IBDP IA: Was Capa's 'Falling Soldier' Faked?


Was Robert Capa’s photograph of ‘The Falling Soldier’ staged?

 

Identification and evaluation of sources 

Was Robert Capa’s photograph of ‘The Falling Soldier’ staged? This investigation focuses on the location, subject, camera properties and other conflicting information surrounding the photograph. The two selected major sources are a primary and secondary source, respectively. The first is the publication of The Falling Soldier in Life magazine a year after it was taken (I), and the second is the book The First Casualty by Phillip Knightley published in 1974 questioning the origins (II). While the photograph speaks for itself and builds the foundation for this investigation, Source II provides some fundamental issues with the image which will be examined to evaluate whether or not the image is genuine. 

Source I: Death of a Loyalist militiaman (The Falling Soldier) by Robert Capa, published in Life magazine, published on July 12, 1937 (USA). 

Although not the first publication of The Falling Soldier, the addition of the image to Life magazine a year after it appeared in Vu introduced the American audience across the Atlantic to the horrors of European nationalism and militarism in the Spanish Civil War. According to journalist Alex Kershaw, the image created a “sensation” in Middle America, with many angry letters written to the editor about such a graphic display of violence as this was the first time such an image found its way into these households.   The captioning of the photograph reads how the photograph ostensibly, ‘catches a Spanish soldier the instant he is dropped by a bullet through the head’, is inherently misleading; as no such observation can be made from the image, this source can be regarded as an early piece of misinformation.  The editor responsible for the caption claims to have mistaken the tossed-back tassel of the soldier’s cap for a detached piece of skull.  The significance of this is that this publication first popularized the photograph and established Robert Capa as a serious photojournalist not only within the United States, but globally, creating a false understanding of the image in public perception.  Indeed, upon simply regarding the photograph, it is already impossible to ascertain where exactly the militiaman would have been shot, seeing as there is no discernible bullet wound to be seen anywhere on his body. Knightley argues it might as well be titled ‘a militiaman slips and falls while training for action’, rendering it worthless.  This is supported by French documentary maker Patrick Jeudy, who captures a frame of a soldier slipping and falling in his documentary that closely resembles The Falling Soldier. 

Source II: The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, propagandist, and Myth Maker by Phillip Knightley, 1975 (New York and London), pages 209-212. 

Knightley was an Australian media commentator on propaganda and a Professor for Journalism at the University of Lincoln. This source is crucial because Phillip Knightley was the first person to publicly express doubts about the authenticity of the world-famous photograph.  Therefore, without this source, there may well have been no dispute on this issue. The New York Times describes how Knightley’s ‘deadly accurate’ narrative in The First Casualty ‘sheds vast new light’ on historical developments.  Additionally, the source being published in 1975 offers the benefits of hindsight, enabling a more holistic, objective and analytical view on the matter in question; on the other hand, this is also the reason for some outdated information, i.e. O.D. Gallagher’s testimony being partly undermined upon false information given in a 1978 interview.  However, although Knightley was highly respected and successful in his field, he was an investigative journalist rather than an historian.  This is important to note seeing as a journalist writing history is likely to pursue a narrative while an historian strives to discover the intricate connections, developments, and nuances of history. Furthermore, while Knightley writes extensively of issues of The Falling Soldier, the provided historical context of the Spanish Civil War at the time the photograph was taken is somewhat thin. Additionally, several crucial details, such as the identification of the The Falling Soldier, are not mentioned, although this can be partially accredited to Knightley being the first to investigate the topic.


