographic documentations of the impact of war on children ever made.

© David Seymour/Magnum Photos
Tereska responds to her teacher’s request to draw her home, Warsaw, Poland, 1948.

Perhaps the most famous of these photographs was made in Seymour’s home city of Warsaw, of a girl named Tereska. She had spent several years in a concentration camp. In a school for disturbed children, Tereska was asked to draw her home; unable to do so, she drew a maelstrom of chaotic lines. In Chim’s photograph, both the drawing and the girl’s deeply troubled face testify to the trauma of her experience, searing evidence of the toll of war on children.

“I speak the language of pictures”

Seymour’s original name was Dawid Szymin. Born in 1911 to a Jewish family in Poland, he went to study in France in the early 1930s, where he began to do photography. After covering the Spanish Civil War, focusing on that conflict’s impact on civilians, Seymour then travelled to Mexico and the United States of America. Unable to return to Poland, Seymour joined the United States armed forces during World War II and became an American citizen. On his return to Europe after the war, colleagues and friends continued to call him ‘Chim’, a compression of his Polish surname that many had found difficult to pronounce.

“As a photographer…I speak the language of pictures,” Seymour wrote for an article profiling his work on children in the February 1949 edition of the UNESCO Courier. “I look around and try to record what I see. In the last six months, I saw plenty…” The article preceded a UNESCO monograph, Children of Europe, that was also published that year. Entirely devoted to Seymour’s photographs, it was a call to action for “the 13,000,000 abandoned children in Europe” who are its subject.

© David Seymour/Magnum Photos
UNICEF feeding programme, Austria, 1948.

Naggar’s book includes many of the same images, of schools, orphanages, feeding programmes and clinics, of children scavenging for unexploded ordnance to sell, or helping to rebuild. There are also photographs of a ‘children’s town’ partly run by children themselves, in Hungary, and children displaced by the civil war in Greece that immediately followed the global conflagration.

There are no enemy children

Also included are several photographs Chim had made the year before the UNESCO assignment, in Germany. One shows a baby in a pram in the foreground, with ruins directly behind him and Krupp factories in the distance, in the city of Essen. “Far from carrying any personal grudge against Germany,” Naggar notes, “[Seymour] is able to perceive and convey the fate of children as victims within the broader context of the war.”

This ability to separate German children from the state machine that had killed his parents and devastated much of the continent was one of Seymour’s many gifts to children. It also aligns with UNICEF’s founding principle that there are no enemy children – thereby requiring that children on all sides of a conflict be equally assisted to escape the ravages of war.

© David Seymour/Magnum Photos
David Seymour captured this image of a baby in a pram (in the foreground) with ruins directly behind him and Krupp factories in the distance, in the city of Essen, Germany, 1947.

“The terrible need and the great challenge”

Of his coverage for UNESCO and UNICEF, Seymour commented, “All over the five countries, I saw this one story: the terrible need and the great challenge. …I also saw the beginnings, the wonderful beginnings of this help…children playing out their dreams of a full and peaceful life amidst the ruins of their parents’ world….In fact, the work of the international and national relief organizations has shown real, positive results.” Chim also documented what remained to be done. In addition to meeting needs for food and shelter, he said, “[T]he psychological rehabilitation and re-education of Europe’s children presents a greater challenge than ever before.”

In Paris in 1947, David Seymour had co-founded, together with three other eminent international photojournalists, Magnum Photos, which remains one of the world’s most important photo documentary agencies. His 1948 work for UNESCO – constituting the first multi-country coverage of UNICEF priorities and programmes – set a standard for photographic advocacy for children that UNICEF continues to aspire to today.

Ellen Tolmie was UNICEF’s Senior Photography Editor from August 1990 to June 2013. She is on the Photojournalism Advisory Council of the Alexia Foundation.



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