Born in Hale, Cheshire, England, to a family of Scottish background, George Rodger initially wanted to be a writer but began using a camera to back up his travel stories. In both disciplines, his aim was to document truth and empathy in all that he saw. Finishing his studies at St. Bees College in Cumbria, Rodger served two years in the British Merchant Navy. By 1929 he had been twice around the world but had never seen London. After a spell in America during the Depression years where he held a series of non-photographic jobs, he returned to England in 1936.
On the strength of a small portfolio of self-printed landscapes and portraits, he was fortunate to find work as a photographer with the BBC, producing stories for their Listener magazine. Small, fast miniature cameras had just appeared in London, brought in by photographers fleeing a Europe threatened by war. Rodger soon changed from using the large plate glass cameras at the BBC to his first Leica, enabling him to photograph quietly on the sound stages, and, after hours, to freelance on the streets of London. His pictures were noticed by the Black Star Agency who sold them to Tatler, Sketch, Bystander, Illustrated London News and Picture Post.
Roger’s photographs of the London Blitz brought him to the attention of Life, and from 1939 to 1945, he was one of the magazine’s war correspondents. From covering De Gaulle’s entry with the Free French into North Africa, he went on to document the war front in Eritrea, Abyssinia and the Western Desert. He traveled to Iran, Burma, North Africa, Sicily and Salerno, Italy, where he met and befriended Robert Capa. Having covered the Liberation of France, Belgium and Holland, Rodger was the first photographer to enter Bergen-Belsen in April 1945. He photographed the concentration camp, and in May, the German surrender at Luneburg for Time and Life.
Traumatized by the experience of looking for “nice compositions” in front of the dead, Rodger decided he would never take another war picture. Disappointed by his post-war assignments, he eventually got himself fired by Life. In 1947 he was invited to join Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour and William Vandivert in founding Magnum Photos. His first major trip with Magnum was a 28,000-mile trans-African journey from Cape to Cairo, focusing on wildlife, tribal rituals and a way of life that exists in close relationship with nature. During this journey Rodger came across the Dinka and Nuer tribes of Southern Sudan, the Bachimbiri of Uganda and the Nuba of Kordofan. His Kordofan photographs appeared in National Geographic in 1951 and in the book Village des Noubas in 1955 with Rodger’s own text.
From the 1950s to 1980, Rodger made more than 15 expeditions to Africa. His work there included “People Are People the World Over” and “Generation Child,” group projects inspired by Capa; and assignments for the Standard Oil Company and Esso in Egypt, Ethiopia and the Sahara. His travels produced color reportages on the Sahara, the Tuaregs, the Masai, big game and adventure stories, with text by his wife –the journalist Jinx Rodger.
It is the sense of the bigger picture, the complexity of the elements that contribute to every human predicament that makes Rodger’s work so richly humanitarian. Enormously successful during his lifetime, Rodger was published by all the major picture magazines from Life to Picture Post and by every British Times Sunday supplement. He had far more books made about him than he had the chance to do himself, and he exhibited in the world’s most prestigious galleries from Tokyo to New York, Switzerland to Spain, London and Paris to Sydney.
George Rodger died in Kent, England on July 24, 1995.