Investigation 

This essay will examine the authenticity of The Falling Soldier using a variety of different factors which may reveal further information. These include the reality of what the photograph depicts, the circumstances it was taken under, the location and time it was taken at, the identity of the subject, and who was responsible for taking the photograph. To evaluate whether the photograph was staged, its details must be observed carefully. The man’s clenched fist which can be seen in Figure I has been described as evidence for a death grip: because the flexor tendons of the hand are stronger than the extensor tendons, fists are the ‘natural state’ of the hand, which is commonly seen in recently deceased.  Most other information provided from the photographic evidence itself, however, does not speak in its favour. A second, unexplained image which appeared in Vu complicates matters significantly; another man is depicted in nearly the same spot as The Falling Soldier. Only fifty years after the publication was the coexistence of these images even questioned, as it was widely believed the same man was shown.  Upon closer examination, though, Whelan argues there is “no doubt” these images depict different men; an additional photo in the series not only recognizably depicts both men standing beside each other, but also clearly posing for the camera, showing that while this by no means proves they would have faked their own deaths, they were not above staging themselves for a photograph (see Appendix I).  To reconstruct the events, this would have meant after one shot taken of a man dying, with a closeness unprecedented in the history of photography, the body was moved, only for a second shot of such quality to be taken at the exact same spot. In addition to what Capa’s biographer describes as a ‘one in a million’ shot of The Falling Soldier, this would be the second incredible coincidence associated with the image, which seems highly implausible.  No negatives of the sequence before and after the famous picture was taken, nor an original print or negative thereof, which could be used to identify whether The Falling Soldier is part of a sequence of various soldiers staging their own deaths, are known to exist.  Kershaw argues that Vu gives itself away by referring to the men in the caption in plural third person, which read “how they fell” — upon closer consideration, though, this may also have been generally referring to all fallen Republican soldiers. 

The conditions under which the image was taken remain an immense source of speculation, especially due to the multitude of accounts produced. An immediate question raised by the nature of the image is how it was possible for a photographer to come so remarkably close to a dying man and yet not be shot himself. An explanation is offered in former war correspondent John Hersey’s 1947 review of Capa’s autobiography entitled The Man Who Invented Himself, in which he describes a version he claims to have been delivered to him by Capa himself.  According to Hersey, the photographer was situated in a trench with a ‘fanatical but ignorant’ company of Republican Volunteers, who repeatedly charged toward a Nationalist machine gun.  After several repetitions of this ‘gallant and ingenuous procedure’, Capa ‘timidly raised his camera to the top of the parapet’ and blindly clicked the button at the sound of machine-gun fire.  Knightley describes it as a ‘million-to-one’ shot and points out that it is highly unlikely for a blindly-aimed photograph to end up not only neatly framed, but also catching the very moment of the subject’s death.  A conflicting version of the events was produced by O. D. Gallagher, a London Daily Express correspondent, who claims that Capa told him he had visited nearby trenches with some soldiers and staged some maneuvers for them to photograph.  After the picture was published several months later in French magazine Vu, Gallagher remarked how genuine it looked because it was slightly blurry, to which Capa allegedly responded that a good action shot ‘mustn’t be in true focus’.  However, Gallagher’s story has lost some credibility after he claimed the photograph had been taken in Nationalist-controlled Spain, of which there is no evidence that Capa had ever visited, especially as he was a strong Loyalist supporter. 

Although not entirely aligning in details on the location and the number of soldiers involved, Capa’s own version of the process of taking the photograph itself stayed relatively consistent; in both a 1937 interview given to the New York World-Telegram and a radio interview given to WNBC New York in 1947, he stuck to the questionable narrative of the photograph having been a stroke of luck.  Capa’s own accounts of the events have also varied over the years, meaning he was unable to stick to one, consistent story, which makes him less credible in what happened. However, one must remember that The Falling Soldier was far from the only photograph Capa took in Spain; as a war photographer, who saw the death and destruction of soldiers he had seen alive only moments before unfold before his very eyes every single day, before moving on to the next front, where the same would be repeated. As a photograph was not immediately accessible directly after it was taken in the 1930s, Capa did not know he had just taken the photograph of his career. It is therefore entirely plausible that Capa simply confused different impressions he had gathered during his time in Spain and forgot the exact details of when and where the photograph was taken. Inconsistencies such as whether he was alone with the Falling Soldier, as stated in his 1937 interview, or in a larger group of soldiers on another occasion, the differences between his accounts are put into perspective considering the nature of his everyday life under these extreme circumstances. Although Kershaw also argues that it seems highly unlikely Capa would not have learnt the name of a man in a unit he spent several days with, thus making him unable to determine the Falling Soldier’s identity, this can be discredited using the same argument. 

