The Waorani Indians (also known as ‘Aucas,’ the Quechua word for ‘naked savages’) lived in the jungles of eastern Ecuador. They were a small, isolated stone age tribe of about 700 spread out over about 7,000 square miles of jungle, noted for their violence against their own people and outsiders who ventured into their territory.
Intending to bring Christianity to the Aucas, five American Evangelical missionaries — Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Peter Fleming, and Roger Youderian — set out into the jungles in 1955. They began making regular flights over the Auca settlements, dropping gifts and finally establishing a camp on a sandbar along the Curaray River, a few miles away the tribe on January 3, 1956.
A few tribesmen and women visited the missionaries in the subsequent days but their mission came to a violent end on January 8, 1956, when all five missionaries were speared and killed by the tribe. A few days later, the bodies are discovered by the United States Air Force Air Rescue Service and the story would receive wide coverage in religious and missionary publications.
Only three days after the missionaries were killed, LIFE magazine sent Cornell Capa to cover the story. Capa was still reeling from the death of his brother Robert in Indonesia two years earlier, after which he took on a few assignments dealing with religion and spirituality. His photos would depict the search for the slain missionaries, their burial on the beach where they died, and the faith and fortitude of the men’s widows.
Among few items recovered from the Curaray River days after was a camera belonging to Nate Saint, with partially used film inside. These photos, along with those taken by Capa appeared in in the January 30, 1956 issue of LIFE magazine in the story: “Go Ye and Preach the Gospel: Five Do and Die”.
Capa’s photograph of the five widows at the Shell Mera, Ecuador, mission station opened the photo-essay, juxtaposed against a full body shot of Nankiwi, described as “a savage Auca, his ear lobes distended by wooden plugs” taken by Nate Saint before his death. The following eight pages contained twenty-five additional photographs.
Four of the five widows stayed in Ecuador to continue with their deceased husbands’ missionary work, which led to the conversion of many Auca, including some of those involved in the killing. Capa returned for a follow-up photo essay which appeared sixteen months later in the May 20, 1957 issue of LIFE. A widow of the missionaries, Elisabeth Elliot, wrote a best-selling ‘multi-biography’ account of the five slain missionaries in Through Gates of Splendor (1957). Capa worked with Elliot as picture editor of the book and his photos also appeared there.
Capa’s work and LIFE photoessays gave evangelical organizations a lot more exposure in those years. However, it is unclear what Elliot herself thought. In her controversial novel, No Graven Image (1966), she would describe a pompous mission executive arriving for a whirlwind visit with two cameras and spending most of his visit snapping photographs, and question whether someone could adequately capture the reality by mere photos.