Bullet holes pockmark a building facade in 1974 Cyprus. Young Palestinian refugees smile and laugh in Gaza in 1979. A Mozambican refugee covers her face during Sunday mass in Tanzania in 1968; she could be crying — or maybe she’s praying.
Stories — of lives shattered and lives continuing — surge from the photographs of Switzerland’s Jean Mohr. Born in Geneva in 1925, he studied painting in Paris, but then exchanged a brush for a camera lens, going to work for international humanitarian agencies such as the World Health Organization and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
In the coming week, an exhibit of Mohr’s work, “War from the Victims’ Perspective,” is scheduled to land at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where it will be presented by the Embassy of Switzerland. The exhibit is traveling around the world in conjunction with the 150th anniversaries of the International Committee of the Red Cross (whose earliest incarnation dates to 1863) and the 1864 Geneva Convention.
That initial Geneva Convention “gave birth to the whole of modern humanitarian law,” said Martin Dahinden, Switzerland’s ambassador to the United States. Since Switzerland has long had a special role in caring for the legacy of the Geneva conventions —and since humanitarian work has been “a very important element of Swiss foreign policy” in general — presenting the anniversary-themed exhibit aligns with his embassy’s mandate, Dahinden said in a phone interview.
The ambassador is more than a little qualified to talk about such things, given his own background in humanitarian work. That includes a stint directing the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining, which works to eliminate the explosives that linger after wars. In that job, Dahinden noted, he experienced the power of photography to sway public opinion. Photos of injured people “helped change public opinion with regard to the use of anti-personnel land mines,” he recalled.
More than other art forms, including writing and film, photography “has a kind of authenticity that touches the hearts of people and makes them think,” he said.
But photos that touch the conscience are not necessarily graphic or overtly shocking. Dahinden has been struck by the degree of dignity and privacy that Mohr granted his subjects, who are seen engaged in activities that include learning carpentry, distributing food, and even dancing. Other shots focus on vistas — a destroyed road; temporary structures in refugee camps. And there are contemplations of people waiting — enduring.
“He very much respects [his subjects]; he does not expose them,” the ambassador said, calling the subtlety of Mohr’s approach “the interesting element that distinguishes him from most other photographers I have met who are dealing with people in armed conflicts or violence.”
All in all, a Mohr shot is “not a kind of photo where you see within two seconds what it is about,” the ambassador said. Rather, these war-themed images are more subtle. “The photos invite a discussion, a reflection,” Dahinden said. They are “photos that start to tell you the history surrounding victims — and you have to think, by yourself, how the story will continue.”
Hailu Mergia still drives a taxi — but he spends less time behind the wheel. “I almost drive part-time now, because I have to practice a lot,” the Ethiopian-bred musician said, describing the balance between his career as an internationally renowned keyboardist-arranger-composer and his longtime day job as a Dulles Airport cab driver.
As The Washington Post’s Chris Richards reported in June 2013, Mergia was a star in his native land, performing with Walias Band, a mainstay of the Addis Ababa popular music scene in the 1970s. The group relocated to D.C. for a club residency in the early 1980s, and Mergia stayed in the area. The Fort Washington resident kept away from live performance for decades. But, even while working as a cab driver, he played music for himself, regularly.
His discipline would stand him in good stead. Last year, the label Awesome Tapes from Africa gave a new release to “Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument,” a 1985 solo album that featured Mergia playing the accordion and a number of electronic instruments.
The reissue, giving broader availability to an album that had attained hit status in Ethiopia, seems also to have jump-started Mergia’s performance career. He toured Europe, and has performed at locales such as Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right and the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage.
On Nov. 22, Mergia will perform at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, where he will appear with Low Mentality, a world-music-inflected group that has served as his collaborating backup band. “They really enjoy playing Ethiopian music with me,” says Mergia, 68.
At the Atlas, he will perform “a little bit of accordion, a little bit of organ, a little bit of keyboards,” Mergia said. He certainly is not going to leave that first instrument out of the mix.
“People enjoy listening to the accordion, because it’s kind of a forgotten instrument,” Mergia said. And besides, “The song of the accordion is beautiful.”
War from the Victims’ Perspective: Photographs by Jean Mohr.” Presented by the Embassy of Switzerland. Nov. 21 - Feb. 6, 2015 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Ronald Regan Building and International Trade Center, One Woodrow Wilson Plaza, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Visit www.eda.admin.ch/washington and, from the “About Us” menu, choose “Public Diplomacy and Cultural Affairs.”
Hailu Mergia and Low Mentality. 8 p.m. on November 22 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE. Call 202-399-7993 or visit atlasarts.org.
Wren is a freelance writer.