A Look at ‘The Falling Soldier,’ One of the Best-Known War Photos

I’m Martin from the All About Street Photography channel, and today I would like to talk about a photo taken by legendary war photographer Robert Capa — a photo that is both very famous and also somewhat controversial.

The photo in question is The Falling Soldier, taken in Spain at the beginning of Spanish Civil War by Capa, co-founder of Magnum Photos. It supposedly shows a Republican soldier at the moment of his death.

If you are not familiar with Capa or simply want to find out more, check out this video I made about this life and photography:

The Falling Soldier is said to be “perhaps the greatest war photograph ever made”. Even though it seems to be a little exaggerated, the story behind this photograph is really interesting.

So what was the controversy about? Capa has been accused of staging the famous photograph. There are a few theories regarding how this was supposedly done. I am going to share the ones I have found but I don’t want to tell you what you should believe. It’s up to you to form your own opinion.

The Spanish Civil War was actually the first war monitored by modern media, and this photo was the first widely published photograph of its kind. It is also considered one of the best combat photographs ever made since it represented a next level of war photography never seen up to that point.

When the picture appeared in the Life magazine in 1937 captioned as “A Spanish soldier the instant he is dropped by a bullet through the head,” readers were pretty shocked since nothing quite like that had been published before. The photo became famous for the way it captured the terrifying sudden death of a person.

When we look at the composition, we see the falling soldier on the left side looking to the empty space on the right side. This creates a visual imbalance which also amplifies the loneliness of the soldier at the time of his death.

Looking at the top of the soldier’s head, we can see his tassel, which was mistaken for skull parts by the caption maker of Life magazine.

No tricks are necessary to take pictures in Spain. You don’t have to pose your camera. The pictures are there, and you just take them. The truth is the best, the best propaganda. –Robert Capa, New York World-Telegram, 9/2/1937

The authenticity of the photo was questioned in Phillip Knightley’s 1975 book on war correspondents, The First Casualty. Capa supposedly told reporter O.D. Gallagher that the photo was staged.

In an interview with New York World Telegraph, Capa talked how he spent time with this particular soldier on the Cordoba front. The soldier was nervous and impatient climbing over the sandbags and dropping back down to the trench because of machine gunfire. Capa followed him during his final attempt and took the shot.

Capa had to wait two more hours with the dead body before he could escape the trench in the dark. In the book Blood and Champion, The Life and Times of Robert Capa, Alex Kershaw discusses unseen footage of Capa during the Spanish Civil War and the man falling down as he runs down a hillside. Perhaps the picture was just exactly what the title describes, just a falling soldier.

Another theory is that Capa asked the soldier to run down the hill and fall and that during this run the soldier was actually shot and killed. If this were the case, Capa would have basically been responsible for his death and may have felt guilty about it.

There are actually two things supporting these theories. The location Capa said he took the photo at was actually different from the one that was later identified as the actual place of the event, and it was further from the front. There also exists another very similar photo taken by Robert Capa with exactly the same composition. Why there is no blood or dead body on the ground? Was that one staged and the first one not? And does it actually matter?

In a radio interview in 1947 about his then-new book Slightly Out of Focus, Capa said:

[…] I was there in the trench with about 20 milicianos, and those 20 milicianos had 20 old rifles, and on the other hill facing us was a Franco machine gun.

So my milicianos were shooting in the direction of that machine gun for five minutes and then stood up and said “Vámonos!” and got out of that trench and began to go after that machine gun. Sure enough, that machine gun opened up and mowed them down. So what was left of them came back and again took potshots in the direction of the machine gun, which certainly was clever enough not to answer, and after five minutes again they said “Vámonos!” and got mowed down again.

This thing repeated itself about three or four times, so the fourth time I just kind of put my camera above my head and even didn’t look and clicked a picture when they moved over the trench. And that was all. I didn’t ever look at my pictures there and I sent my pictures back with a lot of other pictures that I took.

I stayed in Spain for three months, and when I came back I was a very famous photographer because that camera which I hold above my head just caught a man at the moment when he was shot.

To this day, it seems most people still believe the picture is candid and no definitive proof has ever presented to settle the controversy. Personally, I’m more inclined to the Capa’s version of events and that the photo is candid. But maybe that’s just what I want to believe.

About the author: Martin Kaninsky is a photographer, reviewer, and YouTuber based in Prague, Czech Republic. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Kaninsky runs the channel All About Street Photography. You can find more of his work on his website, Instagram, and YouTube channel.