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Robert Capa, my mentor in every way

Robert Capa, photography by Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE,1942

“All you could do was to help individuals caught up in war, try to raise their spirits for a moment, perhaps flirt a little, make them laugh; . . . and you could photograph them, to let them know that somebody cared.”

Robert Capa

Capa’s glory

I keep thinking why I have such an obsession with France and Hungary and its past (Paris and Budapest are my favorite cities). And as to be expected, my preferred photographers are French and Hungarian. For me, they’re masters and are among top 5 until today and whether you agree or not, they’re my daily inspiration, the base of my studies, and 70% of my photography library. So from time to time I’ll write about each one of them, and today this post is dedicated to the one and only one Robert Capa.

What still impress me about Capa was his courage, perspective of seeing things further, his wisdom and above all, his free spirit. It was clear that Capa had the hunger that he needed to motivate him. Furthermore, in my opinion he will be forever the greatest war photographer of all time. Having participate of 5 wars (Spanish Civil War, 1936; Chinese Resistance to Imperial Japan, 1938; World War II, 1939-45; Founding of Israel, 1948/49 and Indochina War, 1954), he is a must read biography to any person who has a slightest interest in war photography/history. Add to that, Capa was the only photographer landing along with the soldiers of 116° Easy Red military unit at Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Probably his most famous photographs are the ones from this day, The Magnificent Eleven. This group of photos shows the landing of American troops at Normandy. The moment you see it, you come back to that day, the stunning immediacy, you can feel the energy through his pictures, the desperation of the Allies trying to reach a safe spot at the beach and running from the Nazi bullets, the explosions, the death itself. He was one of 20 American war correspondents awarded the Medal of Freedom by General Eisenhower for coverage of World War II.

John Morris was the responsible editor at that time at LIFE MAGAZINE and was in a hurry to develop the films, but unfortunately most of it was ruined by the darkroom staff. Today there are controversies about this matter saying Capa didn’t shoot all the rolls or that they were blank films, either way, the 11 pictures saved are legendary and show us the horror of that day. Plus, Capa risked his life for it. Here is a video of John Morris telling what happened:


Capa was a visionary, and among his achievements was the idea to work for himself. He was co-founder of legendary Magnum Photos agency in 1947, along with Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David Seymour, transforming the era of photography into an era where the photographers for the first time was the owners of their own copyrights. Magnum holds until today the title as the most important international photography media covering the world’s major events.

Capa had this ability to show a whole war period in a face of a child. Every time I see his pictures, I see something new, something that I can learn with, any detail coming from his work is a bliss.

Take a look, i.e., at his photos in 1947 postwar Soviet Union. The fact that the war was already over, did not make this adventure less difficult and according to Capa himself, this was not an easy assignment. Wherever his was with his 4 cameras, there was someone telling him that he could not photograph this or that. Think, for a man that was already literally in the middle of 3 wars and was so free, how could he be satisfied with people telling him what he could do or could not do? So instead of being in Moscow as a renegade, he flew to Ukrainian Soviet Republic (and this come as one of my favorite works of Capa) along with writer John Steinbeck. The period they were there they visited two collective farms were nearly almost everything was either destroyed or into pieces. A far remembrance what once we could call houses (I’m haunted by this particularly photo where Capa shows women dancing barefoot with themselves because at that time there were so few men who had survived war… ). Just think about it.

So what’s the lesson that I take from Capa as a photographer? And I’m not a war photographer or a journalist, I’m a traveler photographer, but I can assure you, that we all have much to learn with the masters and why Capa keeps going as my mentor in every way.

(you can check an article about Capa in Soviet Union at this link)

Powerfully emotional

Capa had a way to photograph emotion like no one else. Why? Because he was pure emotion himself. He understood what life was all about. If you read his bio, or have, you’ll understand what am I saying here. He was the first person to bring glamour to a profession that before people used to thought about it as a dull profession. In my opinion, photography brings emotion to people. It makes you happy, sad, disgusted, in love, vain, horrified, it does not matter, photos bring emotion to people. If you look carefully all work of Capa, you will see love, suffer, integrity, compassion, death, empathy, soul. Some of his images are excruciating. When I photograph, is serious, is passionate, is emotional. I don’t full around. I live it. Each photo that I publish is a piece of my life. If you want to understand me, read my pictures, see through it, dive into it.

CHINA. Hubei. Hankou. March, 1938. Young women being trained as Nationalist Chinese soldiers. After having lost Shanghai and Nankijng to the Japanese troops, CHANG KAI SHEK retreated to Hankou, where he resisted until late 1938.
Robert Capa © International Center of Photography

SPAIN. Barcelona. January 1939. Little girl resting during the evacuation of the city.
Robert Capa © International Center of Photography


As mentioned before, Capa was at 5 major wars, and it’s difficult to point his most scary task, but I kick the D-Day at Omaha Beach as one of the most terrifying experiences one could ever live. Wherever there was danger, there was Capa. What do I learn from that? As a traveler photographer, I had to overcome a lot of fears. Sometimes is not easy to travel to the other side of the world alone. But my will to be there is bigger than any fear that I had or will have. If I start to think how dangerous the world is today, I’ll probably never leave my room. So in order to stay as safe as one can be, I plan months ahead, read a lot about my itinerary and thrown myself into my new mission. I simply don’t think about the danger, if there is. I go for it.

