Is Robert Capa's Falling soldier a fake?

This week it was widely reported in various media that the Spanish newspaper El Periódico “had found conclusive evidence” that Robert Capa's famous photo from the Spanish civil war, Falling soldier was a fake.

Disputed photo.
Robert Capa: Falling soldier (1936) © Cornell Capa.

While not mentioned in the article, the Spanish newspaper's claim is based upon the work of professor José Manuel Susperregui, who teaches communications studies at País Vasco University in Spain, and an analysis that he published in his recent book Sombras de la Fotografía (Shadows of Photography). Professor Susperregui provides compelling evidence that Falling soldier was photographed in Llano de Banda, an area of countryside close to the small village of Espejo, and not in Cerro Muriano (45 km from Espejo), where Capa claims the photo was taken. Historians say there wasn't a battle in Espejo on September 5, 1936, when the photograph was taken, so the death must have been faked.

We also know, due to an obituary uncovered by Alicante historian Miguel Pascual Mira, that the militiaman depicted in Capa's photo is not Federico Borrell García as previously thought. Borell died in the Cerro Muriano battle on September 5, 1936. While he has been postively identified as Capa's fallen militiaman by his brother's widow and his niece, Borrell's obituary, published in anarchist journal Ruta Confederal number 13 of October 23rd 1937 (one year and thirty eight days after the battle of Cerro Muriano) and written by a fellow militiaman and eyewitness to Borell's death, describes Borell being shot while seeking cover behind a tree. There is no tree in Capa's photograph.

Mira's discovery has, as far as I know, not been widely reported. Susperregui's findings was first reported on June 14th 2009 in the British newspaper The Guardian, but wasn't widely disseminated before El Periódico picked up the story, on July 17th 2009.

However, while Susperregui may be right about the location where the photo is taken, he still may be wrong about the death being faked. While no actual battle took place in Espejo on that day, there may have been snipers in the area.

Capa's main biographer, Richard Whelan, has struggled extensively with the photograph, and devotes 32 pages of his This Is War! Robert Capa at Work (IDC, Steidl, 2007) to a discussion of its authenticity. Whelan's account about how this photo came into being, quoted below, may also explain why Capa lied about the location.

The image, known as Death of a Loyalist Militiaman or simply The Falling Soldier, has become almost universally recognized as one of the greatest war photographs ever made. The photograph has also generated a great deal of controversy. In recent years, it has been alleged that Capa staged the scene, a charge that has forced me to undertake a fantastic amount of research over the course of two decades. I have wrestled with the dilemma of how to deal with a photograph that one believes to be genuine but that one cannot know with absolute certainty to be a truthful documentation.

What does one do with a photograph that is now often published with a caption mentioning the doubts that have been raised about its authenticity? Has the taint of suspicion rendered it permanently impotent? Will Capa's photograph have to be relegated to the dustbin of history? As I will attempt to demonstrate here, the truth concerning The Falling Soldier is neither black nor white. It is neither a photograph of a man pretending to have been shot, nor an image made during what we would normally consider the heat of battle. (Whelan 2007, p. 54)

The disturbing fact of the soldier's flat-footedness, along with the equally disturbing inference that the man was carrying his rifle in a way suggesting that he did not expect to use it soon, led me to reconsider the story that Hansel Mieth, who had become a Life staff photographer in the late 1930s, wrote to me in a letter dated March 19, 1982.

She said that Capa, very upset, had once told her about the situation in which he had made his famous photograph.

“They were fooling around,” [Capa] said. “We all were fooling around. We felt good. There was no shooting. They came running down the slope. I ran too and knipsed.”
“Did you tell them to stage an attack?” asked Mieth.
“Hell no. We were all happy. A little crazy, maybe.”
“And then?”
“Then, suddenly it was the real thing. I didn't hear the firing - not at first.”
“Where were you?”
“Out there, a little ahead and to the side of them.”

