Death of a Loyalist Soldier: The Controversy Continues

One of the most famous war photography images is the one called The Falling Solider or Death of a Loyalist Militiaman and was taken by Robert Capa, the father of modern war photography and photojournalism, in September of 1936. The image is said to depict the death of a republican soldier who was killed by a mounted machine gunner at the Cordoba Front during the Spanish Civil War. While the subject of the image (the falling soldier) seems clear, this photo has been surrounded by controversy since the 1970s.

However, recently, The Guardian reported that an interview with Robert Capa had surfaced where he discussed this very image. He claims, in the interview, to have been in the ditches at the time and not to even have seen the photo when he snapped it. According to his report, he held the camera over his head, above the edge of the ditch, and snapped the images blindly after having watched several of his trench-mates get mowed down by the Franco machine-gunner when they attempted to rush its position. This interview is the only instance that exists of Capa discussing this very famous image and his only remarks directly on it were “The prize picture is born in the imagination of the editors and the public who sees them.”

So, why is this image so controversial? Is it because of the graphic subject matter? No, actually, it’s because there’s a good bit of evidence to support the argument that this image was staged and does not depict what Capa and his editors claimed it depicts. Comparisons of the landscape in the photo match a site at Espejo, not the battle site of Cerro Muriano as Capa and others claimed. José Manuel Susperregui has also demonstrated other flaws in the photograph’s story in his own book. Among these flaws is one that shows that Capa gave very different accounts of the vantage point and technique he used to obtain the photograph.

The question remains, however; why would Robert Capa stage this photo and lie about it if he did, indeed, do so? His own words show that he may have truly believed that he himself couldn’t judge what would be the story photo or the photo that perfectly encapsulated the moment and message he was trying to share. Or perhaps he had captured a similar image and decided to “recreate” it to make it more dynamic or appealing. Or he could simply have gotten his photos mixed up and honestly believe the stories he put out about when, where, and how he captured this image.

The fact remains that, whether staged or nor, The Falling Soldier is still one of the most famous photos from the early 1900s and will remain an iconic image for war photographers for many years to come.

— da Bird