Robert Capa – was that photograph really real?

For many years I’ve been talking to my students about the ethical dilemmas associated with photojournalism. One of the key case studies that we discuss is the image of a Spanish soldier at the point of death that Magnum agency photographer Robert Capa took in 1936.
In the shot the Loyalist soldier appears to be falling back after being hit by a sniper’s bullet.


For years there’s been controversy around this image. Some historians and journalists, notably Philip Knightley, have argued that this is a faked image. Posed by the soldier for Capa’s camera.

In a review of a biography of Capa (Blood and Champagne by Alex Kershaw), Knightley is scathing in his attack on the man, and the famous image.

Let’s get the bad stuff over first. Robert Capa was a liar, a compulsive gambler, a depressive, a heavy drinker, and a womaniser (especially with prostitutes). He used people, broke promises and when he was accused of being a communist and the U.S. State Department kept his passport, he “named names”, to get it back.

At the urging of the appalling Henry Luce, the founder of Life and producer of the March of Time newsreel series, he staged Republican attacks on Fascist positions during the Spanish Civil War and filmed them, noting that they looked “more real” than if they had actually taken place. And, I maintain, he faked the most famous war photograph of all time, the Spanish soldier at the moment of death.

But the Wikipedia entry and other bloggers have suggested that it’s real. The entry is quite clear on the story, but doesn’t mention Knightley’s criticism:

From 1936 to 1939, he was in Spain, photographing the horrors the Spanish Civil War. In 1936, he became known across the globe for a photo he took on the Cordoba Front of a Loyalist Militiaman who had just been shot and was in the act of falling to his death. Because of his proximity to the victim and the timing of the capture, there was a long controversy about the authenticity of this photograph. Historians eventually succeeded in identifying the dead soldier as Federico Borrell García, from Alcoi (Valencia) and proved it authentic. [1] This is one of the best-known pictures of the Spanish civil war.

This position receives some support, for example this comment from a discussion thread at photo.net:

The photo has been proved to be in no way “a set up” by the photographer, despite a claim by someone who wasn’t anywhere near the place where it happened.

In a response this this, another post suggested:

I never said the photograph was a hoax. Robert Capa had asked the soldier to perform for a photograph(duck and roll I believe) when he was shot and killed(in reality)

In amongst all the discussion of cameras, lenses and focal lengths, there’s some support for Capa on the photo.net site. Here’s another post on a different thread that seems to support the Wikipedia entry:

Knightley claims to have proved in 1974, Capa Falling Loyalist Solider photo was faked. Well, a few years ago, the soldier was positively identified by records and family members. Knightley still refuses to accept this. A long time ago, I read his evalution and found it lacking. In addition, I believe, he did not have access to the Capa archives and never saw the original contact sheet(s) from the event. The original negative has been lost. The very best source of ACCURATE Robert Capa facts, is the Richard Whelan biography, first published in 1985.

There is a piece by Richard Whelan online that backs this story and provides more detail. This extract talks about the controversy and maintains that the image is real. However, it says here that the soldier was a Republican fighter. I thought the Loyalists were Francos’ fascists. I’ve always thought the image was of a Republican and given Capa’s political leanings I would imagine he would have been with Republican units, not Franco’s.


After photographing in Barcelona, Capa and Taro went to the stalemated Aragón front, where they visited the militia of the Trotskyite POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) that George Orwell would serve with that winter. Capa and Taro then moved south toward Andalucía. Republican forces had begun an offensive to recover Córdoba, and the Madrid government reported new advances daily, even emptily boasting that its troops had entered the city. For photographers eager to cover Republican victories, the Córdoba front was a compelling destination.

There, just outside the tiny village of Cerro Muriano, on September 5, 1936, a 22-year-old Capa made one of his most famous images, perhaps the greatest of all war photographs—that of a Republican militiaman who has just been shot and is collapsing into death.

The internal evidence of the series of photographs to which that picture belongs suggests that Capa ran down a barren hillside with the vanguard of a Republican attack, and, as they came into range of an enemy emplacement, he threw himself down and hugged the ground (as we can see from the camera angle); from there he photographed several men as they were shot in succession. “Falling Soldier” received its first publication soon afterward in the September 23, 1936, issue of Vu.

In 1975, a controversy began over the authenticity of Capa’s great photograph when O’Dowd Gallagher, an elderly British journalist of failing memory, charged that the photograph was staged. The claim was published in Phillip Knightley’s book The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker.

In a world always eager to believe the worst, Gallagher’s allegations spread rapidly. Refuting evidence was largely ignored. In September 1996, however, the controversy was definitively settled in Capa’s favor by the discovery of the identity of the man in the photograph—Federico Borrell García, whose death at Cerro Muriano, on September 5, 1936, is recorded in the Spanish government’s archives and whose identity in the photograph was confirmed by his younger brother, Everisto.

Through circumstantial evidence, which I pieced together while working on my biography of Capa, we know for certain that Capa and Taro were in Cerro Muriano on that day. Indeed, on the vintage prints preserved in the files of Capa’s estate with their original chronological numbering, the numbers on the sequence of pictures to which the “Falling Soldier” belongs immediately precede those of a Cerro Muriano refugee series. The numbering on the vintage prints clearly suggested that Capa made his “Falling Soldier” picture at Cerro Muriano on September 5, 1936. Capa repeatedly confirmed during his lifetime that he had made his photograph on the Córdoba front.

There is another, more detailed account of this story from Richard Whelan at PBS, written in 2002. This image purports to show the relative positions of Borell Garcia and Capa, taken from a trench on the front lines.
Here’s Whelan’s final thoughts on the subject, from the PBS American Masters documentary on Capa:

The arrow indicates [in the photo above] where Federico Borrell García was standing when he was shot; the X indicates where Capa was hugging the side of the gully.

