Robert Capa and James Nachtwey, a comparative essay of two photojournalists.

In the face of ongoing technical transformation in journalism compelling visuals remain a potent means to engage audiences. Photojournalism combines two professions, photography and journalism, using powerful images to tell news stories. This essay compares the work of two iconic photojournalists, Robert Capa and James Nachtwey. It will focus on their differing portrayals of war and conflict whilst illustrating their shared values and their key role and responsibility as photojournalists; to witness and document history. Both Capa and Nachtwey have been described as “quintessential war photographers” shaping public perception of global conflict and suffering through their photojournalism. In order to understand their respective motivations for becoming conflict photographers it is important to look at their backgrounds.

Robert Capa’s perspective on war comes from a political stance which reflects the political turmoil surrounding the times in which he lived. He was born Endre Friedmann in Budapest, Hungary, in 1913. As a Jewish teenager, he witnessed discrimination. He became politically active fleeing Hungary at the age of 18 because of his communist allegiances. He moved to Berlin and started to study political science. Whilst focusing on writing he also became interested in photography. Driven out of Germany by the threat of a Nazi regime he settled in Paris. He found it difficult to find work as a freelance journalist and thus re-invented himself as the American sounding photographer Robert Capa. Given his interest in politics and his personal stake in the outcome of the struggle against fascism it was natural that when politics led to war he would cover it.

If Robert Capa was the world’s quintessential war photojournalist from the 1930s until the mid 1950s (often referred to as the heyday, the pre-television day) then James Nachtwey has become the quintessential “conflict photojournalist” of our day. He was born in Syracuse, New York in 1948 and graduated in 1970 from Dartmouth College having studied art history and (like Capa) political science. Influenced by photographs during the Vietnam War and impressed by the power of photos to communicate the immediacy of events, he taught himself photography. From 1976 to 1980 he was a newspaper photographer in New Mexico, and in 1980 he moved to New York to work as a freelance photographer. Nachtwey’s work on war and conflict come from a humanitarian, rather than a political perspective. His stance is also a reflection on the issues that surround present wars which have become increasingly more violent and complicated.

Civil war was, for both men, the subject of their first major foreign assignments as photojournalists. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) for Robert Capa and civil strife in Northern Ireland in 1981 during the IRA hunger strike for James Nachtwey.

SPAIN. Cordoba front. September, 1936. Death of a loyalist militiaman.

The death of a loyalist soldier was Robert Capa’s most famous and controversial photograph. It zooms in on the instant of death showing the moment of a bullet’s impact on  a Spanish loyalist partisan. The fact that he is carrying a rifle suggests that he is a soldier, although his civilian clothes would suggest he is just an ordinary man. The rifle is positioned away, his arms are outstretched and his eyes closed in a position of surrender. This implies that the man was shot point-blank and not whilst firing himself. It would suggest an unexpected assault, or that he was not able to defend himself.

Capa’s use of contrasts serves to highlight the soldier as the focus of the photo. His black shadow reflecting and intensifying the scene. Almost like the shadow of death. The  figure, his pained expression and dramatic positioning stand out against the dull bare background. The soldier does, however, retain a sense of dignity in his death.

Capa stated that these men “were dying every minute with great gestures and they figured that was really for liberty and the right kind of fight and they were enthused”. In terms of photographic composition it reiterates Capa’s affirmation, “I’d rather have a strong image that is technically bad than vice versa”. The photo captures the essence of events as they happened.

There have been doubts to the photo’s authenticity, whether it was a set up orchestrated by Capa. (The photo, therefore, remains relevant in modern-day issues such as fake news and the manipulation of photographs in the press.) Nevertheless, it became symbolic of the Republican struggle and later as an anti-war image. It has been used as propaganda for both purposes. As Capa himself said, “the truth is the best picture, the best propaganda.”

In stark contrast to the lone, almost heroic, figure in Capa’s photo is this strikingly direct portrayal of the Northern Ireland conflict by James Nachtwey.


It is interesting to note Nachtwey’s use of colour in this image, he usually prefers to work in black and white, stating that “colour itself is such a strong phenomenon, in a physical sense, that in a way it competes with what is happening in the picture. It tries to become the subject of the picture.” However, in this particular photo, his use of colour adds to the horrific reality of the situation. The couple in the front of the image are having a seemingly normal conversation. The man’s hands are in his pockets as if he is just out for a stroll. The baby is sound asleep and completely relaxed whilst the mother pushes the pram and shows no signs of tension or fear. In fact they appear to be totally unaware of the events happening behind them. The bright blue colours, the casual clothing, highlight the ongoing, commonplace banality of day-to-day life which contrasts sharply to the brown’s and black’s of the truck. The vivid orange flames screaming out the reality of the situation; the violence and destruction of war.

The photo illustrates how Nachtwey’s first war assignment in Belfast lead him to realise that the front lines of war go right through people’s homes. “All the violence in Belfast was happening right inside residential neighborhoods. And that’s what I’ve seen ever since. Wars are no longer fought on isolated battlefields.”

