The Falling Soldier by Robert Capa (1936) Story behind perhaps the most well known war photograph ever

Hello photography fans, today I would like to talk about a photo taken by one of the most well known war photographer Robert Capa, the photo that is very famous and also little controversial. So let’s check out The Falling Soldier.

The photo in question is The Falling soldier taken in Spain at the beginning of Spanish civil war by famous Magnum agency co-founder Robert Capa. If you are not familiar with him or simply want to find out more feel to check out my other video about his life and photography. The subject of the photograph is a Republican soldier at the moment of his dead.

Now, The Falling soldier is said to be “perhaps the greatest war photograph ever made and also the most debatable picture in the history of photojournalism. Even though it seems to be a little exaggerated, the story behind this photograph is really interesting. So what was the controversy about? Capa was actually accused of staging the famous photograph. There are a few hypotheses how this was supposed to be done. I am going to present you the ones I have find but I don’t want to imply which one you should believe. It’s up to you to create your own opinion.

Robert Capa | Death of a Spanish loyalist militiaman. Córdoba, Spain. September, 1936.  © International Center of Photography. © Robert Capa © International Center of Photography

Robert Capa | Death of a Spanish loyalist militiaman. Córdoba, Spain. September, 1936.

© International Center of Photography. © Robert Capa © International Center of Photography

So why was this picture so special? The Spanish Civil War was actually the first war monitored by modern media, and it was the first widely published photograph of such kind of imagery. It is also considered one of the best combat photographs ever made since it was next level of war photography never seen before until then. When the picture appeared in the Life magazine in 1937 captioned as “A Spanish soldier the instant he is dropped by a bullet through the head” readers were pretty shocked since nothing quite like that had been published until then. The photo became famous for the way it is capturing the terrifying sudden death.

When we look at the compositions we see the falling soldier on the left side looking to the empty space on the right side. This creates a visual imbalance which also amplifies the loneliness of the soldier during the time of his death. (As the viewers are subconsciously looking for balance when looking at the pictures.) When we look at the top of the soldier’s head we can see his tassel which was mistaken for skull parts by the caption maker of Life magazine.

“No tricks are necessary to take pictures in Spain. You don't have to pose your camera. The pictures are there, and you just take them. The truth is the best, the best propaganda.”
Robert Capa, interview with New York World-Telegram, September 2nd 1937

The authenticity was actually not publically questioned until 1974 in his 1975 book on war correspondents “The First Casualty.” raised the question. Capa was supposed to say the picture was actually staged to a reporter, O.D. Gallagher. In the interview by New York World telegraph Capa Talked how he spent time with this particular soldier on the Cordoba front. The soldier was nervous and impatient climbing over the sand bags and dropping back down to the trench because of machine gun fire. Capa followed him during his final attempt and took the shot. Capa had to wait two more hours with the dead body before he could escape the trench in the dark.

In the book Blood and Champion the life and times of Robert Capa, Alex Kershaw discuses an unseen footage of Capa during the Spanish civil war and the man falling down as he runs down a hillside. Perhaps the picture can be exactly what the name is, just The Falling soldier.

Robert Capa (1913 - 1954)

Robert Capa (1913 - 1954)

One of the hypotheses also implies he not only asked the soldier to run down the hill and fall but also that during this attempt the soldier was actually shot and killed. That way he would have basically been responsible for his death and rightfully felt guilty. There are actually two things supporting this theory. The place Capa said he took the photo at was actually different from the one that was later identified as the actual place of the event and was far put from the front. Another thing supporting this theory is a fact that there is another very similar photo taken by Robert Capa with exactly same composition. Why there is no blood or dead body on the ground? Was that one staged and the first one was not? And does it actually matter?

In the radio interview in 1947 about his then new book slightly out of Focus he said:

“I was there in a trench with about 20 milicianos with 20 old rifles and the other facing as was Franco's machine gun. So my milicianos were shooting at the direction of that machine gun for five minutes and then stood up and said "vamonos" (let's move on) get out of the trench began to go after that machine gun shooting up the machine gun opened up and moved them down. So what was left of them came back and take potshots in the direction of the machine gun. Which certainly was clever enought not to answer and after five minutes against said vámonos and they got moved on again. Testing repeated itself 3 or 4 times so the forth time I just kind of put my camera above my head and even didn't look and clecked the picture when they moved over the trench and that was all. I didn't develop my pictures there and I sent my other pictures back with lots of other pictures. I stayed in Spain for three months and when I came back I was very famous photographer because that camera which I hold above my head just caught a man at the moment when he was shot.”

He also explained he didn’t develop the film himself but sent it back to Paris among many others. When he returned from Spain after 3 months he found out he was a famous photographer thanks to that picture.

To this day the most people still believe the picture is candid and no confirmation was ever presented to dispute that.

Let me know what is your opinion and if you think the picture was staged or not and if it actually is important to you. I'm probably more inclined to the Capa’s version and I believe the photo is candid. Or maybe I just want to believe in that.