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Ethics in Photojournalism Then and Now: The Case of Robert Capa

Contax-II-35mm-rangefinder-camera-with-Carl-Zeiss-Jena-5-cm-f1.5-high-speed-lens.-400x269BY A. D. COLEMAN

I knew from the outset that my pursuit of an investigation of a legendary moment in the history of photojournalism—Robert Capa’s D-Day experiences on an assignment from LIFE magazine on June 6, 1944, and the subsequent fate of his negatives—would raise unsettling ethical questions about Capa and others involved in the promulgation of the resulting narrative, which has achieved the status of cultural meme and myth.1

My work on this project, which now extends across two full years, took me down a number of side roads. One of them led me to consider the striking differences between photojournalism ethics prior to and through World War II and the ethical standards that govern the field today. How did the form’s earlier practitioners—in which class I would include not only the photographers themselves but the reporters who often teamed with photographers, their picture editors, in-house caption and text writers, layout artists, supervisory editors, and even publishers (to the extent that the latter articulated any guidelines)—weigh those issues during the nascent period of “the picture press” and its coming of age?

Nowadays the public regularly learns about and participates in energetic discussion of breaches of professional ethics in photojournalism. The February-March 2015 international uproar over digitally altered images submitted to the annual World Press Photo (WPP) competition is the most prominent recent case.2 As that incident demonstrated, to a considerable extent digital technology facilitates both the post-exposure manipulation of images and the discovery and publicizing of such tampering. But that didn't provide the only basis for disqualifying a staggering 20% of that year's submissions to the WPP contest. One entrant had his prize revoked when it turned out he had staged one of his images and misleadingly captioned another. The severity of the consequent penalties indicates the gravity with which the profession today views such behavior. Notably, these issues do not only concern those within the fields of journalism and photojournalism; they get reported on, analyzed, pondered, and judged in the mass media and even in people’s homes.

I don’t intend in this essay to sort out and assess the various codes of ethics that presently apply to photojournalism. There are hundreds of them, promulgated by WPP, by the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) and the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), by journalism organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA), by other such organizations in other countries, by various picture agencies, and by individual periodicals here and abroad.

Restrictions of time and space prohibit tracing the origin and evolution of those codes and what, over time, they have considered and how they have defined and determined the limits of the concept and scope of “the ethical.” (To give an example, as recently as 1998 the ASMP’s “Code of Ethics” dealt exclusively with how much money photographers were entitled to charge for their work.) Nor do I plan to address the inevitable and rapid obsolescing of those codes as their sources play catch-up with technological developments in digital imaging.

I mention them here to establish the fact that today, and for some time past, codes of ethics governing photojournalistic practice have existed. Professional organizations, along with print and online publications and the programmers of television channels and stations, articulate them. They get formally transmitted to pre-professionals—budding journalists and photojournalists, editors and picture editors—attending post-secondary schools of journalism and photojournalism. The fields of journalism and photojournalism recognize them, enforce them with reasonable vigor, and punish infractions, commonly acknowledging each breach and its consequences in their own publications. And, when such institutional due diligence fails, as it inevitably will now and again, citizen watchdogs using the Internet often pick up the slack.

This represents a radical change from the media environment of the period during which Robert Capa did his work (1932-54). Photojournalism at that time had not yet become a field or a discipline; indeed, as a practice it had not even acquired the name by which it would later become known. (ASMP originally called itself the American Society of Magazine Photographers.) Its practitioners had no professional organizations to represent them, much less to formulate ethical guidelines or what we now call “best practices.” (ASMP was founded in 1944, followed by the National Press Photographers Association in 1946.) Publishers and picture editors determined what strictures (if any) constrained the photographers who worked for their periodicals; photographers used all available means to generate the assigned imagery.

Consider, for example, this 1993 statement by photographer David Scherman, another member of LIFE's D-Day team in June 1944:

[Photojournalism is] pictorialism with a meaning. … If you didn't get the picture at the exact instant, you kept the meaning in mind, and you faked the picture, or reframed it. … I was enough of a journalist to realize that you invent a good picture. I was the pioneer of the made-up picture. The faked, invented picture. … During the war [World War II] I did nothing but fake pictures.3

Exaggeration aside (Scherman could not have “faked” or “invented” the bulk of his war photography), I find it impossible to imagine any working photojournalist forthrightly confessing such an approach today. Not that fakery doesn’t happen, as examples from WPP and elsewhere prove.4 But it’s hardly commonplace; moreover, standards and penalties imposed by the profession itself have made such falsification a high-risk enterprise, as the WPP uproar demonstrates.

