The REAL Story Behind Robert Capa’s “The Falling Soldier” (NEW Episode of Good World Gone Bad)

Have you ever wondered about the stories behind iconic photographs? The ones that capture a moment in history and become ingrained in our collective memory. One such photograph is Robert Capa’s “The Falling Soldier,” a haunting image from the Spanish Civil War that has fascinated viewers for decades. In our newest episode of Good World Gone Bad, we delve into the real story behind this legendary photograph, uncovering the mysteries and controversies surrounding its creation. Join us as we explore the truth behind “The Falling Soldier” and its impact on the world of photojournalism.

The REAL Story Behind Robert Capa’s “The Falling Soldier” (NEW Episode of Good World Gone Bad)

Hey everybody, I’m Hugh Brownstone for Three Blind Men and an Elephant, and welcome to this very special episode of Good World Gone Bad, our occasional series in which we go beyond gear and technique to discuss the story or stories behind a renowned photograph, and every now and again, a painting or film.

A Picture Worth a Thousand Words?

A picture, one aphorism goes, is worth a thousand words. I understand the sentiment, if not necessarily agreeing with the number. Another one is this: every picture tells a story. But on this point, I disagree completely. I don’t think pictures tell stories; I think we do. It’s what we bring to our understanding of a photograph, a lifetime of experiences up until the moment we lay eyes on it or any other kind of image, that makes the image special to us.

Take, for example, this loyalist militiamen at the moment of death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936, or more simply, Falling Soldier. It is often called the greatest combat photograph of all time, taken by arguably the greatest combat photographer of all time, Robert Capa. But how many words is that worth? What story or stories does this picture actually tell?

The Spanish Civil War and Repbulican Soldier

Now, at its simplest, Falling Soldier is a photograph taken of a Republican soldier just as he was shot and killed during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. But how many of us know anything about the Spanish Civil War, let alone the word “republican” in this particular context? What do we actually know about the image itself, and what do we know about Robert Capa? Let’s take these questions in reverse order, keeping this one fact in mind: none of what I’m about to tell you is actually communicated by the photograph itself.

The Invention of Robert Capa

First, there was no Robert Capa. Robert Capa was the pseudonym used by the photojournalism team of Andre Friedman and Gerda Pohorylle. Both were Jewish – Friedman from Hungary, Pohorylle from Germany – who fled their respective countries because of rising anti-Semitism. As colleagues and lovers, they invented the persona of Robert Capa because they thought it would be much easier to sell their photographs through a bland, non-ethnic sounding artifice. Eventually, Friedman would become the face of Robert Capa, and Pohorylle would be the agent collecting his fees. But in reality, it was their collective output as war photographers for which they were paid. In fact, Gerda used a nom de guerre of her own: Gerda Taro, a play on her birth name and that of perhaps the most famous actress of the era, Greta Garbo.

Now, let’s just stop here for a moment to note that with 1,733 words in the Wikipedia entry just for Gerda and another 3,600+ for Andre, never mind the entry on the Spanish Civil War, which actually broke the word count tool in Microsoft Word because it was so long, one can argue, certainly, that this one photograph is worth far more than a thousand words.

The Controversy: Who Took the Photograph?

Second, who actually took the photograph? Andre or Gerda? In subsequent interviews, Andre Friedman asserted that he took the photograph. Most experts I read take his assertion at face value. Yet, Tarot was a bona fide war photographer in her own right – the first woman photojournalist killed, in fact, covering the front line in a war: the Spanish Civil War in 1937, at the age of just 27. Among many, many other things, this means she was not in a position to dispute his claim. I don’t mean to cast aspersions upon the man who eventually became Robert Capa, just to tell a bit of his story and hers. So, let’s assume he did indeed take the shot.

Real or Staged?

Third, that leads to this: was the shot real or was it staged? Since the 1970s, there has been a growing chorus of doubters who insist the photograph was not taken where Friedman said it was taken and that the man named in the photograph was not actually the one in it. That the man in the photograph wasn’t really shot at all, but rather helped to stage the shot. There appear to be credible lines of inquiry and research in this direction, but never mind all that because the bigger story, the more important story, I think anyway, is the story of the Spanish Civil War itself and, most importantly of all, the implications of that story to those of us living today, especially right now in the United States.

