And tonight a cultural treat far removed from the world of folk music, plaster saints or island flora, the Caja Canarias is hosting a retrospective of Robert Capa’s work over the next couple of months. As with other sociocultural projects in the past, like the magnificent Enciende Africa in 2008, there are other events based on the same theme. In the case of this exhibit, a series of movies based on the theme of photo-journalism. I can’t help thinking that a debate, like the ones we had at Enciende Africa, on this subject would be fascinating. The theme of when or if it’s morally correct to continue to take photos in tragic or dangerous situations is ongoing and very interesting. These islands are home to and/or have produced an amazing amount of talent in this area, and I don’t doubt that a lively debate could have been had.
I have to admit to a certain bias and no disinterest on the subject or in the work of Capa and those who came after. The image of the devil-may-care (and of course devastatingly handsome) war correspondent has always stirred my soul, and Capa could have been the mould from which Hollywood crafted all such characters. Other heroes of mine include Don McCullin and Tim Page, and I think it’s safe to say that had there been no Capa they might never have attained the heights they did.
Capa, along with Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David Seymour founded the photo agency which became the byword for excellence and professionalism in its field, Magnum. Back in the days of video tapes I had programs about Cartier-Bresson and Eve Arnold over which I used to drool, and which, honestly, put me off buying a proper camera for years! I also weaned myself on Hemingway in my teens, so that era and that lifestyle, were the stuff of my dreams. I wasn’t in the least surprised, therefore, to learn that not only was Capa a contemporary of Hemingway, but also a colleague and friend, as was my greatest literary hero, John Steinbeck.
It is this quote from the exhibit by Steinbeck about his friend’s work which has stayed with me:
‘John Steinbeck once wrote that his friend Robert Capa knew that “you cannot photograph war, because it is largely an emotion.” However, continued Steinbeck, “he did photograph that emotion by shooting beside it. He could show the horror of a whole people in the face of a child.” ‘
Capa is best known as a “war photographer”, and he died, doing what he loved. He stepped on a landmine in Vietnam in 1954. In later years war photography became much more graphic, until in the present day, we think nothing of the sight of mutilated corpses and grieving parents along with our breakfast cereal. Maybe we became so immune to photos like Capa’s, which portray powerfully the anguish of the victims of war, but actually show us little of what being in the midst of it was like, that the art (if that is the right word) had to move up a notch, and then another and another. Capa’s photography captures history, and has become history itself.
For this reason the exhibition can be viewed on different levels, and I fully intend to go back to take it in more deeply, not only to admire Capa’s mastery of his craft and the window into the past, but as an insight into the history of photo-journalism. Despite that most of the photographs depict some aspect of war, they belong to a time when a veil was drawn over the worst atrocities. I’m not sure whether that was better or not. It’s true that the excruciating photos both Page and McCullin, amongst others, shot in Vietnam fuelled anti-war feeling in the US, which possibly brought about a speedier end to the conflict, but, a generation on, it doesn’t seem as if reportage from Afghanistan has had a great deal of effect on us.
Tonight’s film “Triage” starring Colin Farrell highlighted the moral dilemas which journalists and, in fact, others face in war zones, as well as the brutality and horror. I’m newly a fan of Farrell, after seeing The Way Back (twice in one week actually – something I haven’t done since I was in my teens!), and his performance is excellent, and the movie’s message is clear, but it’s not a great film. It lacks pace and from my limited knowledge of movies I can only blame the director. Still, as a follow up to the exhibition it gave us plenty of pause for thought.