Monday, February 17, 2014

Spanish Civil War 4, The Photojournalists

The Spanish Civil War was unique in many ways. It was the first war that was fully covered by journalists with their camera at hand. Photojournalism was born during the Spanish Civil War in the sense we understand it today. Nobody better than Robert Capa, David Seymour, aka Chim and Gerda Taro can embody the ideal of the journalist who gets involved in conflicts to show the world the tragedy of wars. The three of them committed their lives to show what was happening in the wars and especially the suffering of civilians.

Attribution Some rights reserved by xornalcerto

There are many parallelisms in the life and works of the three journalists, not in vain they worked together in different periods of their lives, shared a deep friendship and, in the case of Taro and Capa, they were romantically involved. The three of them were born in a convulsive time in different parts of Central Europe into Jewish families. A time that saw changes in borders, the fall of empires and the rise of anti-Semitism in most  European countries.

Following their wish for freedom they spent their lives taking pictures as photojournalists in numerous wars and military conflicts in the 20th century. A life that any Hollywood star would have signed for a movie. The parallelism continued up to the end of their lives. The three of them died very young while working as reporters in a war: Gerda Taro in July 1937 near Madrid during the Spanish Civil War; Robert Capa on May 1954 during the first Indochina war and Chim in November 1956 in Egypt during the 1956 Suez War.
The website by Magnum Photos offers a great collection of photos by these 3 journalists. In these collections we can have a look at photos from the Spanish Civil War but also other armed conflicts where they were sent as reporters. There are also other collections of  politicians or even movie stars. Magnum Photos was created as an international cooperative in Paris in 1947 by photographers. Among those photographers were Capa and Chim. The images below belong to their funds that can be visited in the provided links.

Another good source of graphic information is provided by the website of the Ministry of Education of Spain. The Junta de Defensa de Madrid, the organism that centralized the defence of Madrid after the coup d'etat in July 1936 created a photo archive. The idea was to show the world the disasters of the war and the suffering of the civilians. During the years of Franco's regime in Spain the archive was not available for political reasons. Today the collection is accessible online as an homage to the victims of the war.

For over 60 years most of the negatives taken by Capa, Chim and Taro during the Spanish Civil War were lost. After the ending of the Spanish civil war in April 1939 the negatives were kept in 3 small cardboard suitcases made by Chim. Then they went through an incredible journey until they were put under the custody of General Francisco Aguilar González, the Mexican ambassador to the Vichy government in 1941–42.  It is unclear  how this happened but the negatives were kept at Mr. Aguilar´s home until 1995.  After not less vicissitudes, they were placed at the International Centre of Photography with most of the rest of the works by the three photographers. We can learn about this almost unreal story in the ICF website.

A documentary that recalls the story of the 3 photojournalists in Spain and the journey of the 3 cardboard suitcases was produced in 2011, La Maleta Mexicana by director Trisha Ziff. The fate of the thousands of Spanish refugees after the war and their struggle for surviving in the concentration camps in France until Mexico opened its doors to receive them is well portrayed and documented with real testimonies of the refugees. The documentary offers a great deal of valuable information for our Spanish class. The trailer of the documentary:

And here we can see an interview to the director:

I would not like to finish this post without mention Agustí Centelles. He was a photojournalist before the war and he showed what life was like in Barcelona in the years prior to the Spanish Civil War. When the war started he continued taking pictures of Barcelona during the first days after the coup d'état. He also covered several battles with his cameras commissioned by the Republican government. After the war, he left for France carrying a suitcase full of negatives and his photography gear. His life in France was like the lives of the Spanish refugees depicted in the documentary La Maleta Mexicana. He spent several months in two concentration camps where despite the harsh conditions, he managed to build a photography lab and to continue with his work.

After the break of the Second World War he collaborated with the French resistance returning to Spain in 1946. He was never allowed to be a photojournalist any more for political reasons and he focused his work as a photographer on making portraits and working on publicity. In 1976, one year after Franco´s death, he went back to France to recover his old negatives. An outstanding selection of his photos is available on this Link offered by Faximil edicions Digitals. Going through them we can say that he definitely had the knack of being at the right place, at the right time.

His sons, Sergi and Octavi, have taken care of Agustí Centelles' work. They donated the funds to the Spanish state and in Octavi's flickr website most of his work is also accessible.
CopyrightAll rights reserved by Octavi Centelles

The life and work of the photojournalists who worked at the Spanish Civil War can be a good research project for a bilingual or IB Spanish program. Students can integrate themes from Social Studies, Art, Film Studies, and so on to create their project.