My thoughts on being a photographer on D-Day

My beautiful France looked sordid and uninviting, and a German machine gun, spitting bullets around the barge, fully spoiled my return. The men from my barge waded in the water. Waist-deep, with rifles ready to shoot, with the invasion obstacles and the smoking beach in the background – this was good enough for the photographer. I paused for a moment on the gangplank to take my first real picture of the invasion. The boatswain, who was in an understandable hurry to get the hell out of there, mistook my picture-taking attitude for explicable hesitation, and helped me make up my mind with a well-aimed kick in the rear. The water was cold, and the beach still more than a hundred yards away. The bullets tore holes in the water around me, and I made for the nearest steel obstacle. A soldier got there at the same time, and for a few minutes we shared its cover. He took the waterproofing off his rifle and began to shoot without much-aiming at the smoke-hidden beach. The sound of his rifle gave him enough courage to move forward and he left the obstacle to me. It was a foot larger now, and I felt safe enough to take pictures of the other guys hiding just like I was.
— Robert Capa in his written account of D-Day, Slightly Out of Focus

It is D-Day today. The world is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the day that changed the world.

I posted one of the iconic photos from that day taken my Magnum artist Robert Capa. Capa was one of 4 official photographers for the US Armed Forces that day on the beaches in France. Only 11 frames from the 3 rolls of film he shot that day survived.

I started to think what it must have been like to accept the job as a photographer for that event. Capa was a seasoned Time photographer and had photographed other conflicts and battles. But D-Day had to be the most epic one for him. With all wars there are unknowns. But the unknown of what was to happen on June 6, 1944 on the beaches of France had to be huge. Because it wasn’t just what was going to happen on that initial assault, but what was to happen in the months following.

Capa boarded the marine crafts with all the other soldiers. But he had 4 cameras added to his load. Imagine that your job is the capture the extent of the situation and to tell the story of that day. This was in the day before instant feedback and wirelessly transmitted images. There was no live feed. Capa’s, and the other three photographer’s, photos would be what Americans see. It would shape their perceptions and attitudes on the war. It would show mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives, children, neighbors, teachers, friends, uncles, aunts, preachers, rabbis, doctors, hair dressers, Americans what their soldier saw on that day. For some it would show them the place that their loved one died.

This was it. These photographs defined American public opinion. The picture that Capa chose to include in that small rectangle in his view finder would be what the world saw of that historic day. Now he probably didn’t know the magnitude of that day yet. We didn’t know yet the horrors that the Nazis were committing. But we did know how critical it was to relive the Soviets from some of the ground war and to push the Nazis out of the picture.

11 frames made it off that beach from Capa’s cameras that day 75 years ago. The most iconic is the image of the lone solder, who we now know to be Huston Riley, swimming to shore. It’s a remarkable image. You can almost hear the sounds from the beach. The waves. The boats. The men. The gunfire.

We see one man although we know the beaches were stormed my over 150,000 allied troops. It is shows us that the war was won by men. Real men that we know. That are our neighbors and friends. Men with names and stories. It wasn’t tokens on a map that fought the war, it was men like Huston. We can feel the chaos of the day.

I imagine that a lot of what Capa shot was instinctual. He didn’t have time to readjust a scene or tell his subject to move somewhere or look a certain way. He probably didn’t move himself much out of cover if he didn’t have to. There were moments when survival trumped photo taking - like when Huston was shot 4 times in the shoulder and Capa slung his camera to help him to cover. I also imagine that Capa took risks to get his photos. In the photo of Riley we know that Capa literally turned his back to the enemy to get the photo. I imagine he didn’t have much time to think about the shot or wait for just the right moment to click the shutter. It was the age of digital so you didn’t take a bunch of shots in a row and hope one or two turned out.

Capa was a professional. He used his training and his instincts. He knew how to tell a story with images and how to do more than “shoot from the hip” and hope the shot turned out. Each of the 11 frames that survived is masterful. His historic images of D-Day shaped the narrative of the war.

St Laurent-sur-Mer must have been at one time a drab, cheap resort for vacationing French schoolteachers. Now, on 6 June 1944, it was the ugliest beach in the whole world.
— Robert Capa

What an important task for a man to have. There is an old adage that photographers always lie. I think it is more that photographers shape the truth. In their images they decide what to put in the frame. Not a little to the left, not a little to the right. But what they decide to point their camera at. Photographers are storytellers and for documentary photographers, they try to tell the story as accurately and truthful as possible.

How remarkable are Capa and the other Time photographers that went on assignment that day to bring the story back home to families and neighbors and to lock this day in infamy so that we may never forget.

You can see more of Robert Capa’s D-Day photos and read more from his written account here.