The identity of the man in the image provides a similar conundrum. Mario Brotons, an amateur historian, claimed to identify the Falling Soldier as Federico Borrell. Upon showing the famous image to the subject’s remaining relatives in 1996, Borrell was immediately recognized. In addition to this, according to Brotons, only one man had died on the Cerro Muriano front on September 5, 1936, the day the picture is believed to have been taken. According to an interview with Borrell’s niece, his friends had seen him “fling up his arms and crumple to the ground” after a bullet struck his head. Looking into Brotons’ “research”, however, many issues arise with his historical methodology. Not only does his book on the Spanish Civil War contain no information on source material, the archives in Ávila near Madrid and Salamanca, which he allegedly “scoured”, found nothing to support his claims and had never even been contacted by him before. This makes his information more or less worthless, especially as many unanswered questions remain: if Borrell’s family immediately recognized him on Capa’s photograph, why did someone in their surroundings not make this observation at some point within the sixty preceding years? What of the second man depicted in Vu, was the image of him writhing in pain not conspicuously made shortly after that of the Falling Soldier? Besides, who is to say the Falling Soldier even died in Capa’s picture? Despite what the caption of Life magazine purports, no bullet is discernible anywhere on the photograph, thus it is not even known whether the depicted shot was fatal. 

In conclusion, it seems that the only reliable piece of information in existence regarding The Falling Soldier is the photograph itself. There have simply been too many conflicting statements made on both the identity of the man in the picture and the circumstances under which he was photographed. Assuming Capa’s own version of the events is true, and it truly was a ‘one in a million’ shot which miraculously left him alive, this does not explain the presence of the other soldier, also from up close and supposedly fatally hit, in the exact same spot as The Falling Soldier. While this does not prove that the image was staged, it raises serious doubts over its veracity. However, although the photograph may not be real, the question is how much this truly matters; the purpose was to visually document the brutality suffered by Loyalist soldiers on the Republican fronts.


Reflection 

The uncertainty of The Falling Soldier’s veracity provokes an interesting question on the value of photography when used as an historic source; being a form of art applied for use in journalism, when slight artistic license for effect becomes disinformation, its objectivity in documenting events and therefore its value rapidly diminishes. If the authenticity of not even the “most famous wartime photograph of all time” can be proven, the use of photojournalism as a news and historic source should be seriously reconsidered. This investigation showed the issues of not being able to visit the physical site, which would have allowed a comparison of the existing images and the location. This certainly would have put some of the versions of how the image was taken or why two different men were pictured in such close proximity into perspective. Especially after recently having experienced lockdowns, this showed how an historian’s work would be seriously impeded by a lack of access to the site. 

Additionally, there was a significant language barrier as the author does not speak proficient Spanish. This meant that source material in this language needed to be translated by a third party, who may not have portrayed the nuances and subtleties of the language entirely accurately. As the Spanish Civil War, the long-term effects of which only ended in 1975 with Franco’s death and the reintroduction of democracy, is still a socially difficult issue in Spain, there were only few Spanish sources to begin with although the entire discussion of the photograph revolves around the nation’s Civil War.


Bibliography

Beevor, Antony. The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939. London: Phoenix, 2007.

 

Capa, Robert. Slightly Out of Focus. New York: Random House, 2001.

 

Hersey, John, “The Man Who Invented Himself,” ‘47: The Magazine of the Year, Vol. 1, No. 7, (Sept 1947). 

 

Kershaw, Alex. Blood and Champagne: The Life and Times of Robert Capa. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002.

 

Knightley, Phillip. The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, propagandist, and Myth Maker. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.

 

Preston, Paul. We Saw Spain Die: Foreign Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War. London: Sky Horse Publishing, 2009. 

 

Schaber, Irme. Gerta Taro, Fotoreporterin im spanischen Bürgerkrieg: Eine Biografie. Marburg: Jonas Verlag, 1994.

 

Susperregui, J.M. Sombras de la fotografía: Los enigmas desvelados de Nicolasa Ugartemendia, Muerte de un miliciano, La aldea española y El Lute. Bilbao: Universidad del País Vasco, 2009.

 

The Mexican Suitcase. Directed by Trisha Ziff. 2011

 

Wills, Garry, “The First Casualty,” New York Times, (14 Sep. 1975): 237. 

 

Whelan, Richard. Robert Capa: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.

 

Whelan, Richard. This is War! Robert Capa at Work. Göttingen: Steidl Verlag, 2007.