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Fleeing the filth of war

Nuba, wrestler, images: put these three words into an online search and you’ll see George Rodger’s famous black-and-white photograph of a victorious Nuba wrestler being carried through a crowd on the shoulders of his defeated opponent.

 

Powdered in wood ash, wrestlers of the Korongo Nuba wait to take part in a match. 1949Sean Sheehan

 

It is the best known example of Rodger’s work in Sudan in 1949, first published in National Geographic two years later. What has not been seen until now are the colour photographs he took at the same time, from a second Leica camera that he carried.

These colour photographs have now been published in George Rodger’s Nuba & Latuka, and one of them shows another image of the same champion wrestler. This time he is seen from one side of the crowd that accompanies his victory parade, his arms raised in a way that would be boastfully triumphant were it not for the way his hands drop and flatten out in a modest acknowledgement of his achievement. It is a graceful gesture.

Bodies bustle in the bottom left of the photograph but the viewer’s eye is drawn upwards to the dry, ochre hills and the pale blue sky above.

The champion of a Korongo Nuba wrestling match, 1949The sideways perspective that of an onlooker, is the same as that of tribeswomen seen in the background on the other side of the wrestler. Certain kinds of photographs of indigenous Africans are the product of the white man’s gaze but Rodger’s shot is of a crowd scene, not a picture of the imperialist’s ‘noble savage’.

Before travelling to Sudan, George Rodger had spent the years of World War II photographing various military campaigns and in April 1945 his assignment was to cover the Belsen concentration after its liberation by British troops. It proved a traumatic experience and forced Rodger to reconsider his role as a photojournalist: “When I look at the horror of Belsen – and think only of a nice photographic composition I knew something had happened to me, and it had to stop….I just had to get rid of the filth of war.”

Rodger never worked again as a war photographer and instead took on assignments like the one that brought him to Sudan.

At a time when colour-film technology was still in its infancy, it was his black and white images that found their way into magazines like National Geographic. What this new book shows is just how confident and accomplished he was in exploring the possibilities of colour photography.

He liked to record people engaged in their everyday work. The Nuba are farmers and he photographed them watering tobacco plants and tending cattle, though understandably he was drawn to their theatrical athletic competitions.

Girl dancers of the village of Sao performRodger’s work in Sudan inspired another photographer – Leni Riefenstahl – whose very different experience in World War II saw her making Nazi propaganda films. Riefenstahl said Rodger’s work changed her life and she also travelled to Africa to escape the ghosts of Nazism, though ones she had helped create in the first place. They both fled the filth of war; honourably for Rodgers but not so for Riefenstahl.

George Rodger’s “Nuba & Latuka: The colour photographs” is published by Prestel.

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