Tereska and Her Photographer: A Story, ed. Carole Naggar

JTF (just the facts): Published by Russet Lederman, Inc. (here) and The Eyes Publishing (here) in March 2019. Hardcover, 106 pages, with 72 black and white photographs. Includes texts by Carole Naggar. In an edition of 700 copies (400 in English and 300 in French). Design by Ricardo Báez. Typographic design by Juan F. Mercerón. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Tereska and Her Photographer: A Story is a photobook edited by the photography historian and educator Carole Naggar that tells a story that started 70 years ago, and just recently, through meticulous research and a generous portion of luck, was reinterpreted based on newly uncovered facts. In an unconventional and unique manner, it takes as its starting point the iconic photograph of a girl named Tereska made by David “Chim” Seymour, the Polish born photographer and Magnum Photos co-founder.

In 1948, Seymour was commissioned by UNESCO to document the situation of children in five European countries devastated by the war and the relief response being provided by United Nations agencies. His series is considered among the most powerful photographic evidence ever made of the impact of war on children. One of the most recognizable photographs from the project is one capturing a girl with a haunted look in a classroom – she stares right at the camera as she draws chaotic scribbled lines with chalk in response to teacher’s request to draw her home. It was taken in Warsaw, Seymour’s home city. It was believed that Tereska had spent several years in a concentration camp and was mentally traumatized by the war, as were many other of the 13 million European children who survived.

The photograph became emblematic of these persistent injuries and was seen by millions. It appeared in Life with the caption “Children’s wounds are not all outward. Those made in the mind by years of sorrow will take years to heal.” It also travelled the world with Edward Steichen’s legendary exhibition “The Family of Man.” Ultimately, it became an unquestioned symbol of the Second World War, the Holocaust, and its horrors.

In July 2017, Naggar, who is also Chim’s biographer, was contacted by Patryk Graziewicz, a Polish researcher, and Aneta Wawrzyńczak, a human rights journalist, who decided to track down more information about Tereska. Using the original contact sheets and a short film clip found in the Magnum archives, they were able to uncover enough details to find the school, which miraculously survived the war, and track down records of Tereska. Her full name was Teresa Adwentowska. She was born in 1940 to a Catholic family, survived the war in Warsaw, and at the age of four, was hit by a piece of a bomb shrapnel causing a brain injury.

Fascinated by these discoveries, but also understanding the need to explore them in a different type of narrative, Naggar tells the story in nonlinear fictional way, bringing in several voices related to Tereska: Chim, Tereska’s parents, a survivor of the Otwock Massacre, the director of the hospital, Tereska herself, and several others. While all the facts remain true, Naggar took liberties in imagining their voices, bringing in a very personal touch in sharing Tereska’s story and creating context around it.

Teraska and Her Photographer is a comfortably thin publication, easy to hold and rather light. An element of Tereska’s original drawing – the intense chaotic spirals –  appears in shiny silver on matte dark grey cover, with her name at the very top. The inside pages are printed on a light newsprint paper. Each voice in the book is presented in a distinct font, adding a layer of a visual distinction to help us better follow the different threads of the story.

Seymour’s photographs, along with other archival images, appear throughout the book: some of them are cropped and enlarged, others are highly pixelated as if inviting us to unravel them more closely. Among them are an archival image of Chim’s parents and aunt, and images of other kids, soldiers, ruins, and barbed wire. A helpful image index at the end of the book reproduces the original photographs and their captions, to fill out the history.

Through Seymour’s voice, we get more details about his assignment and its challenges: “I saw ten-year-old girls selling themselves so that they could eat. In a Roman orphanage, I saw children who had lost an arm or a leg playing soccer. I saw an armless and blind kid deciphering a book with his lips. But there were scenes that I could not bring myself to photograph – and not just because they did not match my sponsor’s guidelines – but because they were unbearably violent.”  An image of a girl looking to the right as she eats soup appears next to this text.

The font used for Tereska’s voice, bold and condensed, has an individual character. “The photographer was not tall, and he was wearing thick glasses. <…>  I had turned to him but could not smile. I let my chalk wander on the black surface, tracing more and more tangled lines. I realized that what I wanted to say could be expressed neither with words nor with images.”  As we read Tereska’s fictionalized recollection of meeting Seymour, a well known portrait of him appears on the same spread. The next spread pairs a fragment of Tereska next to the blackboard with a close up of her hand making the drawing. The following spread juxtaposes Tereska’s face with an image of a boy drawing. The resizing and sequencing of the pictures creates a feeling of investigation, of mysteries being carefully unpacked and resolved. 

Seymour died in 1956 during the Suez Israeli-Egyptian war; he was shot by a soldier after he and the journalist Jean Roy failed to respond to the patrol’s warning shouts. Like Chim’s, Tereska’s death was also tragic and absurd. She died in 1978 at a psychiatric hospital; she was 37 years old. Traumatised by an insatiable sense of hunger caused by the war, she stole food from another patient, hid in the bathroom, and choked to death while eating. The parallels in their lives inspired the dual story, and a small bullet hole, a symbol of Tereska’s earlier injury and Seymour’s death, goes through the book as a connecting design element.

Tereska and Her Photographer stands as a thought-provoking book that takes up the challenge of rewriting history, and it does so with intelligence and grace. It is an exciting example of the clever intersection of text and image, an area of photobook white space that more writers and photographers are beginning to explore more fully. Through its innovative and courageous design, it also re-interprets and re-presents the well known photographs of a Magnum photographer in a fresh and unique way, ultimately reminding us to think outside of the established framework and to always look closely for stories with more richness and subtlety than may be apparent at first glance.

Collector’s POV: While the photographs of Chim (David Seymour) form the basis for this photobook, the book isn’t really a typical monograph that a collector would use as a survey of the artist’s work. And given its interpretive approach to reconsidering the imagery, the market for Seymour’s work seems largely unrelated to the artistic and historical threads being followed and investigated here. As such, we will forgo the discussion of secondary market prices and gallery representation that would typically be found here.

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Read more about: Chim (David Seymour), Russet Lederman Inc., The Eyes Publishing

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