Images that last forever

Some of the most famous photos in history mankind are Capa’s. ‘The falling soldier’, 1936, Spanish Civil War, it's surely one of his highlights (and he was only in the beginning of his career), with this photo, Capa brought a whole new meaning into war photographers, not only he was documenting history, he was also putting his life at risk along with the militia batling Franco’s army. Capa usually was in the trenches and frontlines showing how it was to be in the middle of crossfire. My lesson from it? To be in so many places as I’ve been, bring me the opportunity to show past and future of the same places, how history can change and society along with it. How cultures differ from different continents, people's behavior, mentality, communities. My point is, as long as my images can last and bring that message to you, I’m happy to follow Capa’s point of view.

Córdoba front. Early September, 1936. Death of a loyalist militiaman.
Robert Capa © International Center of Photography

ITALY. Naples. October 2, 1943. Women crying at funeral of twenty teenage partisans who had fought the Germans before the Allies entered the city.
Robert Capa © International Center of Photography

ITALY. Sicily, near Nicosia. July, 1943. German soldier captured by American forces.
Robert Capa © International Center of Photography

Make your own marketing

Capa knew how powerful a good marketing image of himself would put him where he wanted to be. What did he do? He invented himself. His true name was Andre Friedman, but with his name, he couldn’t get any assignments. So he chose Robert Capa and add to its figure a few adjectives that would put him right on the spot. Robert Capa supposed to be rich, famous, talented and an expensive photographer. It worked. How that marketing of him works for me? About 5 years ago, I used to work in studio: models, portrait, nude, etc. Although I loved it and I’ve learned a lot, I couldn’t get assignments and was very hard to keep my costs updated. But at the moment I linked my travels with my photography, everything happened. I simply put together 2 things that I deeply love and my name started to show of, not only in Brazil, but mainly abroad. Besides, one of the most important things in my life is my freedom. Freedom to be anywhere anytime. This can be shooting an empty street at 3:00 am where I live or to be inside a bunker in Moscow photographing remains of WWII. It doesn't matter where, as long as I have freedom to work as I want, everything flows naturally.

Be truthful

Capa’s images are strong and emotional because he used to portrait a whole scene into one piece. What do I mean? You could see the melancholy and sadness of a situation in one single moment or face, he didn’t capture the entire battle field, or the huge immigration camp in Israel, but fragments as a whole scene. How do I apply this in my work? As a traveler photographer, I try as much as I can to show not only the truth about the place or scenario that I capture, but also the beauty in it. It’s completely different from a point of view of a journalist or a war photographer, where they try to keep the truth as raw as possible, but instead, I create my reality along with my creativity, love, empathy and my freedom. I also love to capture fragments, bit by bit you’re able to see a complete history through my pictures. And above all, I follow my heart and instinct.

The end

As Capa was all the time seeking for adrenaline and danger, unfortunately he ended up dying by stepping into a landmine in Indochina War, May 25, 1954. He was only 40 years old. How sad is that? People at Magnum was devastated, the world had lost not only a great photographer, but also an incredible human being. Of course he had his failures, but who hasn’t? His remarkable life was marked by his family, Gerda Taro and later countless women (Ingrid Bergman was one of them), camaraderie, his beloved Paris where he felt at home and people who considered him a friend. Just to mention a few: Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, André Kertész, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Christopher Isherwood, Ernie Pyle, Charles Collingwood, John Huston, Picasso, Matisse, Werner Bischoff, George Stevens, Howard Hawks, Malraux, Auden, Isherwood, Hersey, Saroyan and Irwin Shaw. He also was a great mentor to others photographers, such as: Marc Riboud, Inge Morath, Ernst Haas.

Shaw in 1947 said what made Robert Capa so hypnotic to so many: "Only in the morning, as he staggers out of bed, does Capa show that the tragedy and sorrow through which he has passed have left their marks on him. His face is gray, his eyes are dull and haunted by the dark dreams of the night; here, at last, is the man whose camera has peered at so much death and so much evil, here is a man despairing and in pain, regretful, not stylish, undebonair. Then Capa drinks down a strong, bubbling draught, shakes himself, experimentally tries on his afternoon smile, discovers that it works, knows once more that he has the strength to climb the glittering hill of the day, dresses, sets out, nonchalant, carefully lighthearted, to the bar of '21,' or the Scribe, or the Dorchester, all places where this homeless man can be at home, where he can find his friends and amuse them and where his friends can help him forget the bitter, lonely, friendless hours of the night behind him and the night ahead."

Last, but not least, I found in this website, the only known recording interview of Robert Capa, and yes, you can hear his voice!! When I found it, I’m not ashamed to say that listening to his voice brought immediately tears to my eyes. With that said, try it:

To conclude, I’ll finish this article with one of my favorite quotes about Capa:

“For me, Capa wore the dazzling matador’s costume, but he never went in for the kill; a great player, he fought for himself and others in a whirlwind. Destiny was determined that he should be struck down at the height of his glory.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Capa's mother, New York, 1954
Elliott Erwitt / Magnum Photos

#robertcapa #war #photojournalism #blackandwhite #magnumphotos #wwii #indochina #spanishcivilwar #israel #sovietunion #dday #omahabeach #magnumphotos #leica #budapest #hungary

Highly recommended readings:

Blood And Champagne: The Life And Times Of Robert Capa

by Alex Kershaw


Note: as you read this amazing bio wrote carefully by Alex Kershaw, if feels like you’re side by side with Capa;

Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection

by Richard Whelan


Note: if you want to get to know his best photos, do buy this amazing book curated by his brother Cornell, it brings Capa’s most fantastic pictures with precise captions;

Slightly Out of Focus: The Legendary Photojournalist's Illustrated Memoir of World War II (Modern Library War)

by Robert Capa et al.


Note: get to know about Capa and his adventures through his own words.

All photographs are taken from Magnum’s website: © Robert Capa © International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos

If you are here, thank you so much for reading!!!

Hamarosan találkozunk! (See you soon!!)

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