Photo: © International Center of Photography. © Robert Capa

History

Spanish Civil War: Was This Iconic Photo Staged?

A striking image from the Spanish Civil War has more to it than it seems

Photo: © International Center of Photography. © Robert Capa

A photo known as the Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death or Falling Soldier is a striking moment from the Spanish civil war in 1936.

Over the years, its validity has been brought into question, with different theories about whether or not the photo was staged. BFBS Creative have delved into the theories for their latest video in the Negatives Series.

The photo was captured by a renowned Hungarian-American war photographer Richard Capa, born André, or Endre, Friedmann, who trained as a photographer in Berlin in the 1930s.

With the threat of war looming, he fled Germany and ended up covering the war in Spain, alongside photographer Gerda Taro.

Together, the two photographers established a new kind of photojournalism with new lightweight cameras. Previously, news had been slow to reach people at home and the photos were not great quality, due to the equipment being so large and unable to get close to the action.

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The photo, which launched Capa’s career, was reportedly captured on 5th September 1936 at Cerro Muriano near the Cordoba front. During a radio interview in 1947, Capa spoke about how he took the photo. He said:

“I just kind of put my camera above my head and even didn't look and clicked the picture.”

However, there are doubts about the authenticity of the image. In 1975, a book called ‘The First Casualty’ written by journalist Philip Knightley suggested that the photo may have been staged. Jose Manuel Susperregui also published evidence that brought the location of the photograph into doubt.

By comparing it with other images from the time, he claimed it wasn’t taken at Cerro Muriano, but instead near the town of Espejo.

At the time, while journalists and photographers were kept away from the front line, they often asked soldiers to pose or run drills that they could photograph.

There are other images from the Spanish Civil War that show Loyalist Militia posing in that way, which suggests they were not taken in the heat of battle.

Photo: © International Center of Photography. © Robert Capa

One theory believes that while the militiamen were posing for Capa, a sniper fired and hit one of the soldiers.  However, Capa describes it differently:

“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 sure enough up the machine gun opened up and mowed them down.”

The identity of the soldier in the photo has also come into question. It is supposedly Frederico Borrell Garcia, but the reports of his death seem to describe the area as being wooded and that he was shot while taking cover behind a tree.

Another book, ‘Blood and Champions’, describes unseen footage of Richard Capa and a man falling as he runs down a hill.

The International Centre For Photography has refuted all allegations of staging, as there is no conclusive proof.

Robert Capa went on to photograph the most dangerous conflicts of that era, including; the war between China and Japan in 1937, and he was onboard the first landing craft on D-Day at Omaha Beach.

The photographer died in 1954.