When English is broken

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Death of a Spanish Loyalist soldier, 1936 Credit: Robert Capa

War photographer Robert Capa wasn’t known so much for his language skills. But his good sense of humor made up for it. From Andy Rooney’s My War

Capa was Hungarian by birth and, while he was a brilliant photographer and a linguist, the joke about him among the other reporters was that he spoke seven languages – all badly. One British writer with a Hungarian background said Capa was hard to understand in Hungarian.

Capa had a good sense of humor in any language. I recall his advice to amateur photographers like myself: “If your pictures aren’t any good, you weren’t close enough.”

On one occasion when a large number of German, including several generals, was surrendering wholesale, one of the high-ranking Wehrmacht officers objected to having his picture taken. He was a defeated general, and you could understand why he objected. The highest-ranking American officer got in on the argument the German was making on grounds that the Geneva convention prohibited that sort of picture taking.

Capa and the American officer talked it over and the officer finally told the general that he felt our tradition of freedom of the press took precedence over any Geneva convention position on this sort of thing.

The general, who spoke broken English, said, “I am tired all this talk freedom of press.”

Capa laughed. “I’m tired taking pictures all these defeated German generals.”

Tactics like humor and getting close enough to people sound like easy things to learn. Photographers like Brazilian Sebastiao Salgado have taken them to a whole other level. His project on manual labor, Workers, took seven years and 26 countries to finish. Salgado is known for his long term projects, where he spends time living with his subjects, sharing their misery, sharing their laughter, sharing their reality, before he even takes out a camera. The result are photographs like this…

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Gold mine at Serra Pelada state of Para, Brazil – 1986 Credit: Sebastiao Salgado

Like Capa, Salgado’s words are hard to understand. But no matter. He still narrates his story with passion. And the diversity of his perspectives, from farm boy to activist to international economist, let you get a sense of how he gets access to sources. Listen to Salgado’s story here…

 

 

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