Was Robert Capa Photography’s Greatest Fraudster?

Perhaps one of the most famous photographs of the 20th century is Robert Capa’s image, “The Falling Soldier.” Speculation regarding its authenticity as a historical piece of evidence has abounded for years. This short video takes a quick look at the controversy and raises questions about photography’s capacity for truth.

Arguments regarding Capa’s image have raged ever since its creation more than 80 years ago. Because of the circumstances, many believe that the image was staged, but this would challenge Capa’s legacy and could potentially undermine his reputation as one of history’s most influential photographers.

It’s unlikely that we will never entirely know whether Capa’s image is authentic, and the amount of evidence that raises unanswerable questions is hard to ignore. While records show that Federico Borrell, the soldier whose death is portrayed in the image, was indeed killed that day, experts believe that given the sequence of negatives, Capa’s photographs do not show a battle taking place. Other research has suggested that Capa was incorrect about the location. Whatever the reason, war has always been a challenging subject when it comes to establishing historical fact, and any inconsistencies in Capa’s story could easily be accounted by the confusion created by the intensity of the experience, the long delay between shooting the images and their processing, never mind their publication, and the fact that much was written about the image before Capa discussed it in the following years.

As the video itself notes, truth is a slippery concept when it comes to photography, despite our frequent assumptions that images are evidential. As soon as you point a camera, it is subjective as you have decided what to frame and what to omit, making editorial decisions long before your raw file is dragged into Lightroom, never mind Photoshop.

If you’d like to read more about the problems raised by the slippery concept of truth in relation to photography, check out my recent article that discusses Steve McCurry, Tom Hunter, and the difficulties raised by visual storytellers. For more information about the arguments over Capa’s image, be sure to read this article from the New York Times.

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Jon Winkleman's picture

This issue is whether or not a photograph is presented as an editorial illustration or as a work of photojournalism. This photo was presented as the latter so it ethically is wrong for pretending to be an actual event recorded. New organizations and even magazines like National Geographic have strict rules regarding what can and cannot be done in any photojournalist images submitted to them. The US also has strict rules regarding food advertising photography to ensure an image is of the actual product sold. Capa’s image would still be a significant work of art as an editorial illustration of the war but in the context of a documentary photograph it is a fraud.