Born in Hale, Cheshire, of Scottish and German descent, Rodger went to school at St. Bees School in Cumberland.
He joined the British Merchant Navy and sailed around the world. While sailing, Rodger wrote accounts of his travels and taught himself photography to illustrate his travelogues.
He was unable to get his travel writing published; after a short spell in the United States, where he failed to find work during the Depression, Rodger returned to Britain in 1936. In London he found work as a photographer for the BBC’s The Listener magazine. In 1938 he had a brief stint working for the Black Star Agency.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Rodger had a strong urge to chronicle the war. His photographs of the Blitz gained him a job as a war correspondent for Life magazine, based in the United States.
Rodger covered the war in West Africa extensively and, towards the end of the war, followed the Allies’ liberation of France, Belgium and Holland. He also covered the retreat of the British forces in Burma. He was probably the only British war reporter/photographer allowed to write a story on the Burma Road by travelling on it into China, with special permission from the Chinese military.
Rodger was one of many photographers to enter the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen in 1945, the first being members of the British Army Film and Photographic Unit. His photographs of the survivors and piles of corpses were published in Life and Time magazines and were highly influential in showing the reality of the death camps. Rodger later recalled how, after spending several hours at the camp, he was appalled to realise that he had spent most of the time looking for graphically pleasing compositions of the piles of bodies lying among the trees and buildings. This traumatic experience led Rodger to conclude that he could not work as a war correspondent again.
Leaving Life, he travelled throughout Africa and the Middle East, continuing to document these areas’ wildlife and peoples.