To Shoot but not to Kill

by Nick Brazil

Some celebrated images of war are not what they seem...

From the moment the very first images of war were captured on Daguerrotype plates during the Mexican-American War of 1847, photographers have sought to capture conflict on camera. As such, photography has long been considered the main visual witness of war. After all, the camera never lies, or does it? Sadly, throughout the history of war photography some celebrated war images have not always been exactly what they have purported to be.

This is not a new phenomenon by any means. The famous photograph of cannon balls in a road entitled “The Valley of The Shadow of Death” is a case in point. Taken in 1855 by the celebrated correspondent Roger Fenton, it purports to show the aftermath of heavy fighting near Sebastopol during the Crimean War. The numerous cannon balls scattered across the rough road were supposedly evidence of the intense bombardment suffered by British Forces. However, an American documentary film maker recently found another identical photograph by Fenton but without the cannon balls. It seems likely that when faced with a rather dull view of an empty road, Fenton sought to dramatize it by placing the cannon balls there himself.


Did Fenton attempt to dramatise this image by adding the cannon balls?

A Sharpshooter's Last Sleep

During the American Civil War, Alexander Gardner made quite a name for himself with his war photographs. However, he is also suspected of embellishing his photograph called “A Sharpshooter’s Last Sleep” by adding a corpse to the foreground for greater impact.

The Spanish Civil War & Robert Capa

In the twentieth century, small cameras such as the folding “Soldier’s Kodak” Vest Pocket Camera in 1912  and the Leica and Contax 35 mm cameras in the 1930s replaced the cumbersome beasts used by Fenton and Gardner. This brought war photography to the front line changing its images from sterile set pieces to pictures of actual conflict and death. However, there would still be examples of photographs with ‘doubtful provenance’.

When the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936, it drew journalists and photographers from around the world like a magnet. Two of those were a Hungarian photographer called Endre Ernő Friedmann and his lover, a German Jewess who called herself Gerda Taro. Based in Paris, they operated under the joint alias of Robert Capa. It was not long before they made quite a name for “Robert Capa” covering the war from the Republican side. In fact, many of the photographs of that period were taken by Taro and only recently credited to her.

Sadly, Gerda would never realise her great potential as a photographer. On 25th July 1937 she was riding on the running board of a car retreating from the Battle of Brunete. An out of control tank crashed into the side of the vehicle fatally wounding Taro. She died the next day becoming the first female war photographer to be killed in action. Capa was devastated and never recovered from this loss.

The falling soldier

Before this tragedy, Capa and Taro had begun to go their separate ways using their individual names to credit their pictures. It was during this time that Capa took the picture that would make him famous. Known as The Falling Soldier it allegedly shows a republican soldier the moment he was shot. In the picture he is falling backwards, his rifle slipping from the right hand of his lifeless body. Capa always claimed he had no idea he had captured this shot at The Battle of Cerro Muriano in September 1936. According to him he was crouching behind a barricade for cover when he just held his camera over the top and “shot blind”. It was just one of thirty-six pictures on an undeveloped roll of film that he sent off to London. It was a big surprise to him that the actual photograph received world wide coverage and was soon being described as “the greatest war photograph ever taken”.

Suspicions that the photograph was actually staged miles behind the front began to be raised from the 1970s onwards. In 2009 author José Manuel Susperregui wrote a whole book called “Shadows of Photography” in which he sought to prove that Capa’s photograph was not genuine.

After exhaustive research he found that the background in Capa’s photograph matched that around the town of Espejo and not Cerra Muriano thirty miles away. Reporters from a Barcelona newspaper El Periódico de Catalunya did their own investigation which backed up Susperregui’s theory. The author also cited differing descriptions by Capa about how the soldier died as proof the shot was not genuine. On one occasion he would say he was brought down by a burst of machinegun fire and on another by a single sniper’s bullet. Personally, I think this proves nothing. It is quite natural for someone’s recollection of such a traumatic incident to differ over time.

However, I feel there is one important aspect of the photograph that tends to support Susperregui’s theory. Contact of a bullet with human flesh is rarely a clean business. The impact usually causes particles of flesh and bone to fly outwards from the body. In Capa’s photograph there is no sign of such collateral damage.

