Biography Hugh Wilmar

Hugo Alexander Wilmar

In his short life, Hugo Wilmar (1923 – 1957) was an Englander, a front-line photographer in the former Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), a travel photographer for Spaarnestad Publishers and a filmmaker for the well-known Disney True Life Adventure films White Wilderness and Jungle Cat. With his photographs and letters, his pointed observations and evocative descriptions of nature, he left a complete picture of the end of the colonial era and the rise of our modern world. Narrative composition and technical perfection give his photographs the iconic power of a top photographer. In the 1990s, a book of his (banned) photographs of the first police actions in Sumatra was published.

His life story represents the fearlessness and courage of young people growing up in World War II.

Den Haag

Hugo Wilmar was born in Amersfoort on May 28, 1923. The son of a high-ranking military officer attached to the General Staff, he grew up in the polders and dunes around The Hague where he hunted and photographed wild animals at an early age


In March 1944, when the Allied invasion seemed imminent, he fled with a small suitcase through France to Spain, where he was arrested and ended up in a camp. Thanks to mediation by Dutch consul, he was able to travel to England in June 1944 via Gibraltar, Algeria. There he enlisted as an Englander and war volunteer. Because his eyes were too bad for active duty, he received broad training in New York as a military photographer and filmmaker. He made all kinds of photo reports of life in and around the big city. He also got President Truman, General Eisenhower, Mayor LaGuardia and Russian Foreign Minister Molotov in front of his lens.

Dutch East Indies

Immediately after the war, Wilmar joined the information service of the U.S.-based Dutch Marine Brigade. In November 1945, he was embarked with destination East Java. There he had to record the actions of the Marines against the Indonesians. His razor-sharp photographs are reminiscent of the work of American war photographers who captured the Allied invasion of Europe during World War II and made the front page of Life with their photos of the front. Like the American front-line photographers, Wilmar moved on the front lines, facing the same dangers as the soldiers he photographed. Although he captured several confrontational images of Dutch military action in the Dutch East Indies, information services primarily selected his “good news” prints for publication (as seen in the 1947 photo book With the Marine Brigade in East Java published by Spaarnestad). Frustrated, Wilmar wrote to a friend, “As for publication, it is blocked and opposed as much as possible. Shameful! The Dutch people therefore live in the firm conviction that we sit here mieters quietly in our beautiful East Indies and yet are lucky…”

Popular Magazines

As of June 1947, Wilmar started working as a reportage photographer for De Spaarnestad. At that time, this large publishing house reached millions of readers with popular weeklies such as Catholic Illustration and Panorama. These weeklies offered a window on the rest of the world on the eve of the advent of television. For Spaarnestad, Wilmar traveled to, among others, the Belgian Congo, South Africa, Egypt, Syria, Israel, Jordan, Ethiopia, New Guinea, Suriname, the Netherlands Antilles.


In 1951, he left for the United States to fulfill his big dream: making wildlife films. He studied wildlife management at the University of Wisconsin and then was able to work at Walt Disney Studios. Film footage of his can be seen in Disney’s popular films White Wilderness (1958) and Jungle Cat (1960). With his heavily pregnant American wife, he traveled to the Arctic Circle in 1955.

Dramatic ending

But the life of the man who loves working at the cutting edge has a dramatic end. While traveling through South America, he is killed at the age of 34 in a fatal train accident near the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu. On a mountainside near the Walt Disney Studios, one more reminder of the adventurous photographer can be found: a commemorative stone bearing the apt text “Caught in flight like a game bird.”

Hugo Wilmar only lived to be 34 years old.

Photos by Hugh Wilmar

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