Beyond that, Capa told Mieth only that the episode haunted him badly. We do not know the nature of Capa's guilt. Did he initiate the “knipsing” and feel guilty about its outcome? Or perhaps the soldiers initiated the “knipsing” because they wanted to be photographed. The “knipsing” seems to have ended when the soldier stood up to have Capa make a portrait of him. But did Capa ask the soldier to stand up for his portrait, or did the soldier himself suggest making the portrait? Whatever the case, Capa implied to Mieth that he felt at least partially responsible for the man's death. (ibid., pp. 72-74)


By Capa's own testimony to Hansel Mieth, his Cerro Muriano photographs leading up to The Falling Soldier depict "fooling around" rather than posing or actual fighting. But, according to that same testimony, the moment captured in The Falling Soldier was deadly earnest. Federico Borrell García stood up for what was intended to be a heroic portrait but which became, completely unexpectedly, a picture of a man who has just been mortally wounded. (ibid., p. 86)

Whelan's account, where a staged photo opportunity turns deadly due to a sniper's bullet, may explain why Capa did not reveal the true location of the shot. If he didn't want his own involvment in the events that lead to the militiaman's death to become publicly known, he would be well served by locating the photo to a place where the real battle took place on that day, rather than in a location where he and the loyalist militia were just "fooling around".

However, the new evidence uncovered by Mira and Susperregui can not be ignored. Both findings strengthen the case of those that believe that this particular photograpic icon is indeed a fake.

For more documentation about this photo, see the websites of Italian photo historian Luca Pagni and Spanish blogger José Manuel Serrano Esparza.

See also my note about Photography and deception.

3 responses:


Dear Sirs:
I´m sending this letter to report that the real discoverer of Espejo as the place where Robert Capa made his famous Falling Soldier picture along with the skyline of mountains as the key element of location was Professor José Manuel Susperregui.

The first to report on this discovery was Giles Tremlett in The Guardian on Sunday 14 June 2009.

The real discoverer that the militiaman is not Federico Borrell García were Miguel Pascual Mira and the documentary film La Sombra del Iceberg.

And the real verifier of Susperregui´s finding was elrectanguloenlamano on June 16th 2009 in Espejo, which was published in elrectanguloenlamano on July 1st 2009, making a very comprehensive photographic work on the area.

In pictures 02 and 07 appear the slope in front of Espejo village, and besides, elrectanguloenlamano was the first to identify the white colour houses appearing in the background of some of the new photos unveiled by the ICP in This is War! Robert Capa at War-exhibitions in New York, London, Milan and Barcelona.

And this identification by elrectanguloenlamano on June 16th 2009 has been a key factor to verify Susperregui´s finding.

Truth is that El Periódico de Catalunya and Ernest Alós haven´t discovered anything, though they have been proclaiming to the world since July 17th that “THEY HAVE MADE A HISTORICAL FINDING”,“THAT THE EXPERTS OF THE WORLD ARE AMAZED BY EL PERI??€?DICO DE CATALUNYA GREAT DISCOVERY”,etc.

On the other hand, it is not true that “El Periódico de Catalunya deep study of the new 40 pictures of the MNAC exhibition in Barcelona from July 7th to September 26th 2009 has enabled the world to know the truth”.

That´s not true.

http://elrectanguloenlamano.blogspot.com published on June 21st 2009 a very comprehensive essay, picture by picture, of the new photographs unveiled by ICP during the itinerary of This is War! Robert Capa at War exhibition in New York, London, Milan and barcelona, and we and not El Periódico de Catalunya have proved that with the exception of the last three pictures of the Falling Soldier series in which there were two real deaths provoked by a sniper, there weren´t any Francoist troops attacking the militiamen while Robert Capa and Gerda Taro were taking the pictures.

And we have proved with our research picture by picture that neither Capa nor Taro tried to deceive any future observers of the 40 photographs into believe that there were rebel troops attacking the militiamen.

The two deaths were provoked by 7 x 57 mm high velocity shots made by a sniper. The first death is instant and the second one within some minutes.

Here is the link with our research of the new pictures.

Yours sincerely,
José Manuel Serrano Esparza
Leica Historical Society of America

What Rubbish

José Manuel Serrano Esparza

Nonsense. That entire article goes into great depth describing the long series of obviously staged combat shots taken by Capa and Taro, before pathetically trying to use that as somehow supportive of the reliability of the "falling soldier" photograph.

Why so strong a "belief" that Capa wouldn't lie about this? he was not in Spain to report impartially, he was there to help the Republican propaganda. Of course he would. It was normal in those days to fake anything you could - rearranging dead bodies and staging deaths was commonplace. Why would Capa be any different on this occasion, when we know for a fact that he did it on many of the other photos?