If we accept that The Falling Soldier was not taken in the heat of battle but behind the lines does that mean Capa was deliberately faking it? By no means. He could well have been taking shots of Republican troops on exercises when he captured one of them tripping and falling. Knowing the importance of providing the newspapers in London and Paris with a steady supply of photographs from the front, he simply sent them the unexposed roll of film with that shot on it. When the pictures were processed, it was the editors who interpreted the Falling Soldier shot as an iconic image of death in war rather than a clumsy soldier tripping and falling. As such, it was syndicated worldwide.

On the other hand, the photograph could also be a genuine image captured by chance in the heat of battle. In spite of all the doubts many experts believe this to be the case. Over eighty years after the event, we will never know the actual truth. What is without doubt, is that Robert Capa was one of the greatest war photographers who went on to capture some unforgettable images of the D-Day Landings. Like his lover and fellow photographer, Gerda Taro, he died before his time when he stepped on a landmine in Indo China in 1954. He was only 40 at the time.

Raising the Stars & Stripes on Iwo Jima

Another iconic photograph of war has an interesting back story. On February 23rd 1945, Joe Rosenthal of The Associated Press captured the moment American soldiers raised the Stars and Stripes on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima. This fine photograph is probably the most famous image of The Second World War  and deservedly won The Pulitzer Prize for Rosenthal. It depicts six US Marines midway through raising the flag on Suribachi and has been immortalised both as a sculpture and on US postage stamps. It is regarded as a classic case of photography capturing a moment in history.

However, the photograph covering that moment was actually taken by Staff Sergeant Louis R. Lowery who was a staff photographer for “Leatherneck” the U.S. Marine Corps magazine. He took his picture of  the Marines raising their US Flag about an hour before Rosenthal arrived at Mt Suribachi. By that time, it had been decided that the original flag was not big enough and so a larger Stars and Stripes was called for. The raising of this second flag was the one in Rosenthal’s award winning photograph.

Whilst lacking some of the impact of Rosenthal’s picture, Lowery’s image is an excellent war picture recording a truly historic event. If that original flag had been a bit bigger, perhaps that first photo would have been the award winner. As it is, both the original historic photo and the man who took it, Staff Sergeant Louis Lowery have been largely forgotten.

The "real" photo from Iwo Jima

Tianamen Square & Beyond

The advent of digital photography has revolutionised image gathering in ways that the likes of early war photographers would have difficulty in comprehending.  The dreadful events of The Tianamen Square Massacre were first revealed to the world by early digital images sent down phone lines. Had that technology not been available, it is possible the Communist Chinese Government could have supressed many of the photographs and footage shot of that atrocity. Had this happened, the full magnitude of that massacre could well have been covered up for many years if not forever.

High quality picture editing software such as Photoshop has made it much easier to manipulate and falsify digital images. For example, a Lebanese freelance photographer embellished a photograph of Israeli air strikes on Beirut in 2006. Using digital software he increased the clouds of smoke from bomb damage. In doing this, he made the raids look a great deal more devastating than was actually the case. In another image of Israeli fighters attacking the Lebanese city, a photographer used digital editing to increase the numbers of rockets fired from one of the planes.

Tampering with the photos

Some may consider such manipulations to be unimportant. After all, those black clouds of smoke from the bombs in Beirut may have been enhanced, but they were from real bombs that killed people, so what’s the odds? And those jets did actually fire rockets in anger, so what difference does it make if there were two or four missiles? I doubt if many picture editors would take such a relaxed view of image fakery. They would argue that any amount of interference with a picture is tampering with the truth. If messing around with news photographs  becomes accepted practice then no image can be trusted.

Fortunately, the number of war photographs that are not genuine are comparatively rare. For every fake, there are thousands of genuine images that bring home the terrible reality of conflict. They remain as a memorial to those photographers who risked and often lost their lives to capture them.

*Unfortunately, The Falling Soldier cannot be shown with this article for copyright reasons. However, it can be viewed in two Wikipedia articles, one dedicated to Robert Capa and the other to the photograph itself. The same goes for Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of raising the flag on Iwo Jima. This can also be viewed in a Wikipedia article called Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima.

About The Author

Nick Brazil is an author, film maker and photographer. He has made eight documentaries and numerous shorter videos for the internet. He has also published three books including “Cheating Death – The Story of a PoW” and “Billy Biscuit – The Colourful Life & Times of Sir William Curtis” which is the story of the man who coined the phrase “The Three Rs”. 
Nick gives illustrated talks on a wide variety of subjects both in person throughout Southern England and via Zoom.
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Nick Brazil

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