David Seymour's 'Reflections From The Heart' David Seymour chronicled wars and the lives they shattered from the 1930s to 1950s. He took pictures from his heart. And the photog who went by the nickname Chim somehow found a way to get close enough to capture the spirit of his subjects.
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David Seymour's 'Reflections From The Heart'

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David Seymour's 'Reflections From The Heart'

David Seymour's 'Reflections From The Heart'

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The father of photojournalism, when speaking about another photo pioneer, once said Chim picked up his camera the way a doctor takes his stethoscope out of his bag, applying his diagnosis to the condition of the heart. His own was vulnerable. David Chim Seymour took pictures of war, uneasy peace, celebrations and most especially, children. His photographs are on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. now. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg reports.


In his Paris apartment overlooking the Tuileries in what may have been his last recorded interview, an old man remembered a dear friend.

(Soundbite of laughter)

M. HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON: ... always came with a little box of sweets. He liked to make presents.

STAMBERG: Henri Cartier-Bresson smiled, remembering--then his face clouded.

M. CARTIER-BRESSON: Chim was a fool (laughs). Oh, absolutely! He had no business going there!

STAMBERG: Going to Egypt to cover the 1956 Suez crisis. Chim was killed days after a ceasefire was declared. He was 44. Born David Szymin in Warsaw, when he moved to Paris in the 1930s the French called him Chim. He simplified his name to David Seymour but the nickname stuck. He wrote it C-H-I-M on his photographs.

Mr. JOHN MORRIS (Former Executive Director, Magnum Photos): He was a quiet man. I never once heard him raise his voice.

STAMBERG: John Morris was executive director of Magnum, the elite photojournalism agency Chim founded in 1947 with Cartier-Bresson.

Mr. MORRIS: He was fastidious. He was neat. He enjoyed being a kind of man of mystery.

STAMBERG: Chim was intellectual, but as Cartier-Bresson said, he took pictures with his heart. A war correspondent who focused not on the destruction but on the swaddled infant next to the rubble--on what survived.

In 1936 during the Spanish Civil War, David Chim Seymour photographed an impoverished peasant woman, one side of her face bathed in light, straining to hear, to comprehend a speech about land reform, at her breast, a nursing child.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Mr. TOM BECK (Chief Curator, University of Maryland, Baltimore County): He adored children.

STAMBERG: Tom Beck of the University of Maryland curated the Chim show.

Mr. BECK: And here's this woman holding a child and she's balancing not only her child, but the politics of the time, the difficulties under which she lived and trying to understand it all.

STAMBERG: Chim's black and white photo has the power of Dorothea Lange's iconic picture of the migrant farm woman and her children photographed in California the same year, 1936.

Another mother in very different circumstances was David Chim Seymour's subject almost 20 years later. This time the picture is in color and the woman is famous--actress Ingrid Bergman.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Mr. BECK: She was besieged by people who wanted to photograph her twins when they were born and there was only one person who was going to be allowed to photograph them and that was Seymour.

STAMBERG: Ingrid Bergman kneels in a sunny garden with one of her boys. She's in shorts, a green polo shirt, no make-up and a dove has just perched on her shoulder. It's Bergman the person, not the movie star, smiling at a friend and his camera. Ingrid Bergman trusted David Chim Seymour. Curator Tom Beck said many people did.

Mr. BECK: Seymour knew how to approach people because he knew languages. He could talk to them and he usually found something of common interest.

STAMBERG: His compassionate photos of the young led UNICEF, the UN International Children's Emergency Fund, to commission Chim, a childless bachelor, to take pictures of Europe's post-war children. In 1948 he found a little one in Naples hugging a broken doll to her chest.

Mr. BECK: It was headless, and footless, and armless, but you would think it was the most precious object in the world to this girl. She's looking at it so lovingly.

STAMBERG: Again, Chim, seeing the caring in this child, not the sadness of her situation. Ben Shneiderman was nine when his uncle, David Chim Seymour died in Suez. Shneiderman remembers his kindness and all the presents he brought. The nephew is executor of Chim's estate and contributed to this exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery.

Dr. BEN SHNEIDERMAN (Nephew of David Chim Seymour; Estate Executor): If you look at many of Chim's photos and you ask yourself what happened in the three minutes before that photo was taken, you will inevitably or mostly come to the conclusion that he made a personal relationship with these people. He didn't surprise them. He didn't photograph them from a distance or over their shoulders. He worked with them. He made a close personal and emotional relationship.

STAMBERG: How close did Chim get to take a picture? Close enough to capture the spirit, the hope, and sometimes the terror. In wartime he pioneered the use of a portable, fast-action Leica camera on the battlefield, running with the troops, shooting them, shooting. But it isn't just how close he got to his subject, it's also how close he gets to us, to the people who look at his pictures.

The 1948 close-up of a young boy, his face bent down onto an open book--it looks as if he's resting, but photo historian Fran Trachtenberg, says the picture tells a different, more subtle, story.

Ms. FRAN TRACHTENBERG (Photo Historian): When we read the caption we learn that this young child is blind, has lost both his arms and his lips are on the page because he is using them to read the Braille that is etched across the pages.

STAMBERG: Another photographer might have shown the stumps of the child's limbs and made the Braille marks stand out more, but Fran Trachtenberg says Chim doesn't do that, he shows a damaged child who won't let the damage stop him. The boy is more than making do, he is doing--advancing. Nowadays, there are critics who call Chim's work sentimental, even sappy.

Ms. TRACHTENBERG: It's a little sappy but that's because we're very hardened today and we only look for the edge and he was basically saying that's not necessarily the best way to see people.

STAMBERG: In the Cold War world, David Chim Seymour photographed, there was the belief among some that we were all brothers, that the tensions of the day could be eased by understanding and embracing our connection. Chim's pictures reflect that ideal. The exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art is called Reflections from the Heart. It's in Washington until early June then travels to Baltimore and Rochester. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Some of Chim's most memorable photographs can be seen at NPR.org. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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