Images a war photographer could not bear to look at

Women dig among piles of clothing at Bergen-Belsen after its liberation in 1945

Women dig among piles of clothing at Bergen-Belsen after its liberation in 1945

Vimages so disturbing that the photographer who took them refused to look at them for more than 40 years are being exhibited by his widow.

George Rodger told her before he died that they should be seen so that people would know the truth about the Holocaust.

In 1945, the 37-year-old British photo-journalist went to the death camps at Bergen-Belsen. He is believed to be the first photographer to have done so, where he photographed "nice compositions in front of dead bodies".

Some of them, showing the active role taken by young female guards, were published in Life and Time magazines. But Mr Rodger was so traumatised he could not bring himself to look at them for around 44 years and gave up war photography.

His wife, Jinx, 83, said: "The effect on him, and other journalists, photographers and doctors, was something you cannot imagine. It was so horrific that he couldn't talk about for a long time.

"It affected him terribly. After Belsen, he made a decision never to photograph war again, and he kept to it."
Mr Rodger's experiences led him to leave Life magazine and set up the Magnum photographic agency with fellow photo-journalists, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and David Seymour.

He spent much of his remaining career documenting Africa's wildlife and people. The Belsen pictures, meanwhile, remained hidden.

But in the late 1980s, Cheshire-born Mr Rodger broke his silence after the BBC approached him about a documentary on Magnum.

"When this all came out, George said ‘People should know that this happened'. It's not the subject matter he wanted to talk about very much but he felt he had to talk about the Belsen pictures, which had been hidden in a back drawer," said Mrs Roger, who admitted she was initially reluctant to put on the exhibition when first approached.

But, she felt, the timing was too poignant: it was the centenary of Mr Rodger's birth, and the exhibition
coincided with other anniversaries - 90 years since the end of World War I, and the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht.

The exhibition, which opened this week, features portraits of female SS guards, and three additional war images from the George Rodger collection. "They are an important reminder of the dangers of war and the evil that can happen," observed Mrs Rodger. "It's not an anti-German exhibition. It is history and... it's important it's not forgotten. It makes people think. And a lot of people don't know about what happened."

he exhibition is being held at the George Rodger Gallery which opened in 1996 at the University of the Creative Arts in Maidstone.

Peter Sanger, then director of the college, was a close friend of Mr Rodger and felt that, since he lived nearby and was one of the foremost photo-journalists of his generation, a gallery should be named for him.

Mrs Rogers, who still lives in Kent, continues to work on her husband's archives and is preparing for a forthcoming exhibition of his work to be held in Munich early next year.

George Rodger Centenary Exhibition, University of the Creative Arts, Maidstone, Kent, until December 19

    Last updated: 4:39pm, November 13 2008