You really want to prove Capa right - why? It does not damage his reputation to have disliked fascists, and no sensible person would ever believe the preposterous series of events that has been invented by way of explanation for these two impossible photos.

As for the guy behind the fourth man being the anarchist leader - Enrique Vano Nicomedes?, hardly, it looks nothing like Nicomedes, who is very distinctive and was wearing regular militia overalls and gear that day. And for damn sure he's not an anarchist with that hat. He's regular army.

We know this, because of the really great Capa/Taro photos on your site from 5th September, of the frightened and intense militiamen listening to Nicomedes speech before battle. These are some of the most profound war images ever taken, and it is unfortunate that it be overshadowed by the silly "falling soldier" nonsense.

Those photos show just how serious business it was when the nationalists were advancing on the inexperienced militia on this front. There was no "horseplay" when the nationalists were anywhere near. The "falling soldier" is obviously just one of a series of propaganda shots taken at least several days before any combat went down in the area, and there is no reason in the world to think they are real, other than blind worship of Capa. You think the nationalists advanced behind wandering vanguards of snipers? Its just nonsense.

Stop it. Just stop it. Its embarassing.

Reply to Mr. Boosra

Dear Mr. Boosra:
First of all, I apologise for the delay in my answer because I hadn't seen your post till now.

I'm not a blind worshipper of Capa as you say and if I have a worship for any photographer it would be much more biased for Alfred Eisenstaedt, Henri Cartier-Bresson or Eugene Smith, only to name three.

On the other hand, whenever I have researched things related to Capa's pictures, I have tried as much as I'm been able to find evidence and to prove what I say with evidence if possible.

In this regard, real events about the photograph of the Falling Soldier could be perhaps not so easy as you say.

From scratch I realised that vast majority of the 40 photographs taken by Capa and Taro in Espejo didn't depict real combat (all of them except two, the Falling Soldier and another one of a seriously wounded second anarchist militiaman on the floor, in my viewpoint on a very forced position to be a fake, specially the gesture of the man, the position of his legs and the location of his rifle falling because of gravity with its point backwards) and I analysed the best I could all the pictures in: Robert Capa in Cerro Muriano.

I do believe that these two pictures, the Falling Soldier one and the other I mention before, unlike the other 38, are not fake, and that something unexpected happened after the anarchist militiamen of CNT and FAI had been on a kind of revolutionary spree on the slope by Espejo village.

Obviously, I don't think that the nationalists advanced behind wandering vanguards of snipers? I have never believed that, so I can't understand this statement from you regarding me.

The real battle for Espejo began on September 23, 1936, when the combined movements of nationalist commanders Sagrado (including the highly experienced in combat Squadron of Regulares from Melilla) and Baturone (including a very experienced in combat Tabor of Regulares from Melilla) started their converging movement on Espejo, but they were halted by the famous Republican major Pérez Salas, highly skillful with artillery, so General Varela ordered a joint attack with artillery and aviation on September 24, in such a way that after the bombardment on the Republican positions, Sagrado and Baturone's columns were able to gather after a lot of fight, and began the final assault on Espejo during the morning of September 25 1936, facing a very stubborn Republican defence on the whole defencive perimeter around Espejo village, specially on the Hill 380. Finally, the national attack prevailed, mainly due to the onslaught of the Squadron of Regulares through the northeast, routing the Republican artillery position after performing the encircling manoeuvre. From this moment on, the panic stricken Republican forces tried to escape on masse, but the nationalist forces attacked from almost every angle and killed around 400 Republican men, including anarchist militiamen from CNT and FAI, regular Republican soldiers and a lot of Republican officials, putting and end to the battle with the assault with grenades and knife on Espejo castle, the last Republican stronghold, where all the last Republican defenders were killed and no prisoners were taken.

I do repeat once more: I have never thought that “the nationalists advanced behind wandering vanguards of snipers”. I don't know why you make this statement referring to me.

The 40 pictures taken by Capa and Taro in Espejo weren't taken on September 23, 24 or 25 1936 when the combats took place in Espejo village and its surroundings.

The 40 photographs were made in early September 1936, probably on 6th, 7th or 8th of September 1936, when evidently there weren't any combats in the village.

