The First Casualty

By | January 30, 2008


The discovery of three suitcases of negatives belonging to Robert Capa has raised hopes that, once and for all, the authenticity of his famous photograph of a falling Spanish Replubican soldier will be settled. Some believe the photo was staged (Philip Knightley, in particular, has made it an article of faith), as this piece from Reuters highlights:

Still unknown, however, is whether the famed 1936 photograph of “The Falling Soldier,” which shows a Republican soldier at the moment a bullet strikes him down, is among those in the three battered cases, some now held together with black tape and known collectively as “the Mexican suitcase.”

Lingering questions about whether the picture might have been staged could be answered by the negatives, which are said to be in very good condition.

In fact, the truth behind this picture has already been established with some degree of certainty, and actually offers some salutory lessons we could still absorb in this New Media age.

Robert Whelan, Capa’s biographer, has written extensively of his search to authenticate the photo. His PBS version is here, in which he establishes beyond any reasonable doubt that the photo is real; the man’s name, the place, and the way he died. But, intriguingly, some bits are left out of that account, perhaps for reasons of space, and appear only in this version [PDF], which I found on an Italian photographers’ website. (It seems to be a revised version of a piece Whelan wrote for Aperture magazine.)

It turns out the truth is somewhat murkier. There seems little doubt the man had been shot, and that he was dead when the photo was taken. The semi-closed position of his left hand suggests this, since anyone intentionally falling would reflexively open it to catch his fall):


Whelan assembles other evidence to identify the place, the person and the actual incident.

The photo wasn’t staged, but the fact that the man was standing on the hillside, with Capa about to photograph him, was. Hansel Mieth, another Life photographer, wrote to Whelan that Capa and the soldiers had been “fooling around. We felt good. There was no shooting. They came running down the slope. I ran too and knipsed.” And although Capa denied to Mieth that he had asked them to stage the attack, he had “implied that he felt at least partially responsible for the man’s death – a feeling that he naturally did not wish to make public, and so he altered various details in his several accounts of the circumstances in which he had made his photograph.”

If shown in context with the other photographs in the batch, it’s clear that Capa had been asking them to stage certain manoeuvers for him to take photographs, and that their activities and shooting had attracted the attention of an enemy machine gun.

In some ways the photo must have been agony for Capa. On the one hand it became not only his most famous shot (even more famous than his Normandy landing shot) but also the defining icon of war. But the truth is that it was of a man standing still on a hillside in good humour, obliging a photographer, unaware he was in enemy sights.

So what are the lessons?

  • The truth matters. Some have suggested it doesn’t matter whether the photo was staged. It does. This kind of thinking has always confused me; when I investigated a story about Internet photographs of rape victims from the Indonesian riots in 1998, a lot of those hosting the alleged photos said it didn’t matter; what mattered, they said, was whether the rapes occurred. I couldn’t disagree more; what matters is whether the reader/viewer can be sure that what they’re seeing/reading is what it purports to be. This is even more important now with the Blurring of Branding, where we are as likely to get our information from individual-run blogs as we are from big media.
  • The truth is always murkier than we imagine it is. I would have thought Philip Knightley, who wrote The First Casualty about war correspondents, might have dug deeper on this, given the book has gone through countless revisions. Whelan’s work on Capa is by contrast a model of tireless investigation and I believe that he’s gotten as close to the truth of this photograph as we could hope to get.
  • Staging anything is dangerous. Capa may have felt partially responsible for his death although he may not have really been so. But anyone who has been in a situation where they’ve moved an ornament, asked someone to pose in a doorway, encouraged a guerrilla to check out the next hill against his better judgement, must know the feeling: any kind of interfering may lead to unforeseen consequences. The best, the only, course of action is never to interfere and never to suggest to a subject, whether as a journalist or photographer, to do anything they weren’t about to do anyway. Capa carried that burden for the rest of his short life. Any journalist, citizen or otherwise, must be aware of that.

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