There is no doubt of the power of photography as a communicative tool. Nachtwey states that a picture can be an antidote to war, ” that a picture that shows the true face of war is an anti-war photograph”.  Capa and Nachtwey’s  use of photography to tell a story follow Shannon and Weaver’s 1949 linear theory of communication. This was one of the first models aimed at developing effective communication between sender and receiver. This theory was further developed by William Schramm who noted the importance of feedback from the recipient. He also believed that an individual’s knowledge, experience and cultural background play an important role which means they interpret the message in different ways. In the case of photojournalism the visual communication of the photograph is reinforced by the written accounts that accompany them. The photos can be semiotically analysed to interpret deeper meanings but the context is of great importance. A picture may tell a thousand words as sight and thought are inseparable but how each individual perceives an image is dependant on comparing it to previous knowledge, comparing it to what is already known.

What sets these two photojournalists apart is that their work was unprecedented. Their reports speak of events that had not been brought to  our attention. Capa covered five wars in his short life time and Nachtwey has covered all the major events of the past thirty years, including war, conflict and critical social issues. Their role has been essential in shaping public perception of conflict and suffering. James Nachtwey sums up this role as a photojournalist: “I have been a witness and these pictures are my testimony. The events that I have recorded should not be forgotten and should not be repeated”.

Their individual styles in recording the truths they have witnessed is very different. Susie Linfield, author of “The Cruel Radiance. Photography and Political Violence” describes Capa as “the optimist” and having a “heroic approach”. Nachtwey, on the other hand is “the catastrophist” producing “graphic and morally complex images”. Both are, however, renowned for getting as close as possible. Capa’s famous dicton being “if your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”. Which ironically led him to a premature death at the age of only forty when he stepped on a landmine whilst covering the war in Indochina in 1954.

Robert Capa redefined wartime journalism by joining soldiers in the trenches and documenting their battle in grim, close-up detail. He “took his camera farther into the fighting zone than had ever been done before” (Life, magazine) His visceral photographs of US forces’ assault on June 6th 1944 were a striking contrast to the politically regulated and organised photographs of the Second World War. He was the only civilian photographer to accompany the first wave of infantrymen onto Omaha Beach on D-Day. The photos he took were the primary visual record of the initial landings.

Normandy landings

In this photograph Capa shows the image of a solitary soldier his stony face clearly visible under his oversized helmet. The use of black and white is indicative of the era in which Capa lived but once again the use of contrasting shades serves to highlight the values. The dark helmet and even darker gun further framing the man’s pale, white face. The blurring of the surroundings mean that the soldier is the only object in view. He is vulnerable, alone and exposed. Capa purposely captured the photo from the front and framed the photo so the soldier is in the forefront, his facial expression captured. Teeth gritted, looking pointedly forward with fear in his eyes. This makes the viewer feel his presence as if he can almost be reached out and touched. The visceral qualities capture the emotion, drama and grim reality of the horror of war.

In 1994 working for ‘Time’ magazine James Nachtwey witnessed the devastating effects of the Rwandan genocide. His role in revealing the atrocities and increasing global awareness opened international debate about humanitarian interventions, peacekeeping missions and sovereignty. Out of Rwanda came several new initiatives.

Sarah Boxer, writer for the New York Times, has said his: “I never look at Nachtwey’s photographs when I am sad: in fact I find his pictures harrowing at the best of times”.

Rwanda 1994-Survivor of Hutu death camp

This image is not the most graphic or tragic image of the Rwandan conflict but it is shocking and powerful.  It depicts a Hutu man who opposed the genocide and was, as a result, imprisoned in a concentration camp, starved, beaten and attacked with machetes. The context helps us to understand the background but the image stands alone as a powerful anti-war statement. A visible reminder showing both the physical and mental impacts of war on the victims.

The composition of the photo draws us to this man, we do not just see the scars, we see a story behind them. The white scars leap out against the dark background of his face, the top scar points to his torn ear. The violent marks of the machete have left a brutal, lasting imprint on his skin. His mouth is open, hands around his throat, reminiscent of the torture he has suffered. We can see the pain and suffering in his dull blank stare. His head is positioned sideways to emphasise his injuries, the pale dull background centering all of our focus on the unsettling image of this man. We are forced to face this man as he was forced to face his tormentors.

“If there is something occurring that is so bad that it could be considered a crime against humanity, it has to be transmitted with anguish, with pain, and create an impact in people – upset them, shake them up, wake them out of their everyday routine.” (James Nachtwey)

In terms of social and cultural impact both men have changed the face of photojournalism and it’s power to provoke thought and instigate change. Nachtwey’s photographic archives are preserved in Dartmouth college were he studied. He was a founder of ‘Seven‘ (VII) photographic agency in 2001 which continues today to represent preeminent photojournalists. Capa’s legacy to the industry was his joint creation of ‘Magnum photos’ in 1947. The prestigious photographic agency which started as a co-operative of photographers is 70 years old this year and continues. Henri Cartier Besson’s summarised its objectives, “Magnum is a community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually.”

The lives of these two photojournalists are intertwined in many ways. The personality and characters of Robert Capa and James Nachtwey could not be more different. Capa’s flamboyant, larger than life, almost film star charisma deeply contrasts Nachtwey’s quiet, unassuming, lone character. But they share a passionate hatred of war and a deep concern for the suffering of people. Their work has been immensely important in showing the world not just the truth of war but also the enormous gap between reality and what politicians would have us believe. They both possess the qualities needed to document war: talent, sensitivity , humanity and courage. What connects them is their single-minded determination to follow a self assumed mission. To witness and report on war through the universal communication of photography.


Word Count: 2195




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