Obviously, 38 of the 40 pictures don't depict real combat as I prove in the study I made of all the photographs and published on June 21, 2009 in the aforementioned and linked article, but in my viewpoint, there are two pictures different to the rest.

In my opinion, it would have been much easier to make a propaganda photograph with the Falling Soldier much sharper, more in the centre of the frame and with his face much more visible and discernible, not so an imperfect picture, even the frame cuts the Mauser rifle butt and is almost to cut the militiaman's feet on the lower part of the picture.

Always in my opinion, it doesn't seem that such an imperfect picture like the Falling Soldier is the most appropriate one as a propaganda one, and indeed, almost a year elapsed between its first appearance in French Vu magazine of late September 1936 and its second appearance in Life magazine of July 1937.

In my viewpoint this man has been shot on his upper left torso by a high velocity 7 × 57 mm bullet fired by a long Mauser rifle in the hands of a Moroccan Tabor of Regulares small group of men in observation and reconnaissance mission some weeks before the attack on Espejo.

This was a very common practice in Francoist Army of Africa, highly experienced in ruthless colonial war in Africa, attacking enemy positions with small columns and taking no prisoners.

In order to properly check the location of Republican trenches, artillery positions, contingents of enemy troops in the key ways to the attacked villages, etc, the Moroccan scouters of Tabor of Regulares fulfilled reconnaissance missions with weeks of anticipations and sometimes day by day to accurately know the position of enemy forces around the villages they were going to attack.

I do believe that after a lot of minutes of a kind of revolutionary spree on the slope by Espejo (a spree of jumpings, simulating of firing against non existent enemy forces, shootings with the safety of the rifles put, etc), something unexpected happened, and what I do believe is that one of the Moroccan soldier in reconnaissance mission who had been probably watching all the simulations made by a lot of anarchist militiamen on the slope by Espejo, became very angry and shot precisely the anarchist militiaman who had shown the most, id est, the Falling Soldier.

Because of the special nature of the colonial war in Africa, almost 100% of the Moroccan soldiers were very accurate with their long distance shots with rifles, and it is also a tradition in Morocco. They were called “pacos“, and though the mission of the man who killed the Falling Soldier was not a sniping one, but a reconnaissance and checking of enemy positions one, it was easy for them to shoot a man from a distance between 400 and 900 meters with their Mauser rifles, so he became an angry sniper, shooting precisely the man who had shown off the most, after a lot of minutes of stress watching probably with binoculars all the spree on the slope.

Regarding the other photograph, much more gruesome, and in my viewpoint depicting a second different man really shot by a second bullet probably shot by the same Moroccan soldier on reconnaissance mission some weeks before the attack, Richard Whelan had the chance of asking Robert Franks, chief homicide detective of the Memphis Police Department and so a great expert in killed people and all the aspects relative to their deaths, and he stated that both the Falling Soldier and this second different man who appears on the ground very seriously injured, have been really shot, the Falling Soldier in the upper left torso and the second man probably in the stomach area or near it.

I explained what I do believe happened in this latter picture in my article of June 21 in what is not my site but the site of Javier Izquierdo and Joseba Bolot, founders of it and that kindly invited me to take part in it a few years ago.

On the other hand, I don't think that Capa and Taro staged deaths and faked the Falling Soldier picture and ordered the militiamen to do all the faking of combat (who obviously wasn't taking place at those moments against Francoist troops because combats in Espejo would be more than two weeks later).

I don't believe at all that Capa and Taro were able to give orders. If you pay attention to some of the images, you can see an old anarchist veteran with a captured military cap on his head, probably in his fifties and wearing white attire who has a lot of command on the militiamen and has previously told them what they have to do. Even he appears in some of the pictures exhorting the men and giving them orders as if going against the enemy (in other picture he appears alone simulating to be firing with a Mauser rifle against enemy troops), but it is apparent that he wishes to show that he has command and highly probably this feeling is enhanced by the presence of Gerda Taro, a very attractive woman.

Besides, Capa couldn't speak Spanish. How did he give the orders to the militiamen? Gerda Taro spoke fluent German, French, English and only a little of Spanish learnt in Switzerland, but I do believe that neither Capa nor Taro gave any order that day to make the 38 staged photographs.

