An amazing exhibit at the International Center for Photography in New York captures the images of three photojournalists as they peered through their lenses at the Spanish Civil War. All three came from elsewhere in Europe: Robert Capa, born in Hungary; Gerda Taro from Germany; and David Seymour (aka Chim) from Poland.
The Spanish Civil War itself came from elsewhere in some ways. Many across Europe saw it as a foretaste of the ideological battle looming for the rest of Europe, between Fascism and its opponents. Hitler and Mussolini backed Francisco Franco’s army. The Soviet Union and communists elsewhere supported the Republican forces. For many progressive Americans, volunteering in the “Lincoln brigade” in Spain to support the Republic was a test of ideals.
The Mexican Suitcase exhibit is dramatic for its story of how the photographers came together in love and friendship in a war zone, as well as how their story in images became a time capsule, lost for decades before emerging from a single valise.
It’s especially resonant now as another wave of violent change shakes Libya and the Mediterranean.
For many WPA writers in the U.S., the Spanish Civil War posed a crisis of conscience: Would they go abroad and put their lives on the line for fellow travelers for the cause of a more egalitarian world? Richard Wright wrote his friend Nelson Algren back in Chicago, asking that very question.
In California, WPA writer Eluard Luchell McDaniel was one who responded. He had run away from Mississippi at age 10 and worked his way across America, growing up through odd jobs along the way, and writing. After gaining notice when his fiction appeared in Story magazine in 1935, he went to fight with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade before returning to San Francisco.
Just as it did when Gerda Taro lost her life covering the war in Spain, bearing witness can still mean risking everything. Recently photojournalist and former IRP fellow Chris Hondros died while covering the civil war in Libya. Read about him and the continuing perils of war reporting here.