David Szymin was born in Warsaw, Poland to a family of printers and publishers of Yiddish books. His family moved to Russia at the outbreak of World War I, returning to Warsaw in 1919. Szymin had originally intended to enter the printing and publishing business, and with that goal in mind studied at the Leipzig Akademie der Graphischen und Buch Kuenste in 1931.
Between 1931 and 1933, he studied chemistry and physics at the Sorbonne. Then, after a downturn in the Polish economy, he was encouraged to stay on in Paris to try to support himself.
David Rappaport, a family friend, owned the pioneering picture agency Rap and loaned Szymin a camera, suggesting that he try his hand at taking pictures. One of Szymin’s first Paris stories, about night workers, was influenced by Brassai’s 1932 book Paris de Nuit, and was published in the French press.
Adopting “Chim” as his nickname, Szymin began working as a freelance photographer. From 1934, his picture stories appeared regularly in Paris-Soir and Regards, one of the first illustrated magazines. Through Maria Eisner and the new Alliance agency, Chim met Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa.
From 1936 to 1938, he photographed the Spanish Civil War as well as events in Czechoslovakia and other European countries. After the Spanish Republican government was defeated, Chim went to Mexico on assignment with a group of Spanish Republican emigrés. When World War II broke out, he moved to New York, where he adopted the name David Seymour. Both his parents were killed by the Nazi.
Between 1942 and 1945, Chim served in photo reconnaissance and interpretation in the US Army, winning a medal for his work in American intelligence. In 1947, along with Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger, Robert Capa and William Vandivert, he founded Magnum Photos and served as its first vice president.
By now, Chim had been absent from photojournalism for seven years and was relatively unknown in the reportage world, at least compared to Capa, Cartier-Bresson and Rodger. In 1948, though, he was commissioned by UNICEF to photograph Europe’s children in need. These pictures helped to re-establish his reputation and to define the look of post-war Europe for posterity. His best-known picture is probably that of an orphaned young girl, shell-shocked from the war, standing in front of a blackboard full of the scribbles she drew when she was asked to make a picture of her home.
In the 1950s, Chim gained prominence with his stories about Venice (Peggy Guggenheim), the Greek islands and the emergence of the new state of Israel. He photographed Hollywood stars on European film sets including Sophia Loren, Joan Collins, Audrey Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman. Other compelling portraits included Winston Churchill, Bernhard Berenson and Arturo Toscanini.
After Robert Capa’s death, Chim became the new president of Magnum. He held this post until November 10, 1956, when, traveling with French photographer Jean Roy near the Suez Canal to cover a prisoner exchange, he was killed by Egyptian machine-gun fire.