Capa’s Story

I continue to be amazed at the revelations about the ten or so exposures that Robert Capa made on Omaha Beach on D-Day in the huge series of posts by A D Coleman and various guests on Photocritic International.

The series having disposed more than adequately of the legend about the darkroom mishap and the myth of the missing negatives that never were, the latest two-part contribution by military historian Charles Herrick, a former officer in various roles in the US Army and a military contractor shows convincingly that the caption and almost universally accepted interpretation of a couple of the photographs was incorrect. It’s a conclusion that also must alter our evaluation of the remaining images.

Capa himself must have known what the people he photographed were doing, but sent no information with the film. As Herrick points out, “Captioning the images was therefore left to those who had never witnessed an amphibious assault, much less the Omaha Beach landings.” The caption they wrote was to fit the story they wanted to illustrate and bears little relation to what the image actually shows to the trained eye of Herrick.

Capa had gone back to Normandy immediately after giving his film to a courier and by the time he became aware of the misleading caption, he would also have been aware of the impact the image had made, and a correction would have spoiled his story and blemished LIFE’s reputation. But it would be hard to believe he didn’t discuss it later with his picture editor in the London office along with the rest of the story when next they met.

As Herrick points out, the picture is used on an official US Navy Seals web site with a the correct interpretation. Rather than people struggling to shore in the second wave sheltering behind the obstacles on the beach under heavy fire, Capa photographed a dedicated team of engineers at work rather later in clearing these obstacles. Dangerous work that was made possible by this being “a stretch that was under relatively light fire.

Capa was fortunate to have landed on a part of the beach where the relative lack of opposition had enabled the first waves of the invading forces to make considerable progress – and the engineers were clearing the way for further troops. Working unprotected to remove the obstacles was a hazardous job – of the 175 engineers working on Omaha beach, the Seals web site states  that  31 were killed and 60 wounded, but this section was where the most progress was able to be made.

Herrick’s interpretation makes sense of some things I had been unable to understand about this image – if the soldiers were under heavy fire, why were they not more clearly sheltering in the lee of the obstacle, and what were the ropes that were clearly visible. I’d thought that perhaps they were wires that were in some way a part of the defences, though it was hard to see in that case they had not been cut through.

Herrick concludes:

What a travesty, then, that these very men who made decisive contributions to the success of the campaign, despite every danger and hindrance, should have become poster boys for lack of resolve under fire.

And all as the result of a caption in LIFE magazine that told the wrong story.”

He perhaps should have added “and those who knew the right story – the photographer and presumably his editor – failed to correct it” – and so it became a legend.

My own conclusions are also about the failures of much photographic criticism. As I’ve often found myself having to comment, it really does need to start by looking at the pictures carefully and critically. Whereas all too often it starts from false assumptions and the lazy repetition of what others have said. Most fail to consult what are after all the primary sources.

As this case demonstrates, it often also needs some specialist knowledge of the situation , enabling the recognition of the helmet markings as those of US Navy engineers and of those ropes or wires as Primacord detonation cord.

But in this case, perhaps more than anything else it needs the courage to think out loud the unthinkable, that people and institutions that have been revered for years have been deliberately repeating a lie.   Or in this case, perpetuating lies and a mistaken interpretation.

It isn’t of course unusual for photographs to be deliberately used in a misleading way, though the initial incorrect captioning was almost certainly made in good faith in this case. Regularly pictures published on social media (and often picked up from there in the mass media) alleging to show something are shown to have been taken elsewhere at a different time or place or to have been digitally altered.

M. Scott Brauer wrote an article on his dvaphoto site on 8 June with the lengthy title Bellingcat’s conflict crowdsourcing: analyzing photos and video to learn more about war. Bell¿ngcat is a web site which crowd-sources specialised information of every type from people around the world to provide a detailed analysis that has been able to produce a remarkable level of previously unknown information about some conflict images that those publishing them wished to hide.

Sensibly, Brauer concludes with a warning that you shouldn’t believe everything that you read on the web.

One wrong click and you’re down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole where there’s a political motive behind every photo, all of which are staged.

Articles like that by Herrick and the whole series by Coleman and his other guests are convincing, in part because of the experience and obvious expertise of those concerned, but also because of the careful and precise building of their case and the presentation of evidence for it. Coleman’s work has already been recognised by the 2014 Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi (SDX) Award for Research About Journalism and being nominated for two other awards.

3 Responses to “Capa’s Story”

  1. A D Coleman has asked me to make clear that work has been a group effort and he writes:
    “While I’ve done the bulk of the writing, the contributions of the others have proven invaluable, as you yourself have pointed out. The SPJ award cites myself, J. Ross Baughman, and Rob McElroy. (Herrick hadn’t yet signed on when the nomination occurred.) I plan to accept the award in the name of all four of us; it’s a team effort. Just want to put that on the record.”

  2. […] U.K. blog >Re: PHOTO, has posted a substantial response to this research from Charles Herrick: “Capa’s Story,” datelined June 10. I commend it to you in its entirety. An […]

  3. […] 25 February 2016). Marshall, P. (2015) Capa’s story « >Re: PHOTO. Available at: (Accessed: 26 February 2016). Moore, D. (2012) Freeman hit twice after Normandy landingReminders […]

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