In some of the pictures it is very very evident that real combat is not taking place, and there are some photographs in which any person can easily realise that it is a staged context (not ordered by Capa or Taro but rather probably by the aforementioned old anarchist with command, and besides, also highly probably the militiamen themselves were looking forward to faking real combats, so many of them would began simulating firing against enemy troops, jumping on the trenches, etc, because they craved for being photographed, and in 1936 photographers and their cameras raised a lot of expectation, together with the important factor of the presence of Gerda Taro, a very attractive and charming woman, so they wanted even more to show off and being photographed.

Only to name an example, in my article of June 16 2009, appears a photograph of an anarchist militiaman on the ground, faking to be dead and with the rifle very visibly supported with two big stones put intentionally by somebody – probably the anarchist old chief.

These stones – only to name an example – weren't obviously put by Capa or Taro to support the rifle on its buttock on the ground with the trigger upwards and the middle area of the rifle leaned on the militiaman's neck. It is very obvious. Capa and Taro were not idiot.

Capa and Taro were there and photographed what they saw, but I do believe they didn't order the militiamen to make any fake.

It's true that there are people thinking that the picture is a fake, in the same way that there are people thinking that it is true and a man really dies.

If I have been wrong and it is finally proved that the picture is a fake, I will recognise it. It wouldn't be the first time I have committed an error in my research, only by my own, with a lot of efforts and sweat of years and many many kilometers walking under Córdoba scorching sun on the places where events happened.

Evidently, Mr. Boosra, your opinion and mine are different, so different indeed, but in your message there are some very important things with which I agree:

The most important one is that highly probably too much attention has been put on the Falling Soldier picture, when truth is that the famous picture and the other 39 made in Espejo are a very small percentage of the photographs made by Capa and Taro in Córdoba, whose most significant core from a photo-journalistic viewpoint was made in Cerro Muriano on September 5th, 1936, and discovered by elrectanguloenlamano between 2009 and 2012 after three years of strenuous effort.

I do also agree with you that Capa was not in Spain to report impartially but to help the Republican propaganda. Obviously, he defended the Republican side according with his democratic convictions, something that in the same way as Gerda Taro he didn't ever concealed.

Regarding your question “Why would Capa be any different on this occasion when we know for a fact that he did it on many of the other photos?“ As I have previously explained, though 38 of the 40 pictures in Espejo are obviously staged, I don't believe at all that Capa gave orders to the militiamen to perform it. There are a lot of pictures with so naive details that clearly indicate in my viewpoint – Capa was not idiot – that Bob didn't give orders to stage, though evidently 38 of the 40 pictures are staged and there isn't real combat.

Regarding your statement that “I pathetically try to use the series of staged combat shots taken by Capa and Taro in Espejo as somehow supportive of the reliability of the falling soldier photograph” , with all respect, that's simply not true. I proved with my article of June 16th 2009 that 38 of the 40 pictures are staged, with an in-depth analysis picture by picture and a lot of effort. Therefore, I can't use the 40 pictures as somehow supportive of the reliability of the falling soldier photograph because vast majority of them are staged, so if I would base on them I would immediately say that the two only pictures that I do believe depict two real shots are also staged.

But I do believe that something unexpected happened and those two pictures depict two real 7 × 57 mm bullet shots on two different men.

I don't think that the Falling Soldier topic is nonsense. Whatever it may happen in future, it won't affect Capa's reputation, however much some people try it.

I'm a great admirer of Robert Capa as a photographer and human being. It's true, but not a Capa fan or a Capa worshipper.

On the other hand, whatever it may happen in future, Capa's huge prestige as a great photographer and one of the pioneers of war photography was, is and will go on being the same, and nothing will damage his reputation and great photo-journalistic career in which he made some very important milestones in the history of photography, between them D-Day in Omaha Beach, Rio Segre amazing reportage with pictures taken a few meters from the bombs, photographs made in Israel and many more, including the many pictures made by Capa and Taro in Cerro Muriano, a high significant percentage of whom have been discovered by elrectanguloenlamano during the last three years.

But from a photo-journalistic side, it is important to know if the Falling Soldier really died or not, this is not a silly nonsense subject at all, but highly interesting, because the photojournalism is based on the truth of depicted events, according to Cliff Edom principles.