That simply wasn’t true in Capa’s day. Over the years I’ve talked with other photojournalists of that era—the late Lucien Aigner, to name one—who unabashedly went on record about staging images, with their editors and publishers understanding and approving that practice.Thanks to a lawsuit in France, we know now that Robert Doisneau set up his classic 1950 image of young love in Paris, “Le baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville (The Kiss),” with hired models, along with others in the same series, presenting them for publication in LIFE as observations of spontaneous public behavior by his compatriots.

We also know that Capa staged combat photographs on at least two occasions. In his unauthorized 2002 Capa biography Blood and Champagne, Alex Kershaw quotes from the Spanish Civil War diary of Alfred Kantorowicz, political commisar of the Chapaev Battalion, who noted the arrival of Capa and his lover and colleague Gerda Taro at their command post near Peñarroya, south of Madrid, on June 24, 1937:

Capa arranged a whole attack scene: an imaginary fascist position was stormed as men, with terrifying roars and passionate battle-lust, leapt and bounded doubletime into victory … [Capa] was very pleased with the result.5

And Capa’s official biographer, Richard Whelan, admitted in 2007 that the best-case scenario for Capa’s most famous image, “The Falling Soldier” from the Spanish Civil War, portrays it as a real death in the midst of a staged event. Whelan did so in the catalog for the International Center of Photography exhibition “This Is War! Robert Capa at Work,” also acknowledging therein that he had evidence of this fakery going back to 1982, but had chosen not to make it known.In April, 2016, J. M. Susperregui, a Spanish researcher, published an article that holds that not only was "Falling Soldier" staged but no deaths occurred that day among the Republican soldiers there.7

None of those credible revelations has had any significant impact on Capa’s overall reputation. I would suggest that the reasons for this lack of attention include not only the reverence in which so many hold Capa but the fact that during those mid-century decades—and especially the war years encompassing both the Spanish Civil War and World War II, 1935-45—photojournalism itself, like written journalism, served a forthrightly propagandistic function that tolerated censorship, bias, and distortion of fact in the cause of an assortment of “greater goods.”

Whelan's Robert Capa: A Biography8 functions more as hagiography than scholarship. Commissioned and authorized by the Capa estate, editorially supervised by Capa's younger brother Cornell, lacking footnotes (making it impossible to verify many of his assertions), and purportedly drawing on primary materials kept unavailable to any other scholar to this day, it fails to meet even the most elementary tests of reliability and validity. At the same time, precisely because its author clearly sets out to paint a favorable picture of his subject, the reluctant comments therein that—from a present-day perspective—reflect badly on Capa become all the more credible.

Whelan describes a working environment in which Capa felt free to bring his left-wing bias to his image-making. Capa misdated some images, ascribed others to situations he never actually witnessed, and played fast and loose with his captioning—falsifying some, rendering others in hopelessly vague and generic language, not infrequently omitting them altogether. As one reviewer noted,

I … know too well that there still is faking in newsrooms, albeit random and rare. I was unprepared for the frequency with which, according to Mr. Whelan, Capa made things up and LIFE magazine and the [Henry Luce-sponsored] “March of Time’" newsreels fudged, faked and lied in the 1930’s and 40’s.9

The author of this review, Howard Simons, formerly served as the managing editor of The Washington Post and, at the time it was written, was curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University.

None of that seems to have bothered the editors with whom Capa worked, either at the time or since, despite the fact that, for instance, his failure to caption any of the ten 35mm exposures he made on Omaha Beach on D-Day resulted in seven decades of misrepresentation of a heroic demolition team at work that was presented in the original LIFE caption as a cluster of frightened combat troops hiding from enemy fire. Some of that tolerance we can perhaps attribute to the high regard in which his colleagues by then held Capa, already anointed in print as “The greatest war-photographer in the world.”10 But, in any case, photographers of that time had little say, contractually or in practice, over how their images got captioned. Staff writers, who often had not accompanied the photographer on a given assignment, generally provided the texts (including captions) that accompanied an article's photographs. With no authorial control over what Roland Barthes in 1957 would term the “anchor” and “relay” functions of their photo imagery's captions, photographers back then understandably had a different sense of responsibility for those texts than do photojournalists today.

