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This story is a fictional diary entry by Gerda Taro on her experience as a photojournalist during the Spanish Civil War.
22nd July, 1937
Death is like a taking a photograph: one shot and then still forever. Something pauses. Something stops being.
Tomorrow I return to Brunete, but this time advancing further to the front with Teddy. Hopefully, there would not be much disagreement between General Walter and myself. Tension builds up everyday and there is fear of something worse, something more terrible occurring on the field, although I do not know how things could be worse. And yet, some journalists at the bar drink to more terror, more violence. More blood means better photographs.
Cockburn and I spoke about this a few weeks ago. The absurdity of seeing all these fine people get killed on the other side of the camera… is it not unfair that we should live? These thoughts consume me whole on some nights like tonight. As my shots become clearer, my vision becomes more obscure. I begin to question my purpose and ask myself about privilege – this vile privilege of being on the other side of the camera, the side that allows me to be a participant in the war, but also offers the freedom to cheat; it gives me access into violence and the freedom to not bleed.
It didn’t feel like privilege when I first started working as a photojournalist. I wanted the world to know about each moment that makes this war what it is… god knows I still do. But outside, they hear about the loyalists and the nationalists, about soldiers dying on the field, the pendulum swinging between offense and defense, and the war is so much more than that. War from the outside is the number of rifles used, casualties reported, and a catalog of names of soldiers who are killed. War from the outside is empirical. But the real war is what I see through the lens when I capture moments drenched in tragedy. I remember the staggering ache I felt last month at the Cordoba Front when I saw a few members of the Chapaiev Battalion playing chess near Penarroya under the shade of a tree. There was something tragic, yet extraordinary, about the silence of that recreational moment, the way they huddled together to make the most of a few peaceful hours. In May, as I was at the Segovia front following the Republican soldiers, there was a point once the gunshots died down, when about twenty odd soldiers just stood around their lost companions on the ground next to bloodied stretchers figuring out how to carry their bodies to the morgue. There were not enough stretchers to carry them all. On the one hand, pain manifests itself into moments of peaceful chess playing and on the other, into bloodied stretchers and corpses with dismembered bodies – but each moment just as agonising, holds the war firmly in its fist.
This pain engulfs war. I wanted to immortalise this pain. I wanted to immortalise the tragedy that circumscribes not just what everyone thinks suffering is, but everything that is beyond their perception of the war. But this very desire of mine also fills me up with anger and despair: the fact that while I document the death of a soldier through my lens, the soldier actually dies. Over the course of time, being on this side of the lens began to feel like privilege. Perhaps it is the increasing gap between witnessing the pain and experiencing it. But if nobody witnesses it, if nobody captures these moments of pain and adversity, are they destined to be forgotten? There is, of course, a gap between an event and its account, but I am losing myself in this gap. The ground beneath my feet slips a little each time, as this gap grows deeper with every air raid and gunshot. I’m scared I’ll drown in this lacuna.
Is history still history if it passes by undocumented? Will this war dissipate amidst facts and figures if it is not collected and held together with narratives and photographs? Perhaps that is what helps me stay afloat and see my work as injecting strength into the potentially precarious body of the war, taking it a step further from becoming a specter than a real past. I make the present past every time the flash goes off. But I also feel weaker with every shot. When Capa and the others saw the photograph I took of the young children playing in the bombed building at La Granjuela last month, Toni held the negative in his hand and remarked how ‘beautiful’ the picture was. He said it was like a piece of art. I had flinched. ‘Art.’ Art is not objective; it is soaked in the artist’s perspective and is meant to have an aesthetic value. And then what of my photographs? Are they too not manifestations of my outlook – a meeting point for the war I witness and me? Each photograph I take is like my skin – always in contact with what is outside and simultaneously with what is within. Each photograph that captures the war outside also captures my perspective; it captures what I think deserves to be documented. I do not know how to refute the claim that my photographs classify as art. But why should I? Why should this idea make me flinch? What is so wrong with subjectivity and aesthetics? It is the same aesthetic that compelled Toni to call my photograph ‘beautiful;’ the same art that makes everyone who sees these photographs at least begin to comprehend – if not identify or understand – the horror of the war. Seeing a photograph of a bombed building in La Granjuela would surely not have had the same impact on someone as the photograph of young children playing in the debris did. While my conscience throbs with questions and threatens to break out of me and obliterate the film of my camera, I do not know of any objective way to engage with this historical moment.
Art aestheticises, romanticises and appropriates but art also encapsulates what facts cannot.
An unconscious air raid-victim on a stretcher with his eyes half-open and lips ajar in a morgue in Valencia is real. My photograph of him is art. A wound on his left cheek visibly stretches out his lips a little wider, pulling the skin from the corner of his lip. In the photograph, it almost looks like a smile. The kernel of this ethic of representation for me comes down to this: it’s either this art or nothing; it’s either this aesthetic permanence or an erasure of history. Thinking about the future, the choice essentially is between such a photograph that romanticises the soldier’s pain put up on the wall in a museum or the word ‘unidentified’ on a piece of dilapidated paper in an archive. As long as my photographs are out there for people to see and to understand that the war wasn’t, isn’t and never will be empirical, I am willing to shed my skin away, layer after layer.
The war is not a piece of art but only an artist can immortalise it.
Note: All the names, years, photographs and incidents mentioned in this piece are real. Information on most of them can be found in Richard Whelan’s book titled Robert Capa: A Biography.