x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

One good shot

A Spanish newspaper publishes an editorial claiming to settle the decades-old debate over the authenticity of Capa's famous 1936 photograph.

Robert Capa's iconic 1936 image Death of a Militiaman.
Robert Capa's iconic 1936 image Death of a Militiaman.

Taken at the moment of death, the image of the soldier falling back, his rifle about to fall from his splayed arm, became an instant icon, not only of the Spanish Civil War, but of modern photojournalism. It also gave rise to a long-running controversy over whether the photograph was staged or not.

The Hungarian photographer Robert Capa became one of the most respected war photographers and cofounded the prestigious Magnum photographers collective. Now a Spanish newspaper, El Periodico, has published an editorial in which it claimed to have settled the decades-old debate over the authenticity of Capa's famous 1936 photograph. "Capa photographed his soldier at a location where there was no fighting," the paper wrote. "The real location, some 10km from an inactive battle front, demonstrates that the death was not real."

The study conducted by the paper looked at the details of the battles - where they took place and on which days - and concluded that the photograph was, in fact, taken at Espejo, a town roughly 50km from Cerro Muriano in Andalusia, where the image was alleged to have been snapped. The study used recently taken images of a hill near Espejo to show that the backgrounds of those and Capa's image were the same.

"We travelled to Espejo and found the exact place," explained Ernest Alos, the author of El Periodico's piece. "It was not near the front of the Espejo but about 10km from there in the outskirts of the village. We matched all the reference points - roads, houses, hills - and found that any [battle] actions were even more inconsistent in that place than in the hill." Additionally, the study indicates that no battles were waged in Espejo until the end of September, which conflicts with the Sept 5 date of the photograph. Because no injuries or deaths were reported at the location or on the date when the photo was taken, Alos said it was "unlikely" the man in the photo could have died at that time.

An exhibit held at the Barbican in London last year showed all photographs taken by Capa on Sept 5 1936. The collection of negatives, held by the International Center of Photography in New York City, included several other photographs of the falling soldier, Frederico Borrell Garcia, a 24-year-old textile worker, which indicated to the ICP that the photographer had indeed captured a real event. Records show that Garcia died on the day the photograph was taken, though the issue of whether he died in battle has been hotly contested. "There have been various theories about whether the soldier was actually shot in battle," Cynthia Young, the curator of the exhibit, told The Telegraph last year. "Looking at the photos it is clear that it is not the heat of battle. It is likely the soldiers were carrying out an exercise either for Capa or themselves."

Julien Frydman, the Paris bureau chief of Magnum, said the debate over the authenticity of the photograph is important. But regardless of that debate, he said, the power of the image cannot be diminished. "It's not the first time this photo is said to have been staged. That's a never-ending story," he said. "What's important, though, is the role of the photograph in a larger sense. Capa is the most incredible story teller. The debate doesn't undermine the capacity of Capa to use the power of photography."

Though others of Capa's photographs, such as his images of D-Day in 1944, were absolutely not staged, Frydman says, to challenge the authenticity of the falling soldier image is healthy and important. But what is also important is to ask not just whether it was or wasn't set up, but why a photographer as talented as Capa would make that decision."Magnum photographers want to make essays. They want to tell stories.

"It's no longer a question of objectivity then, but a question of what the photographer wants to say," Frydman explained. "Of course, staging a photograph today, something could not be presented like that. You would have to say it was staged." Alos maintains that the study was not conducted to tarnish Capa's reputation in any way, and explains that while he was a talented photographer, to call him a photojournalist is to disregard the ethical standards to which those in the field strictly adhere.

"It's still a classic masterwork. But it must not be placed between the masterworks of photojournalism," he said. "Put it in another box. Photography, of course, but in the war propaganda context." Perhaps it was propaganda, Frydman admitted, but there is more to the photograph than that. "The real perspective of a photojournalist is linked to their character, their emotion. So in that sense, who the photographer is, is important," he said. "Maybe Capa was the first to see photography not just linked to objectivity, but to subjectivity as well."

jhume@thenational.ae