This picture of the Loyalist Militiaman is a photo taken by Robert Capa for the French magazine Vu. Although it is taken during the height of the Spanish Civil War, the photo is not about the Civil War itself. The vacant spaces make up the majority of the picture. The main focus is on the man — one Federico Borreli Garcia — but his identity or those of his executioners matter a little in this deeply impersonal photo . He is fighting against the forces he neither control nor see-a war that is so removed from his everyday life, and one that is so removed for the viewers too.
The picture is not about the war’s destructiveness: the face of the falling soldier is almost relieved. Even the ravaged countryside of Spain is not showing in the picture. The picture is not about the physical warfare-amazingly absent from the picture are mortars, armies or other accessories of war. The picture is about the void it creates, the catharsis it provides from life and especially its mysterious presence (or lack thereof). War is vilified in the picture, not through visual blood or gore, but through its absence and the silent and subtle nob to man’s nature to fear the Great Unknown.
Vu published it in September 1936, but both the photo and its author became international celebrated when Life magazine reprinted it in July 1937. Background of the photo is not clear, and there were accusations that Capa staged the photo. Philip Knightley wrote, “When and exactly where did Capa take it? The terrain in the photograph tells us nothing; it could be anywhere. Who is the man? His face is blurred, but there appears to be no trace of a wound, certainly not the explosion of the skull that a bullet in the head would cause. In fact, he is still wearing his cap. How did Capa come to be alongside him, camera aimed at him, lens reasonably in focus, just as the man was shot dead?”
Cornell Capa, Capa’s brother, maintained nothing had been said by his brother about the photo. Capa’s colleague David Seymour believed that Capa was in a trench, timidly raised his camera above the trench, took the photo without looking and was ashamed to admit the fact. O. D. Gallagher, who reported for the London Daily Express remembered that the action was sparse around the time Capa ‘took’ the picture, and was sure that Capa posed it. While sharing a room, Capa apparently taught Gallagher how to fake a good action shot too. Further adding to the debate was that no negatives or contact sheets for the picture was ever discovered.
When the photo first appeared in Vu, it was accompanied by one other similar photo, of another soldier in the moment of death on a slope. How he managed to take those decisive moments is a mystery the great photojournalist took to his premature grave in 1954. LIFE reprinted the photo in Capa’s obituary (above).