There can be no further doubt that The Falling Soldier is a photograph of Federico Borrell García at the moment of his death during the battle at Cerro Muriano on September 5, 1936. May the slanderous controversy that has plagued Robert Capa’s reputation for more than twenty-five years now, at last, come to an end with a verdict decisively in favor of Capa’s integrity. It is time to let both Capa and Borrell rest in peace, and to acclaim The Falling Soldier once again as an unquestioned masterpiece of photojournalism and as perhaps the greatest war photograph ever made.

Whelan provides more photographic evidence in this piece, published in 2003.

I haven’t been able to find any response to this from Phillip Knightley. If you know of one, perhaps you could let me know.


18 Responses to Robert Capa – was that photograph really real?

  1. Sarah says:

    Did anyone who claimed it was staged have any evidence to back them up? It really does sound like sour grapes…

    Interesting post, btw. I used to read my Dad’s old Life magazines and photojournalism books when I was a kid, so I’m familiar with Capa’s work but not any of the controversy.

  2. a . l. e . x . n . g says:

    I put together the 2 falling soldier picture by Robert Capa first published in VU magazine 1936, you can find the 2 falling soldier are “shoot” at the exact point, that is, they were shoot to died at the same position, no matter which photo is the first one, you can’t find any dead body on the ground. you can see the picure in my blog: http://wuzhenrong.blshe.com/post/74/169922
    I wrote in Chinese, but you can see the picture, the picture call tell.

  3. […] lay my hands on a version at work, while I was writing a piece about famous photojournalist Robert Capa, whose brother Cornell died […]

  4. T. Roberts says:

    Because the location, date and orientation of the photograph are known the time at which Capa took the photograph can be estimated within an hour or so. As far as I remember, it’s about mid-morning. Secondly (in my opinion) the two photographs aren’t taken at the same position- the grass blades don’t line up precisely. The photograph was taken on the shoulder of a hill, as part of a series showing a charge down that hill. Where are the bullets coming from? Not from down the slope, since that’s the direction the soldiers are charging towards, and those further down the slope would also have incurred casualties. Not from in front of the photographer, because that’s just a drop down to a valley (the shooter would have to be close and have been visible in the photograph). Not from behind the “Falling Soldier” because that’s where they just charged from (unless he was shot by one of his comrades). The only direction left for the shots to come from would have been behind Capa.

    The identification with Borrell is curious; it appears Borrell was well-known in the area (I found an obituary published a year after his death) and he died in the afternoon (according to Whelan). The only real certainties about the photograph are that it was taken on the brow of a hill near Cerro Muriano (there’s a military base visible in the distance) and it was taken in the morning.

  5. […] summary of this debate continues to be one of the most clicked on posts on Ethical […]

  6. Lita says:

    fascinating post

  7. […] There’s a long post at Ethical Martini on the Falling Soldier photograph and its history and […]

  8. […] [Robert Capa: Is that photo really real? EM September 2007] […]

  9. luca pagni says:

    Richard Whelan in 2007 wrote:

    “The image, known as Death of a Loyalist militiaman or
    simply The Falling Soldier, has become almost universally
    recognized as one of the greatest war photographs ever made
    (fig. 40). The photograph has also generated a great deal
    of controversy. In recent years, it has been alleged that
    Capa staged the scene, a charge that has forced me to
    undertake a fantastic amount of research over the course of
    two decades. (Nota 3)

    I have wrestled with the dilemma of how to deal with a
    photograph that one believes to be genuine but that one
    cannot know with absolute certainty to be a truthful
    documentation. with a caption mentioning the doubts that
    have been raised about its authenticity ? Has the taint of
    suspicion rendered it permanently impotent ?

    Will Capa’s photograph have to be relegated to the dustbin
    of history ?

    As I will attempt to demonstrate here, the truth concerning
    The Falling Soldier is neither black nor white.

    It is neither a photograph of a man pretending to have been
    shot, nor an image made during what we would normally
    consider the heat of battle. “

  10. luca pagni says:

    Richard Whelan in “This Is War! Robert Capa at Work”, 2007, wrote:

    For a review of the debates and evidence both pro and
    con, see the comprehensive dossier compiled by photography
    critic Luca Pagni at
    http://www.photographers.it/articoli/cd_capa/index.html
    Proponents of the argument that The Falling Soldier was
    faked include Phillip Knightley (to be discussed below) and
    Caroline Brothers; for the latter, see her War and
    Photography: A Cultural History (London: Routledge, 1997),
    pp. 178-84.”

  11. […] think there are some unresolved issues here, including the ethics of war […]

  12. […] EM’s continuing doubt about the falling man September 7, 2007 Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Something to look forward to – Robert Capa photographsThe curious case of the Mexican suitcaseLost and Found: Robert Capa’s “Mexican Suitcase” […]

  13. […] I first wrote about the Capa image  in 2007. I’ve always had doubts. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Something to look forward to – Robert Capa photographsRobert Capa’s Mexican suitcaseRobert Capa’s Falling soldier – does the evidence stack up?NYC Center Can’t Solve 73-Year-Old Photo Mystery […]

  14. […] Re: photo journalism and morality Robert Capa and the famous photo of the soldier being shot in the Spanish Civil War. Real or a fake? See: Robert Capa – was that photograph really real? […]

  15. […] be no better or worse. All it took was being there. And unlike Capa’s image, quite possibly faked judging by his contact sheet which seems to be surprisingly inavailable from Magnum, the modern one […]

  16. App Rankings says:

    Thank you for the well researched content in your write up on Robert
    Capa..
    Thanks

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