And I do believe that the Falling Soldier died because of a 7 × 57 mm bullet which pierced his heart and instantly killed him, so as well as being an amazing picture I do believe that The Falling Soldier it is a great photo-journalistic document depicting a real death and what really war is about.

And I do believe that Capa didn't lie.

Finally, I would like to ask you, Mr. Boosra, if you don't mind, more respect for my work, maybe pathetic, maybe nonsense, maybe boring under your criterion, but fruit of a lot of hundreds of hours of strenuous effort and sweat throughout many years, most times without getting results, with cramps in my legs and many blisters on the feet after long walks in the middle of the Cordoban scorching sun in Cerro Muriano, Espejo and many other locations of the area and with very few means and a lot of sweat.

But I'm not a person who likes to leave things in the middle.

A lot of further research remains to be done and highly probably new evidence.

I would ask you Mr. Boosra, if you don't mind not to use so dis-respective words like “what rubbish” or “nonsense” when referring to my work.

Can you imagine if I would start now to define as “rubbish”, “nonsense” or “pathetic“ your message titled What Rubbish so beginning and unending dispute going to nowhere? I do believe that education and good manners are important.

Anyway, I must admit that there are some things you say with which I do greatly agree, perhaps the most important one when you say:

“the really great Capa/Taro photos from 5th September, of the frightened and intense militiamen listening to Nicomedes speech before battle. These are some of the most profound war images ever taken”.

It wasn't only Nicomedes who made a speech in Finca of Villa Alicia. There was at least one more anarchist militiaman giving a speech standing on the big wooden barrel before the impending battle.

Regarding your comment trying to mean that I have said that the guy behind the forth man beginning from the left in the picture appearing on page 61 of the book This is War! Robert Capa at Work is Enrique Vañó Nicomedes, that's not true.

I haven't ever said that, because Enrique Vañó Nicomedes was not in Espejo, but in Cerro Muriano.

And when I say: “Behind the fourth CNT militiaman from the left (raising his left closed fist), we can see the anarchist chief with power over the militiamen, clad with a cap featuring eye shade and older than the rest of men“, I'm not referring to Enrique Vañó Nicomedes (who was in Cerro Muriano) but to the anarchist chief dressed in white attired which can be seen on far right the picture of page 77 of the great aforementioned book of ICP/Steidl (key photograph in which appear five militiamen simulating to be shooting against the enemy with their Mauser rifles and in the background are the Cortijo de Casalilla and Los Molinos del Campo), on page 79 of this same book (with this man who I do believe is an anarchist old chief in his fifties on the lower right area of Taro's photograph giving orders to the militiamen to advance and charge against a really non existent enemy position on top of the slope), and also on 836 negative in page 67 of the quoted book, this time appearing alone and simulating to be firing with his Mauser rifle against enemy troops.

I do believe that though the man appearing behind the fourth militiaman in the picture of page 61 (with a lot of anarchist militiamen standing on the trench and brandishing their rifles and a tent on the right of the image) is wearing a military cap, he is not a regular officer of the Republican army, but the anarchist chief dressing a white attire who appears in the aforementioned pictures made in Espejo, because the anarchists from Alcoi had assaulted a lot of military headquarters during late July 1936, capturing Mauser rifles, military caps, bayonets, etc.

Both if this man is the anarchist old chief probably in his fifties (obviously not Enrique Vañó Nicomedes who was much younger, 25 years old, and was in Cerro Muriano) who appears in the previously quoted pictures made by Capa and Taro in Espejo, which is what I believe and is wearing a military cap captured some weeks before in Alicante province or if it is a Republican officer of the regular army, obviously, though we can only glimpse part of his face and military cap, obviously I haven't ever said that he is Enrique Vañó Nicomedes and when I said anarchist chief referring to the man appearing behind the fourth militiaman in the picture of page 61 of ICP book, I referred to the man appearing on far right of the picture of page 77 of ICP book and others wearing white clothes and a captured military cap.

On the other hand, here is what I have been able to research with a lot of effort and sweat, and believe me Mr. Boosra, very little talent, which makes me work the double.

Anyway, the most important photographic work made by Capa and Taro in Córdoba was not in Espejo, but in Cerro Muriano, where as you say they made some of the most profound war images ever taken and risked their lives different times being in the most dangerous areas:

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