In the course of my research project I re-read Wilson Hicks's Words and Pictures: An Introduction to Photojournalism.11 Written by the chief picture editor of LIFEwho supervised, among many other stories, that magazine's July 19, 1944 issue with the lead layout of Capa's D-Day pictures—this book upon publication immediately became the “bible” on its subject, whose literature was decidedly thin. Academic instructors in photography and photojournalism programs frequently assigned it as the primary text in their courses.

Read today, more than 60 years later, it's a naïve, sugar-coated period piece with no critical perspective on itself or its field. More to the point of this essay, Hicks makes no mention whatsoever of the photographer’s obligations to provide accurate information about the situation, much less any guidelines for captioning. At the time, it seems, everyone simply assumed that captions would get written by an accompanying reporter or by someone on the editorial end back in the office, who at worst would cobble together something sufficient from whatever notes the photographer provided.

Significantly, Hicks endorses staged/re-staged images (which he calls “posed-unposed”) in which a photographer induces his subjects to re-enact one or another situation, making no distinction between those pictures and any authentic, unstaged documents of events. (He does distinguish between those and clearly directorial imagery, obviously theatricalized, intended to serve as illustrational rather than editorial.) Indeed, one can read through the entirety of Words and Pictures without coming across the word “ethics” or a description of an ethical dilemma.

All in all, if Hicks, seen in his day as the supreme authority in the field of photojournalism, could be so cavalier about these matters, it’s clear that photojournalists then operated in an environment that cut them huge amounts of slack compared to the restrictions they face in our own time.

Capa thus got away with a lot, due to the absence of clear guidelines. So did others, including Scherman, whose penchant for “staged” images can't have gone unnoticed by his picture editors. But this doesn't mean that all photojournalists of that period similarly played fast and loose with the facts in their work, nor that picture editors tolerated all practices.

For instance, the public uproar in 1936 over the disclosure that Arthur Rothstein had repositioned a cow skull in one of his Dust Bowl images for the Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration, or FSA) had affected the credibility of that agency’s work. This crisis so sensitized the RA/FSA’s director, Roy Stryker, to the potential consequences of any demonstrable pre- or post-exposure intervention in the imagery done under his agency’s auspices, that he would subsequently castigate Dorothea Lange12 for retouching the negative of her iconic “Migrant Mother” portrait (also 1936) to obscure a distracting thumb in its foreground.13

As mentioned above, in Whelan’s final comment on Capa's “Falling Soldier” image—written shortly before he took his own life in 2007—the biographer confessed to having buried an incriminating letter written to him in 1982 by Hansel Mieth, who, with her then-deceased husband Otto Hagel, had formed a team of LIFE staff photographers. Mieth’s missive recounted a visit by Capa, circa 1948, to their Manhattan apartment, during which Capa admitted that the death of that Spanish loyalist soldier had been the result of real sniper fire during a mock battle staged for Capa’s camera. Hagel had found this outrageous, and told Capa so in no uncertain terms.14

This indicates that, even at that time, some photojournalists had, on their own initiative, formulated relatively rigorous codes of ethics, while others decided on a case-by-case basis what the assignment allowed. Still others (e.g., Scherman) simply did as they pleased, on the apparently correct assumption that, so long as they provided images of publishable quality, their editors would ask few if any questions about the circumstances under which they got made, and readers would follow suit.

In conclusion: I have not undertaken a thorough search of the primary materials (codes of photojournalistic ethics from 1945 through the present), nor of the scholarly and pedagogical literature on this subject. If a comprehensive history of the subject of photojournalism ethics and the evolution thereof exists, I'm unaware of it, and apologize for the oversight. If not, it seems high time we had one, given that over the past seven decades the issue has gone from virtually unconsidered to discussed substantively within the field, and from there to a matter of frequent and widespread public concern—this last and current stage certainly spurred by the advent of digital imaging and the manipulation it enables.

The emergence and refinement of those guidelines promises to tell us much about the relationships between photojournalists and their editors, the periodicals for which they work, and their obligations to the public to which they all direct their output at any given moment. This matters because, at the very least, knowledge of the ethical premises of their making affects the way we understand specific images. I will never again look at Capa’s “Falling Soldier” or Doisneau’s “The Kiss” the way I once did. No single molecule of either negative or prints made from them has changed in any way as a result of the disclosures that the photographers worked directorially.