Introducing Adam Hochschild

It is in no way intended to diminish the lives or challenges of anyone anywhere else in the world because there are indeed lessons from that war for everyone. So, without further ado, it gives me great pleasure, it is my privilege to introduce you to the renowned writer, historian, lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, co-founder of Mother Jones magazine, and most importantly today, author of “Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939,” Adam Hochschild. Good morning, Adam.

Adam: Hi, Hugh. Can you hear me okay?

Hugh: Very clearly. And you?

Adam: Yep, I can hear you too. Okay.

Hugh: So, Adam, I just finished reading “Spain in Our Hearts,” and wow, I think it ought to be required reading for everyone. It is a stunning piece of journalism, historical analysis, and storytelling. I can’t think of a better way to introduce our audience to the bigger story behind the Falling Soldier and the relevance of that story and its lessons to us even now in 2022. So, my first question is: how the heck did you do that?

Adam: I’ll tell you about how I came to write this book. I’m always attracted to write stories about times when people faced moral choices, to fight or not to fight against colonialism in the Congo, apartheid in South Africa, the madness of the First World War. Times and places like that attract me.

I’d always been interested in the Spanish Civil War because early on in my life, when I was in my 20s, I had the good fortune to get to know a couple of veterans, American veterans of the war. The first ones I met actually came when I was about 22 or 23. I was a newspaper reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, and a couple of other reporters at the paper, men about 40 years older than me, were veterans of the Spanish Civil War. When times were slow in the city room, I would go over to their desks and sit down and ask them about it.

Later on, my wife and I became good friends for many years with two other veterans who lived here in the San Francisco Bay Area. So, I heard these stories and was always intrigued by the fact that here was a civil war in another country, a long way away, but 2,800 young Americans felt impelled to go and fight in it. Men and some women, there were about 70 women who were nurses, and 750 of those people did not come back. Their bodies are still in Spain.

I’d always been intrigued by that patch of history. I also admire one of the books the most, which is George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia,” which I think is one of the great nonfiction books of the 20th century. It describes his time as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, and to any reader of that book, it becomes clear that this was a complicated war, as most things are in life. It’s not certainly a matter of good guys against bad guys, white hats against black hats, because, of course, on the side of the Spanish Republic, the democratically elected government of Spain that was eventually overthrown by this coup, there was a civil war within the civil war in which Orwell found himself caught up. It was a complicated situation nonetheless. I was really drawn to this time…

The REAL Story Behind Robert Capa’s “The Falling Soldier”

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1: What is “The Falling Soldier”?

“The Falling Soldier” is a famous photograph taken by renowned photojournalist Robert Capa during the Spanish Civil War in 1936. It captures the heartbreaking moment of a Republican soldier being fatally shot and falling backwards at the Battle of Cerro Muriano.

Q2: What makes this photograph significant?

The photograph is considered a powerful symbol of the brutality and human cost of war. It conveys the raw emotions and dangers faced by soldiers on the frontlines and has become an iconic image in the history of photojournalism.

Q3: Was the photograph staged?

There has been much debate and controversy surrounding the authenticity of “The Falling Soldier.” Some critics argue that the photograph was staged, suggesting that Capa may have directed the soldier’s pose. However, many experts and historians still support the photograph’s genuine depiction of a real wartime event.

Q4: Why did the authenticity of the photograph come into question?

Several factors contributed to the skepticism surrounding the photograph. It was suggested that the soldier’s pose seemed too perfect, and some believed that the absence of blood was suspicious. Additionally, there were claims that Capa had a history of staging some of his photographs. However, these doubts have been widely scrutinized, and the photograph is still considered a powerful symbol regardless of its authenticity.

Q5: What is the “Good World Gone Bad” episode about?

The “Good World Gone Bad” episode delves into the backstory behind Capa’s famous photograph. It examines the various theories and controversies surrounding its authenticity, offering a comprehensive analysis of the image and its historical significance.

I hope you find useful my article The REAL Story Behind Robert Capa’s “The Falling Soldier” (NEW Episode of Good World Gone Bad), I also recommend you to read my other posts in my blog at this link.

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