A brief story of how Gerda Taro and Robert Capa, two Jewish photojournalists, used their photos to fight the Fascist movement growing in Europe in the time before WWII.
Written by Nida Khan
Intern, The Jüdische Kulturbund Project
June 5, 2020
In the firmament of photojournalism, two of the brightest stars are Robert Capa and Gerda Taro. They can even be credited in taking part in its genesis. Both were active in the nascent period of WWII, their photographs informing the world of what was happening in the most direct way possible. In their hands, the camera became a medium to show the havoc caused by the violent undercurrents taking hold of Europe. They burst into the center of action, moving down in the trenches with soldiers and feeling bullets whiz over their heads. And they experienced the immensity and complexity of the brutal conflict unfolding in the compact and immediate form of an image. One didn’t need to understand the twists and turns of warring political parties. What they showed was a child playing in front of a wall notched by bullet pocks, two soldiers playing chess, and a scene of soldiers accosting a believed rebel. These images showed the macro reality in a microcosm of art.
SPAIN. Bilbao. May 1937. Basque region. Running for shelter during the air raids. © Robert Capa © International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos
Born Andre Frieddman (Capa) and Gerta Pohorylle (Taro), the persecution they faced as Jews at the rise of Fascism and their own alignment with leftist values drove them to fight the war with images. They rose to prominence during the Spanish Civil War, traveling back and forth from their home in Paris to Spain on periodic assignments for different magazines. Photography was definitely a means of survival for them. Being a young immigrant is never easy and photography was one of the jobs that didn’t require a perfect understanding of a new language. The name change was also to build personas for photographers that people would hire.
SPAIN. Burning truck, Battle of Brunete. July 1937. © Gerda Taro © International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos
The pictures transport you to the world that Taro and Capa were trying to save. They viewed their own cameras as the tool they needed to fight the Nazis and Fascists whose power was rising. Taro and Capa were motivated and defiant. They need to be in the thick of things. “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough” So they got close, being there when a residential building was cut half open by bombs and gun fighting, so others could see. And others did see. They could quell the tide; they could help broadcast what was happening to show the destruction caused to help stir people to action.
SPAIN. Madrid. November-December 1936. After the Italo-German air raids. The Nationalist offensive on Madrid, which lasted from November 1936 to February 1937, was one of the fiercest of the Civil War. During this period Italy and Germany started helping the Nationalist forces, and the USSR the Popular Front government. The civilians were severely affected by the bombings. © Robert Capa © International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos
SPAIN. Madrid. November-December 1936. Republican soldiers © Robert Capa © International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos
Capa and Taro’s photojournalism showed others the reality of the dark times they lived in. Today, the world still needs photojournalists. Our technology provides all of us the opportunity to access stories from around the world in real time. Written stories may be dense with so many words in languages we don’t understand that may cause us apathy and numbness. Photo stories offer us accessible information, transcending time, place, and language, making it possible for us to respond to unjust actions. We need pictures to fight those whose cruel actions towards others need to be held accountable. We need to not only be able to read about others’ lives but also see it in order to understand its full impact.
Refugees from Málaga in Almería, Spain, February 1937 © Gerda Taro © International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos
This article would not have been possible without the book, Eyes of the World by Marina Budhos and Marc Aronson.
Aronson, Marc, and Marina Tamar Budhos. Eyes of the World: Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and the Invention of Modern Photojournalism. Henry Holt and Company, 2017.