Witness to woes of war

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 November, 2007, 12:00am

'If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough,' war photographer Robert Capa once said. Just how close Capa got is made clear in This Is War!, an exhibition of his work at New York's International Centre of Photography. Pictures from the Spanish civil war, the Sino-Japanese war and the second world war feature scenes from the heart of the fighting.

Capa's photographs brought the horrific reality of war home to readers of news weeklies such as Picture Post, Life, and Vu - pictorial magazines that ushered in the golden age of photojournalism.

One of the best-known results of his fearless approach is The Falling Soldier, which forms the centrepiece of the show. The picture, shot in 1936, shows a Republican soldier killed by a fascist bullet during the Spanish civil war. Capa was standing in front of the victim when the shot was fired. The photo was widely published at the time and became a symbol of the Spanish Republic's heroic resistance to Franco's German-backed fascists.

'The picture seemed to symbolise Republican Spain itself, chugging forward, then being struck down,' note the show's curators, Cynthia Young and the late Richard Whelan.

Also on show are photos from one of Capa's lesser-known adventures, in China. In 1938, Capa travelled to the country to work as second cameraman on a documentary film about the Sino-Japanese war. While on the mainland, he took photos for Life.

Even back then, the Chinese leadership's attitude towards the foreign press was restrictive. Capa was accustomed to roaming around battlefields in Spain as he pleased - but he couldn't do that in China. He had been invited by the Kuomintang, and Madame Chiang Kai-shek placed many restrictions on the filmmakers. According to the curators, she even assigned a high-ranking military official to control their movements, attempting to ensure a favourable portrayal of China.

Born in Hungary in 1913, Capa left for Berlin in 1931 when his leftist principles clashed with Hungary's right-wing regime.

By 1938, Picture Post was describing him as 'the greatest war photographer in the world' and he went on to cover the second world war (his dramatic pictures of the D-Day landings feature in the exhibition). Not only was Capa a master photographer, he also co-founded the Magnum photographic agency in 1947. He was killed seven years later by a Viet Minh landmine while photographing French army manoeuvres in Vietnam.

Yet Capa's approach lives on in today's war photographers.

'I don't think impartiality is a goal to strive for as a photographer,' says Timothy Fadek, a photojournalist who has covered conflict in Lebanon and Iraq. 'We're here to 'out' the war-mongers' atrocities and wrongdoings. We capture the soldiers fighting in all their bravery, as well as their darkest moments. But ultimately, war is about killing and dying, and it has a destructive effect on civilians and society. It's our job to document all of that. Whether we tell the story of the soldiers, the civilians or both, we're ultimately on the side of those who want to end wars.'

It's doubtful whether a war photographer could become as celebrated as Capa today, simply because still images have been superseded by moving ones. But when Capa was working, stills photographers had a big advantage over newsreel cameramen: very light equipment. The invention of the Leica camera meant photographers could be very flexible and mobile, and a new wave of photojournalism magazines sprang up to take advantage of their work. Soon titles such as Life and Picture Post became the media of visual record about events in foreign countries.

Photojournalists faced fewer restrictions then, Fadek says.

'They had more freedom to roam around in Capa's day. Journalists were viewed as independent then - they were one step removed from the situation and not considered a public relations threat. Today, everyone is more media savvy. They try their best to either keep us away or use us for their benefit.'

Being part of the press no longer offers as much protection in the field, either, says Fadek. 'These days, journalists are often a target. You could never roam around Iraq or Afghanistan on your own. You'd be taken hostage for sure, and possibly executed.'

What of Capa's legacy? Fifty-three years after his death, Willis Hartshorn, the International Centre of Photography's Ehrenkranz director, says: 'His best work continues to serve as a benchmark for photojournalists today, and provides the world with some of the most indelible images of the 20th century's key conflicts.'

Fadek says although Capa is well known for his courageous work on the battlefield, his photos are equally important for their compassion.

'With his earlier coverage of the Spanish civil war, he showed he had a sensitive and thoughtful eye, taking photographs which conveyed the sorrow and desperation of a people caught in the middle.'

This is War! Robert Capa at Work, International Centre of Photography, New York, until Jan 6