A Pacifist, an Eye-witness to Five Wars

Robert Capa died holding his camera in his left hand minutes after stepping on a landmine. He was finding the right angle to make a perfect shot of retreating French soldiers in the paddy fields at Thai-Binh, North Vietnam, on May 24, 1954. He was the first American journalist killed in Vietnam and the Americans claimed him as a war hero. The U.S. Army offered the family a plot for Capa’s burial in Arlington National Cemetery, but Julia Friedmann, Capa’s mother, turned it down, saying that her son was not a soldier but a pacifist. He is buried in a Quaker cemetery in Amawalk, NY – now together with his mother, his brother Cornell Capa and Richard Whelan, who documented his short but most intense life.

Though his name may not sound all too Magyaresque, Robert Capa could not have forgotten his Hungarian roots even if he had wanted to. Once he reposted to a questioning British general who was reluctant to issue accreditation documents that ”it’s not my fault that I was born in Hungary”. And born he was in Budapest, as Endre Ernő  Friedmann, in 1913. It was a typical story of the time – an average non-religious Jewish family, a tailor father whose only luxury was a little gambling after work, a worrying Yiddish mama and two brothers. It turned out quite early on that Cápa (‘shark’), which was his nickname at school, had high adrenalin levels, since he tended to attract trouble. After graduating from the prestigious Madách Gimnázium he fraternized with “bad company,” getting involved with the leftist avant-garde literary circle of Lajos Kassák. His hotheadedness in participating in anti-government demonstrations lead to his being forced to leave Hungary, only to return twice afterwards.

After a brief stay in Berlin in 1932 (bad timing) he left for Paris, the dream place of all Hungarian intellectuals. Stricken by day-to-day problems of survival it was here, under the influence of his life-long love Gerda Pohorylles, that he decided to be famous. The first step was to find a catchy name and he thus decided to keep his nickname, which resembled the name of Frank Capra, a noted film director, and add Robert to complement his newfound surname. Gerda became Taro. Capa invented himself as a mega-famous American photographer and even if the little trick was soon found out, the quality of his pictures lived up to his self-proclaimed status as a star.

The path to acquire the label of ‘the greatest war photographer of all time” began in 1936 in the Spanish Civil War. What brought him world fame was his photograph of a Spanish Republican militiaman collapsing dead, the so-called Falling Soldier. He witnessed and documented four more wars in the following 18 years: the Second Sino-Japanese War, World War II, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the First Indochina War. His iconic images of the invasion D-Day (June 6, 1944) and hundreds of other unique photographs left their mark on photojournalism.

Capa set an example for war correspondents that would last into the future by unveiling the senselessness of all wars and working up the “hyena” dilemma of “scavenging” photographers. Very rarely did he take images of generals or politicians. He set his focus on the G.I., and the horror on the faces of children and ordinary people; Capa had a unique talent for recording emotions, especially the pain caused by war. His idea of making good photography was that “you’ve got to like people and let them feel you do”. On the other hand, his professionalism was due to having been able to cope with the “hyena” syndrome. When a bomber pilot returned from an attack covered in blood, he told Capa, “ok photoreporter, is this the kind of picture you were looking for?”  It was at this point when he took an ethical stand:  no personal emotion, no involvement, just documentation. This often took courage and – as he put it – ’I am a gambler’ and he stayed put defenselessly with his camera while others ran into combat.

What mesmerises me about Capa is the compactness of a most intensive and meaningful life. He burnt the candle at both ends, first dedicating himself to documenting reality in a way only few could, then falling into the self-made trap of competing only with himself to be the best. He also had to cope with the burden of being a man without a country. All other pleasures like women (including a brief affair with Ingrid Bergmann), poker and gambling and countless bottles of whisky were just narcotics that helped him fulfill his mission.

The Robert Capa Gold Medal is awarded annually by the Overseas Press Club of America for the “best published photographic reporting from abroad requiring exceptional courage and enterprise”.