Robert Capa, a photo journalist, arrived in Spain in August 1936 to cover the Spanish Civil War, which had broken out a few weeks before. During his coverage as a war photographer he took the famous Falling Soldier image. The image came to symbolize the Civil War between the Spanish government and General Francisco Franco’s fascist rebels. In World War II Capa would later take another famous image on the D-day Normandy beaches.
Taking the photo
The original title was Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936. The Falling Soldier was first published in the September 23, 1936, issue of the French magazine Vu. The Vu article read, “With lively step, breasting the wind, clenching their rifles, they ran down the slope covered with thick stubble. Suddenly their soaring was interrupted, a bullet whistled — a fratricidal bullet — and their blood was drunk by their native soil.” There was no mention in the article on where the picture was taken. Then on July 12, 1937 Life magazine published an article with the Capa image and the caption, “Robert Capa’s camera catches a Spanish soldier the instant he is dropped by a bullet through the head in front of Córdoba.”
Robert Capa was born on October 22, 1913. He was born with the name Endre Ernő Friedmann in Budapest, Hungary. When he was 18 he left Hungary for Germany but when the Nazi’s took power he emigrated again to Paris. It from Paris that he went to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War. After Franco defeated the Republic Capa returned to France until the Nazi invasion upon where he left for America. He went on to become a celebrated war photographer covering five different wars: the Spanish Civil War, the Second Sino-Japanese War, World War II across Europe (He was the only “enemy alien” photographer for the Allies), the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and the First Indochina War. His two most famous pictures are the, Fallen Solider and his image of the 1944 D-day Normandy invasion. In 1947, Capa co-founded Magnum Photos with, among others, the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. Magnum Photos was the first cooperative agency for worldwide freelance photographers. In 1947 Capa travelled to the Soviet Union with his friend, John Steinbeck. When he was leaving the country Soviet officials wanted to look through his undeveloped images. Capa refused to give them access unless Yevgeny Khaldei developed them. Capa had befriended the photographer while the two covered the Potsdam Conference and the Nuremberg Trials together. Both men were hard-drinkers and recognized as playboy lady killers.
On May 25, 1954 at 2:55 p.m. Capa was with a French regiment in Vietnam when he left his jeep to take some photos. While walking up the road he stepped on a land-mine and lost his leg. He was quickly rushed to a small field hospital but was pronounced dead on arrival due to massive trauma and loss of blood.
Starting in the 70s historians began to question the authenticity of, Fallen Solider image. Much of the confusion revolves around Capa’s inexperience as a photographer. The Spanish Civil war was his first and he often didn’t caption or take notes about where and when he took his photos. His editors many times had to guess where his pictures were taken. Further complicating things is that there is no negative of “Falling Soldier” known to exist.
The first accusations came from O.D. Gallagher, a South African-born journalist who was also covering the war. In an interview he gave for the book, The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam; The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker (1975) Gallagher claims that “at one stage of the war he and Capa were sharing a hotel room. … there had been little action for several days, and Capa and others complained to the Republican officers that he could not get any pictures. Finally … a Republican officer told them he would detail some troops to go with Capa to some trenches nearby, and they would stage some manoeuvres for them to photograph.” However, Gallagher’s account was discounted when in a later interview for another book the 1978 Jorge Lewinski work, The Camera at War, Gallagher claimed that Franco’s troops, not Republican ones, had staged the photo. Controversy has continued to surround the image. The most recent accusations have been levelled by research carried out by José Manuel Susperregui for his book “Shadows of Photography”.
Susperregui by studying the background images of the surrounding hillsides was able to determine that the image took place near a village called Espejo. There were some intense combat near Espejo in late September but no fighting occurred around the 5th of that month when Capa was in the region. This lead Susperregui to conclude that the photo was staged because there was no battles when the picture was taken. Capa’s supporters have replied that the image might be of a sniper hit behind enemy lines but Susperregui disregards these criticisms because there was no documented use of snipers on that battle front.
When the Gallagher debate emerged the issue was resolved when in August 1996, Rita Grosvenor, a British journalist reported that Spanish historians were able to determine that on September 5, 1936 the only solider that was killed in battle at Cerro Muriano was one Federico Borrell García. Borrell’s younger brother, Everisto, confirmed the identification. However, Susperregui in his research noted that the Cerro Muriano battleground was in “a wooded area, with century-old trees,” not at all like the open hillside shown in Capa’s photograph. He backs this up with an obscure anarchist magazine article first published in 1937 that states Borrell was hit while positioned “behind a tree”. The article quotes fellow soldiers saying they remember that, “I can still see him stretched out behind the tree that served as his barricade, with his unruly hair falling over his face and a trickle of blood dripping from his mouth.”
Magnum Photos the company that Mr. Capa was a co-founder of has used the 1996 revelation of the identity Federico Borrell García as the final proof that the photo was authentic. Although they have not responded to Susperregui’s accusation there has been some recent forensic evidence that supports the photo is indeed one of a man dying.
When asked to view the images Captain Robert L. Franks, the chief homicide detective of the Memphis Police Department, made an interesting observation. Zooming in on the left hand you can observe that the fingers form a claw with fingers curled towards the palm. This indicates that there is some sort of muscle spasm. It is almost impossible for any person to resist the impulse of while falling to splay your fingers and stick out your wrist to break your fall. To claim that Capa trained the man to fake that reflex seems unlikely.