Founding Magnum Photos in a Paris dealing with the aftermath of World War II, Henri Cartier-Bresson was himself coming to terms with his own experiences; he escaped a prisoner of war camp after being held for three years on his third getaway attempt. He was captured during the Battle of France, where he served in the French Army as a Corporal in the Film and Photo unit. Despite brushing the experience off in later years – Cartier-Bresson once answered that his escape from a Prisoner of War (PoW) camp was his “favorite journey” in a Proust questionnaire – his ordeal undoubtedly shaped his future approach to work, travelling the world with a stray dog freedom, firstly focusing his camera on his fellow former prisoners and other displaced people of war in a documentary film he co-directed, Le Retour (The Return).
Cartier-Bresson used painting and drawing to help him to unpick the events he witnessed during the post-War period, but it was ultimately with his camera that he captured the stories of the Europeans getting to grips with a continent that had – it seemed – irrevocably changed. Through portrait after portrait, the sum of each individual moment captured became a detailed picture of post-war Europe, beginning to unify just as Magnum too was coming together as an agency. Cartier-Bresson’s photo-study Europeans presented a portrait of the continent, documenting a landscape shadowed by the war. Travelling across Europe, from the Scandinavian shield to the Irish bogs, the photographer looked beyond nationalism to find a shared human experience and a greater, more unifying sense of European identity. Cultural idiosyncrasies aside, Cartier-Bresson’s study shows Europeans united in the ongoing business of living. A book featuring these images was published in 1955, and in later years Cartier-Bresson revisited the theme, which had been central throughout his career, pulling together a collection of images from pre and post-war Europe that, combined, create a nuanced yet universal portrait of shared humanity.