“It's not always easy to stand aside and be unable to do anything except record the sufferings around one." — Robert Capa
As early as 1938, the English magazine Picture Post described him as "the greatest war photographer in the world," before the Spanish Civil War Capa's first campaign had even come to an end. His reportages on the Japanese invasion of China (1938), on the Second World War (1941—1945), the first Israeli-Arab War (1948), and on Indochina (1954), were still to follow. And he was only 40 when he was killed by an anti-personnel mine in North Vietnam. Capa left behind over 70,000 photographs, made for Life and Collier's magazines, the British Weekly Illustrated and Holiday, the Magnum Agency, and many more.
Many people thought he was a Spaniard, on account of his short stature and black hair. And his personality must have been charismatic, if even General Ridgway, Commander of the US 82nd Airborne Division, could write to the editors of Life: "Mr Capa, by reason of his professional competence, genial personality, and cheerful sharing of all dangers and hardships has come to be considered a member of the Division."
His images reveal not only Capa's mastery of the medium but his empathy and feeling of solidarity with the people he photographed: the Spanish Republican fighters and the victims of the civil war perpetrated by Franco and the Catholic Church; the Chinese child soldiers; Allied troops at the front in Africa, Sicily, Lower Italy, Normandy, the Rhineland. Asked how he managed to make the inhabitants of a Welsh mining region look so relaxed and natural in his pictures, Capa reportedly replied, "Like people and let them know it!"
Twice a refugee himself—from Hungary, then from Nazi Germany—Capa knew what it meant to be forced to leave a city or country. Wherever he went, he recorded the plight of displaced persons—fleeing from bombardments and advancing enemy troops, of the Japanese or Vietminh, or fleeing Israeli immigrants. He focused especially on the misery of children living in wartime.
Two of Capa's images have justifiably become especially famous. One is that of Federico Borrell Garcia, a member of the Republican Army, falling, rifle in hand, on 5 September, 1936, near the village of Cerro Muriano, outside Cordoba. Known as The Falling Soldier, this image has become emblematic of the heroic courage of Free Spain. The second photograph shows a helmeted GI swimming ashore on D-Day, June 6, 1944, when the Allied invasion of Normandy began. This image embodies the bravery and sacrifices undergone by Americans, Britons and others as they set out to liberate Europe from Hitler's despotism. The two rolls of film Capa shot at the risk of his life on Omaha Beach were dried at too high a temperature by a laboratory technician at Life in London, causing the emulsion to melt. Although 61 of the 72 frames were ruined, the resulting blurred and grainy effect lent this one image its extraordinary effect.
Excerpt taken from 50 Photographers You Should Know by Peter Stepan