the  CAPTURED  Moment

Photographer  Robert  Capa  sought to capture the poignancy and hope of conflict as well as the bravery and heroics. His extraordinary picture of a dying soldier was a defining image of the Spanish Civil War  -  but for many years there were doubts about its authenticity.

On a hot, late summer's afternoon in 1936, a shot shattered the silence on the slopes of the Cerro Muriano mountains near the city of Cordoba. Civil war was raging throughout Spain and the apparently idyllic scene on the mountainside was deceptive. Mortally wounded, a soldier sank to the ground, his rifle falling from his hand. The final moment of the soldier's life were recorded for posterity by the news photographer, Robert Capa, in an iconic image that vividly captured the horrors of the events that were unfolding in Spain.


Capa was born Andrei Friedman in 1913 in Budapest. At the age of 17, he took part in a student protest against the fascist government of Miklos Horthy and was forced to leave Hungary. In 1931, he moved to Berlin, where he enrolled at the German College of Politics. He soon became fascinated with photography, and began working as a film and photographic assistant at the publisher Ullstein and the photo agency Dephot.

He completed his first successful assignment on Novemeber 27, 1932, in Copenhagen, when he surreptitiously photographed Leon Trotsky giving an address to the students. In different circumstances the publication of the picture in the magazine Welt-Spiegel, a supplement to the daily newspaper the Berliner Tageblatt, would have guaranteed him a successful career. But he was a Hungarian Jew and was forced to flee Nazi Germany in September 1933.

He made his new home on Paris. There, in the Montparnasse district in the autumn of 1934, he met Gerda Pohorylle, a Polish emigre who became both his partner and his agent. The couple initially found it hard to sell their photographs. So they invented a rich American photographer whom they called "Robert Capa."

(Capa worked for Life magazine during the Second World War. In 1942 he joined the Allied invasion convoy, then followed the troops in Sicily during the grim Italian campaign in the winter of 1943-44. Soon after Anzio he left Italy for London and went on to produce his extraordinary pictures of the D-Day landings)

He was apparently only interested in selling his pictures if the price was sufficiently high. The ruse paid off handsomely and Parisian publishers willingly paid the fees that they asked - in some cases three times the going rate. When the scam was unmasked, Friedmann adopted the fictitious photographer's name as his own and Gerda Pohorylle changed her name to Gerda Taro. The deception had given their careers a major boost and they were jointly commissioned to produce a photo-story on the Spanish Civil War for the magazine Vu.


In August 1936, a few weeks after the military revolt of July 17 that sparked the civil war in Spain, Robert Capa and Gerda Taro travelled to Barcelona. Over the next few months they documented the tragedy and violence of the war for a number of international newspapers. On September 5, 1936, Capa was just a few metres away from a young soldier as he was shot and killed. Capa sent the extraordinary photograph that resulted to a press agency in Paris. On September 23, the French magazine Vu published the picture, with Life and Picture Post following suit the next year. The falling Spanish militiaman was used on a poster that posed the simple question 'Why?' The poster became world-famous and the photograph remains a powerful symbol of the tragedy of war.

Capa had discovered that his true vocation was to portray war with an unflinching eye, to reveal its horrors, yet never lose sight of the human story. The international press honoured his work by acclaiming him the world's foremost war photographer in 1938.


Depicting war became Capa's whole life - all the more so after Gerda Taro was killed in Spain in 1937. Just a couple of months later, Capa documented Chinese resistance to the Japanese occupation. In 1939, he emigrated to the United States, where he worked as a freelance photographer. From 1941 to 1945, he was commissioned by Life and Collier's magazines to cover the Second World War, producing dramatic images of the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944.

In 1948, Capa captured the first Arab-Israeli conflict on film, focusing not only on the battlefront, but also on the suffering of the civilian population. He took pictures of the wounded, those who had been bombed out of their homes, refugees, the traumarised and the grieving.

Capa's work became so popular that his name on a magazine was sufficient to guarantee a huge readership. He seemed to be able to express the horror of war and to shape people's collective consciousness of an event in a way that still holds true today. In 1947 he became involved in the formation of the prestigious photographers' co-operative Magnum and travelled the world promoting, publicising and selling his own work and that of fellow photographers.

On May 25, 1954, while on an assignment in the Nam Dinh region of Indochina, Capa stepped on a landmine. He was killed instantly. If he had stayed safely behind the troops carrying the mine detectors, he might have survived. But that just wasn't Capa's style - the immediacy of his pictures came from being at the heart of the action and he had spent his professional life trying to put himself in the place of those who were involved in the actual conflict.

Capa's body was returned to the USA, but his mother turned down the offer of a funeral at the American military cemetery at Arlington, on the grounds that her son had always detested war. A single word was inscribed in Hebrew script on the photographer's gravestone: 'Shalom' - Peace.


Many years after Capa's death, the authenticity of some of his images came under scrutiny, in particular his picture of the dying soldier. Critics focused on the fact that Capa had already used deception to advance his career. The opinion gained widespread currency in 1975 when the journalist and historian Phillip Knightley published a book in which he examined the various ways in which war correspondents distort the truth. For the next 20 years there were suspicions that Capa had staged the photo.

If your pictures aren't good enough your not close enough -- Robert Capa

It was not until August 1996 that a contemporary eyewitness was able to scotch the rumour. Following an appraisal of the fallen soldier's clothing and equipment, Civil War veteran Mario Brotons Jorda identified him as a member of a local citizens' militia from the village of Alcoy, the 'Columna Alcoyana', to which he himself had also belonged. Research in the state archives revealed that on September 5, 1936, the day Capa had shot his picture, only one member of the Columna Alcoyana had died in the battle at Cerro Muriano. The anonymous soldier finally had a name: Federico Borell Garcia.

But even the identification of the dead man did not convince all the doubters. In response to an exhibition of Capa's photos in London, in July 1998, Knightley suggested that Garcia might well have posed for the photographer before he was killed.

The search for the truth now entered a new phase. Richard Whelan, Capa's biographer and executor of his estate, solicited the help of the chief investigator of the homicide department in Memphis, Tennessee. His brief was to investigate the photo using forensic methods. The detective concluded that that the body position of the victim demonstrated incontrovertibly that the falling soldier was already dying when the photo was taken. Robert Capa had fortuitously clicked the shutter of his camera at the defining moment.

'This is going to be a beautiful story,' Capa declared as he set off on May 25, 1954, to cover his final story for Life magazine in Vietnam's Red River Delta. When he died, he was clutching his much-loved Nikon camera, which contained his final images.

War photography

The Crimean War In 1855, Roger Fenton produced 360 daguerrotypes of the Crimean War. The long exposure time needed explains the posed look of many of the images.

The First World War 

Photography was first deployed for propaganda. Photographers were attached to military units and the pictures they took were subject to strict censorship.

Later wars

Disengaged from the military, war photographers developed into independent reporters of events. Robert Capa's photographs played a

leading role in this development.