Yet these images have revised themselves drastically, moving inexorably from the territory of reportage/sociology to that of theater. This constitutes a dramatic and irreversible shift, a form of category error, because those two modes make different and incompatible demands on the viewer: the first asks us to commit our belief, the second to suspend our disbelief. Nonetheless, at the time of their making, the theatrical contexts in which these two photographers generated these pictures did not violate the then-sketchy ethical standards of their makers, nor those of the journalistic environment in which their publication and audience reception occurred.

We cannot simply ignore the differences between the relatively unsophisticated ethical environments of those earlier periods in photojournalism practice and our own. Conversely, we cannot simply excuse all the behaviors of those days on the grounds that those involved didn't know better. Yet applying today’s carefully elaborated ethical protocols to people working in this field before any hard-and-fast ethical rules got formulated, approved, and disseminated qualifies as both anachronistic and unjust. We have to look at the decisions made back then by photographers, picture editors, and publishers in light of common practice at the time, if we want to make present-day ethical judgments not only of these photographers’ actions but of their integrity and professional responsibility.



1. This research project, which I have titled “Alternate History: Robert Capa on D-Day,” is housed within my blog, Photocritic International. An up-to-date index page for the Capa research appears at It begins with a two-part Guest Post by Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist J. Ross Baughman (“Guest Post 11: J. Ross Baughman on Robert Capa (a),” June 6, 2014.) This initiated a long-term inquiry, supervised and largely conducted by this author, with contributions from Baughman, photo historian Rob McElroy, and combat veteran and amateur military historian Charles Herrick. See, for example, Rob McElroy, “Guest Post 16: Rob McElroy on Robert Capa, 2 (a),” May 17, 2015, and Charles Herrick, “Guest Post 17: Charles Herrick on Capa's D-Day (a)” June 6, 2015. While this team has some minor disagreements over details, we all concur that the received version of Capa’s experiences on D-Day and the fate of his film is largely fictional. I should add that this team project received the 2014 Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi (SDX) Award for Research about Journalism, and this author has received The Photo Review Award 2015 “for outstanding contributions to photography, including the investigation of Robert Capa's D-Day photographs.”

2. See Melissa Lyttle et al, “Debating the Rules and Ethics of Digital Photojournalism,” The New York Times, February 17, 2015, and Rachel Donadio, “World Press Photo Revokes Prize,” The New York Times, March 4, 2015.

3. See David E. Scherman: Self-Proclaimed ‘Pioneer of the Made-Up Picture’” at Cosgrove is quoting Scherman from a 1993 interview conducted by LIFE historian John Loengard that appears in Loengard’s book, Life Photographers: What they Saw. New York: Bullfinch Press, 1998.

4. See Naomi Zeveloff, “Iconic Mideast Photo Is a Fake—and Heartbreaking One at That,” The Forward , December 7, 2014, concerning Ricki Rosen's 1993 image of two Israeli boys, one of them posing as a Palestinian.

5. Alex Kershaw, Blood and Champagne: The Life and Times of Robert Capa. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2003, pp. 54-55.)

6. Richard Whelan, This is War! Robert Capa at Work. (Göttingen, Germany: Steidl/ICP, 2007, pp. 72-73.) Whelan may have felt forced to admit his awareness of this incriminating letter from Mieth because Kershaw already had unearthed it and published excerpts therefrom in his earlier book, op. cit., pp. 40-41.

7. Susperregui's article, published in Communication & Society, may be accessed at

8. Richard Whelan, Robert Capa: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.

9. Howard Simons, “Shots Seen Round the World,” The New York Times, September 22, 1985.

10. Robert Capa, “This is War!” Picture Post, December 3, 1938, vol. 1, no. 10, p. 13. This magazine, the British counterpart of LIFE, used that encomium for Capa along with a full-page portrait of him to accompany a story featuring Capa's images from the Spanish Civil War.

11. Wilson Hicks, Words and Pictures: An Introduction to Photojournalism. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952.

12. See Errol Morris, "The Case of the Inappropriate Alarm Clock (Part 1)," The New York Times, October 18, 2009.

13. See F. Jack Hurley, Portrait of a Decade: Roy Stryker and the Development of Documentary Photography in the Thirties. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972, pp. 142-143.

14. Hansel Mieth, letter to Richard Whelan, March 19, 1982, in collection of the Center for Creative Photography, as cited in Kershaw, op. cit. (Note: the meeting between Capa and Hagel apparently took place in the late forties, and Mieth overheard part of it and later learned the substantive details from her husband.)

© Copyright 2016 by A. D. Coleman. All rights reserved. By permission of the author and Image/World Syndication Services, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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