What We See in a Picture is What We Bring to It

Text by Hans Durrer
First published in Controversy, Max Pinckers & Sam Weerdmeester, published by Lyre Press, Brussels, 2017

On 17 August 2009, the International Herald Tribune published an article by Larry Rohter titled ‘Research raises questions anew about iconic Capa photograph.’ Oh no, I thought, please not yet another piece on Robert Capa’s ‘Falling Soldier,’ probably one of the most over-scrutinized, over-discussed, and overvalued photographs ever. Nevertheless, I started to read: “After nearly three-quarters of a century, Robert Capa’s ‘Falling Soldier’ picture from the Spanish Civil War remains one of the most famous images of combat ever. It is also one of the most debated, with a long string of critics claiming that the photo, of a soldier seemingly at the moment of death, was faked. Now, a new book by a Spanish researcher argues that the picture could not have been made where, when or how Capa’s admirers and heirs have claimed.”

The reason? The photo, according to José Manuel Susperregui, wasn’t taken at Cerro Muriano, just north of Córdoba, but about 55 kilometers away, near another town, and since “that location was far from the battle lines when Capa was there, Mr. Susperregui says, it means that the ‘Falling Soldier’ photo is staged, as are all the others in the series taken on that front.”

Next Willis Hartshorn, the director of the International Center of Photography in New York, where Capa’s archive is stored, said: “Part of what is difficult about this is that people are saying ‘Well if it is not here, but there, then good God, it’s fabricated’ ... That’s a leap that I think needs a lot more research and a lot more study.”

I’m not too sure that a lot more research and study is needed when it comes to this photograph. Besides, I had thought the question of how this picture came about was solved when John Mraz wrote in Zone Zero that “Republican militiamen were pretending to be in combat for Capa’s camera, when a fascist machine gun killed this soldier just as he was posing. It is the coincidence between the fact that the photojournalist had focused on this individual at precisely the second before he was shot that makes this the most famous of war photographs.” Moreover, “Capa’s involvement left him feeling that he had somehow been responsible for the man’s death. Hence, his reticence to discuss the photo, as well as a certain confusion in recounting the events surrounding the photograph’s taking, decisions that are seen in a very different light if we assume that he staged the image. What this case establishes is that our interpretation of a picture is based on the presumptions we bring to the act of seeing it, but that research and reason can enable us to perceive it differently.”

So if research shows that this photograph was taken at another place than previously thought, what does that then mean? That it was taken at another place than previously thought, nothing but that. Was it staged or wasn’t it? Are Capa’s statements in the interviews he gave true or not?

Is the account of John Mraz the real story (if there is such a thing at all)? Well, who knows? But one thing is for certain: the photograph cannot show what happened, it can only show what was right in front of the camera at a given moment. In this case: a man in soldier’s uniform falling.

So why then has this photograph become such an iconic picture? Not because of the composition, or the light, or the framing but solely because we want to believe the famous story that accompanies this shot – for we want photos to be authentic, and true, and we want them to capture moments and scenes that our eyes often only register but do not see.

The story that accompanies this picture – a soldier photographed at the moment of his death – is simply too compelling not to be believed. Whatever research will unearth, whatever reason will lead us to consider, our view of this photo will probably not change for we have been brainwashed into believing that in this picture we see a man dying. It might of course well be that this is indeed the case but it is not what the photograph can show. Still most of us continue to believe that it does. How come?

Remember the story of some years ago about the Eskimo/Inuit, who were reported (in the New York Times) to have a hundred words for snow? In fact, there is no evidence that they possess more words for snow than, say, carpenters have for wood; the famous Eskimo case for snow is a myth, pure and simple, yet, as Geoffrey K. Pullum states in his ‘The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax and other irreverent essays on the study of language’: “Once the public has decided to accept something as an interesting fact, it becomes almost impossible to get the acceptance rescinded. The persistent interestingness and symbolic usefulness overrides any lack of factuality.”

The same goes for the ‘Falling Soldier’ – we continue to see in this photo what is simply not there. What is there is a man in a soldier’s uniform falling on a slope, that’s it, and that is a fact. By the way: ‘fact’ comes from the Latin ‘facere’ and that means ‘to make’.

Mraz, John (2004). From Robert Capa’s ‘Dying Republican Soldier’ to political scandal in contemporary Mexico. Reflections on digitalization and credibility. In: ZoneZero Magazine, online, 2004. Pullum, Geoffrey K. (1991). The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax and other irreverent essays on the study of language. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rohter, Larry (2009). New doubts raised over famous war photo. In: International Herald Tribune, August 17, 2009.
Susperregui, José Manuel (2009). Sombras de la fotografía. Los enigmas desvelados de Nicolasa Ugartemendia, Muerte de un miliciano, La aldea española, El lute. Bilbao: Universidad del País Vasco.