Unconshionable Photography

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Falling Soldier by Robert Capa

“I was there in the trench with about twenty milicianos … I just kind of put my camera above my head and even [sic] didn’t look and clicked the picture, when they moved over the trench. And that was all. … [T]hat camera which I hold [sic] above my head just caught a man at the moment when he was shot. That was probably the best picture I ever took. I never saw the picture in the frame because the camera was far above my head.

robert-capa_paris-autumn-1935Perhaps this image more than any other reflects Robert Capa’s famous quote, If your “pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”

This picture was published in French magazine Vu in 1936 and the next year in Life magazine.  The picture seemed to distill the mood of the moment.

However from the outset the picture was embroiled in controversy.  The story given by Capa could not be reconciled to historical events.  The landscape did not match the stated location.  There were several different attempts to name the falling man, each problematic.

There were accusations that the photograph was staged.  You need to remember that this is a time when cameras did not have the abilities that they do now.  It was common practice to stage photographs.  Take for instance Frank Hurleys famous montage of planes and troops from the first world war.  This was totally concocted in the dark room by combing three or four different images.  In my opinion a very successful montage.

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Perhaps  a more accurate depiction of events than Capa’s would be the following statement.

The milicianos stationed there were happy to pose for the photographers. They ran up one of the bare hills in a combat crouch, with their officer beckoning them on; knelt on the grass to aim their rifles at a distant target on the next hill; stood at the edge of a dusty trench and brandished their guns in a show of macho bravado. Finally either Capa or Taro asked if some of the milicianos would simulate being hit by gunfire. One of the soldiers posing, with a lean, creased face and heavy black brows, his shirt white under the straps of his leather cartridge boxes, came down the sunlit slope, his rifle in his right hand, the rope soles of his shoes crunching in the dry grass. And then something happened. Was there a report, the sharp crack of rifle fire? Because suddenly the man’s legs went slack, his hands limp; with his rifle flying away from his loosened fingers, he too dropped to the ground. And in the seconds before the soldier fell Capa squeezed the shutter of his Leica and took what would become one of the most famous photographs in the world.

A suitcase of Capas prints and negatives was discovered in 2009 which adds weight to the staged theory.  This contained other similar photographs like the one below.  The large number of images on the same theme suggests this was workshopped rather than captured spontaneously as claimed.

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This seems to raise questions of its own.  Does the image have authenticity?  Did the man actually die?  If he did not, why claim that he did?  If he did die, how did this happen?  Was he goaded by an eager photographer to place himself in danger for a photographic opportunity?  Is this not unconscionable?  There may be good reasons why Capa remained silent about this image for much of his life.  Capa however has had supporters.  The Magnum agency has defended Capas explanation and reputation over many years.

So, the question that remains in my mind.  Are some photographs unconscionable.   A photograph with impact is not chanced upon – it is created.  When are the tricks used to create the image taken one step too far?

Take for instance this photograph from the famine in Africa.  A vulture waits for the death of a small girl.  What is the photographer thinking?  Why not shoo the vulture away and save the girl.  Would he have waited until the vulture started to eat the girl to get a better photograph.  The photographer is a journalist.  Is the story more important than the life of the girl.  Will bringing this to the attention of the public save more girls from starvation?  These questions remain unanswered.  The mind of the photographer can only be guessed at by the content of the image.    This tension almost gives the image greater impact.

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There is another dimension to this whole problem.  How can you tell when the creation of an image is unethical?  The photographer will occasionally spills the beans.  More often than not it is another photographer who points the finger at a colleague who vehemently denies the accusation. The social media is absolutely full of posts disqualifying famous photographs and  discrediting their authors.  It is almost like a game.  He photoshopped this, he broke the rules of the competition he won, he did this in a way other than he stated.

It seems that any photograph that wins acclaim, will also attract criticism.  Does it really matter?  Should we embroil our selves in this continual game of one-up-man-ship?  I don’t think we should be making scurrilous claims about others.  However we should shine the light on unsustainable practices.    Should we be skeptical of the claims of photographers and equally the accusations of their detractors?  I believe so.  Does the quality of the image justify the means by which it is taken?  I don’t think so.  There has to be a limit.  Where would you draw the line?  I don’t know the answer.  However I have my own conscience and I know what I find acceptable and unacceptable.  Perhaps at the end of the day that is the only guide we have.

So my verdict on the fallen soldier.   I can see both sides of the debate on authenticity and believe that Robert Capa is insincere in his explanation of the image.  I  find the image is intriguing and I think it deserves it’s place in the public arena.  I do not think it is unconscionable on the basis of the information at hand.

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