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By John Helmer, Moscow

In a few days’ time, on August 1, Gerda Taro would have turned 104. The encomiums would have been bound to describe her as the oldest, possibly the first, woman photojournalist. But Taro hasn’t made it. Instead, on July 26, 1937, she died after being crushed by a Spanish Republican tank while the car she was riding on was strafed by an aircraft of the Condor Legion . She was just 27. At her funeral in Paris, the encomiums described her as a brave comrade in arms on the Republican side of Spain’s civil war. She was the first woman photojournalist to die in combat. The kaddish her father said at her coffin during the funeral was omitted from the coverage arranged by the French Photographers’ Union. Robert Capa, her lover who stole much of the credit for her work in the years to follow, wept buckets and stopped eating for a while.

If you want to start your understanding of the manipulative folly, the waste of talent, the meretriciousness of example, also the money to be made, when picture journalism plays warfare, you should read this book. Gerda Taro, Inventing Robert Capa. It has been produced by an Anglo-Pole named Jane Rogoyska. Her hatred of Russia and Communism, combined with her ignorance of European left-wing politics, lead her to depict Taro as a posterchild for innocence, naivety, and susceptibility to the wiles of men.

Because there is almost no trace of Taro’s own writing to quote from, and only the self-justifying or self-promoting letters and memoirs of Capa and other journalists in Spain at the time, Rogoyska invents what Taro was thinking when she did things, especially when wearing smart clothes, buying flowers, managing men who wanted to get into her pants, or doing what she did well, taking photographs.

Show Capa’s (left) and Taro’s (right) photographs of the same subject, side by side; ask experts to choose the better of the two, and there’s never any doubt – Taro’s.


The art is in the little details, as well as in the apparent spontaneity. Compared to Taro, Capa lacked both.

But even before war killing could be done by drones flying in the air, and action photographs made the same way from even higher altitudes, the resolution of the details, and also the spontaneity, can be faked. Capa’s most famous photograph, The Falling Soldier (1936), was certainly not of the death of the soldier Capa named, nor did the scene occur where Capa said it did. Other photographs recently exhibited in London from the original sequence include frames by Taro, and there is evidence that both of them were rehearsing and staging the shots. It’s also certain it’s not, as was claimed at the time, one of the first photographs ever to show the moment of death in battle.


So what exactly of value is there in war pictures if the details aren’t genuine, and the photographers aren’t good-looking?

Take, for example, the series of photographs – stills and video sequences – published over the weekend by the Daily Mail of London, the Sunday Times, and a great many other media around the world. They purport to show the movement to and from firing position of an anti-aircraft missile launcher known as Buk-M1. The significance is not the pictures themselves, but the interpretation – that this was a machine on its way to and from the shooting-down of Malaysian Airways Flight MH17 — and the destruction of 298 lives out of the blue Ukrainian sky, into a yellow field of Ukrainian sunflowers.

Take this image, for instance:


The frame has been interpreted by Ukrainian, British and American experts as a Buk-M1 launcher moving on its tracks “along a path on July 17 in Torez, Ukraine” on its way to a killing appointment, with Russian-made equipment, operated by pro-Russian separatists. If the video clip is run, and the frames before and after the photograph inspected carefully, the evidence reveals that the launcher was being escorted by a four-seater army jeep. The shadows under the trees in the centre of the road reveal the time was noon. The green of the centre-strip dividing the highway is rather green for this time of the summer.

There is no other evidence of the date; no sign of the target acquisition radar van which usually accompanies Buk-M1 missile launchers for the obvious operational reason. At least all the Buk-M1 missile launchers photographed in the Torez area on July 17 by Russian satellite cameras were accompanied by their vans. These machines can be viewed in the pictures starting at Minute 7 and running until Minute 11 of this clip, produced and released by the Russian Defence Ministry on July 21.

And here is an image of the same or similar Buk-M1 launcher, this time mounted on a low-loader truck. The photograph appears in the Daily Mail. The tarpaulin covering the launcher is flatter in profile than the first image, suggesting that its missiles may not be loaded, or have been fired – all four of them. Parked on the kerb, behind the truck and launcher, is an army jeep. The shadows suggest the time is late afternoon.


The newspaper report claims this image was “photographed in Torez hours before MH17 was downed.” Location research indicates the vehicles are parked at the intersection of 50 Years of the USSR Street and Gagarin Prospect in Torez. This source claims the images are not from the original version of the video “as we believe the original was removed, however we are unsure when it was recorded.” The location research is inconclusive on whether the launchers in the photographs of the Daily Mail series are the same.

A third image, apparently of the same low-loader carrying the same Buk-M1 launcher, is reported by the Daily Mail as having been taken by “Ukrainian spies [who] reportedly filmed the launcher used in the attack being smuggled to Russia – with two missiles missing.” Run the videoclip, and it can be seen that the jeep escort has disappeared.

The Washington Post has published the same picture, and this is its interpretation: “a short video posted to YouTube by the Ukrainian government reportedly shows a “Buk,” or SA-11 “Gadfly,” surface-to-air missile system en route from eastern Ukraine to the Russian border on Friday [July 18. Following the MH-17 shoot-down] While the video cannot be independently verified, the footage appears to show the system with at least one of its missiles missing. It also appears to be mounted on a tracked chassis, although it has been loaded onto a flatbed trailer. Tracked vehicles are decidedly slower than their wheeled counterparts. The use of the truck could indicate the system’s own propulsion system is disabled, or that speed is a priority for whomever is moving it.”


The photo-interpreters in Washington apparently missed the advertising placard on the roadside. According to the photo-interpreters of the Russian General Staff in Moscow, the advertisement gives an address for a new car dealership at Number 34, Dniepropetrovsk Street, in the town of Krasnoarmeisk. That is a town about 90 kilometres to the west of Torez, on the far side of Donetsk city — much too far from the site of the MH17 crash to be within range of a missile shot.

Even if the placard isn’t standing in Krasnoarmeisk itself, it is on the side of the road, pointing in the direction which the truck and its Buk-M1 launcher are taking. That is west. The Russian border is in the opposite, eastern direction.

warfareThese images are samples of the artfulness, as well as the vulnerability, of human photography in wartime, just as Taro’s pictures help us to understand. In modern warfare machines may prove to be more reliable picture-takers. So we are bound to learn when the US Department of Defense and the State Department publish their satellite pictures of the same scenery, Buk-M1s, jeeps, and radar vans as the Russian General Staff published yesterday. What an anniversary will be celebrated this year for Gerda Taro, the first woman war photographer to die for a losing cause — and to be resurrected for an altogether different one.

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