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Impunity in the streets on Friday the 13th

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That is what killed veteran journalist and University of the Philippines professor Ma. Lourdes Simbulan – or Chit Estella to her media colleagues – and ended a brilliant and compassionate life dedicated to what many people these days consider to be that nebulous idea of the public interest.

But it is a different kind of impunity.

It is an impunity that has thrived on decades of government incompetence and neglect and is exacerbated by the exploitative conditions maintained by transportation companies driven by sheer profit motives.

It is one whose viciousness the same public Chit had sought to serve faithfully as a journalist has learned to take with a resigned shrug on the shoulders. “Why did her life end this way?” said a friend as we tried to find our way close to midnight Friday to the funeral home where Chit’s remains were brought a few hours earlier after she was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

Half-jokingly she broached the idea that perhaps, journalists can all agree to write a common story about the tragedy by saying that it was all part of a sinister plot to silence an irrepressible advocate of the accountability to the public of certain officials in government.

My friend’s was not a unique reaction to the tragedy. Indeed, many of Chit’s colleagues felt that her death seemed to have rendered all that she was and all that she worked for to puny insignificance.

Here was a journalist who had tilted at the windmills of Martial Law, only to perish in a seemingly senseless car crash – yet another victim of the recklessness that has turned Commonwealth Avenue into the country’s Death Avenue. Ah, had Chit become just another statistic collected by responsible government agencies to justify budget increases rather than a well-lived life cut short by a tragic but heroic death?

I beg to disagree.

How she died cannot trump how she lived. The seeming senselessness of her death does not for a moment diminish her purposeful and fruitful life as a wife, sister, friend, reporter, editor and mentor. Perhaps, that is all really beside the point.

But I rail at suggestions she was thus fated; the forces of sheer bad luck conspired to snuff out her life, just like that.

The fugitive bus driver that delivered the cruel and deadly blow that busy early Friday night is a repeat offender, authorities now say. If so, why didn’t the authorities suspend his license? Why didn’t the company who hired him fire him for being a danger to himself and to society?

Chit’s car crash isn’t the first on Commonwealth Avenue attributable to reckless bus drivers. It wouldn’t be called Death Avenue if that were the case.

The Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) says 405 accidents had taken along the “killer highway” in the first four months of 2011. It is however quick to point out that the current figure is smaller compared to the 872 accidents that happened in the same period last year. Three died in accidents along the avenue from January to April this year, two deaths fewer than the five deaths recorded for the same period last year.

But do they expect us to jump for joy over these statistics of supposedly declining deaths and accidents?

You wonder why despite the threat of suspension on companies of erring buses the deaths continue to happen and the reckless impunity does not stop. It has now come to a point when human life does not anymore matter, certainly not to bus companies.

These companies continue to perpetuate a “boundary system” that drives these bus drivers to throw all caution to wind and to race like hell to meet the day’s income quota.

That our responsible regulatory agencies have allowed this anomaly to continue unchecked year after year could only be the result of monumental incompetence or a cozy transactional relationship between regulatory officials and bus owners or both.

Impunity begins with one act of recklessness, one corrupt decision to shield the guilty, one moronic policy perpetuated by mediocrity in government. Over time, it is repeated over and over again, branches out into other corrupt acts and eventually transforms into a complex and corrupt structure of interacting habits, decisions and actions – an entire culture, monstrous and yes, deadly.

No, Friday the 13th didn’t kill Chit. Impunity did.

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Written by Romel

May 19, 2011 at 4:06 am

“Drowing” Capa

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Gerda Taro (to the right of an unidentified soldier), Robert Capa's great love, taking cover in an episode of the Spanish Civil War.

I caught the last day of the Robert Capa (b. 1913, Budapest) retrospective at the Jewish Historical Museum. It brought back memories of long hours spent at the library in high school poring over his photographs of sundry wars featured in many a Life publication.

Of course, his fame as a photojournalist has been forever tied to one of his iconic photos from the Spanish Civil War: that of a Republican militiaman caught falling into the clutches of death by Capa’s ready and sympathetic lens. For years, his Falling Soldier photograph would be the subject of much debate, of both admiration and derision, with critics charging that, in the language familiar to contemporary Filipino journalists, it was all drowing; it was faked. Yet Spain was his very first terrain as a war photographer, and Capa, then only 22,  established a solid reputation as a photojournalist based on his photographs of the war there,  with Falling Soldier easily becoming the conflict’s most recognizable image; Capa’s own version of how he managed to photograph the unnamed soldier at such a dramatic moment, as Phil Knightley tells in his pioneering book on war correspondents, The First Casualty,   is that  it was taken in Andalusia in August 1936.  He was holed up in a trench with Republican militiamen, who were trying to break through  a Fascist machine-gun nest. The militiamen had repeatedly  attempted to overrun  the machinegun nest, but each time, many of them were mowed down by the enemy.

It was in one such fruitless charge  when Capa raised  his camera over the trench and pressed the button without looking; at that precise moment, the machinegun nest let out a burst of lead,  supposedly hitting on his head the unnamed militiaman who would henceforth become the poster boy of a failed Republican dream. “Two months later,  he [Capa] was notified that Capa was now in truth a famous, talented, and nearly rich photographer, for the random snapshot had turned out to be a clear picture of a brave man in the act of falling dead as he ran and it had been published over the name of Capa in newspapers all over the world,” writes Knightley, quoting generously from The Man Who Invented Himself,  a book about the photographer written by  another famous journalist, John Hersey, who had spoken with Capa about his famous photograph.  Life, a leading magazine of the time, published the photograph, with the caption “Robert Capa’s camera catches a Spanish soldier the instant he is dropped by a bullet through the head in front of Cordoba.”

Knightley, himself an accomplished  war correspondent of a much later era,  had his doubts:

“Since there is something wrong with the values of a journalistic world that accepts as an important image  a photograph that so clearly depends on the caption for its authentication, we set out to discover something more about the circumstances in which the picture was taken. When, and exactly where, did Capa take it? The terrain in the photograph tells us nothing; it could be anywhere. Who is the man? His face is blurred, but there appears to be no sign of the wound, certainly not the explosion of the skull that a bullet in the head (see the Life caption) would cause. In fact, he is still wearing his cap. How did Capa come to be alongside him, camera aimed at him, lens reasonably in focus, just as the man was shot dead?”

Yet the author himself  readily acknowledges how difficult it was to confirm or disprove the photograph. There were contemporaries of Capa in Spain, like Herbert Matthews and Martha Gellhorn — themselves famous journalists in their own right — who believed the photograph was without doubt genuine. The London Daily Express correspondent O.D. Gallagher recounted how Capa himself had told him that a Republican unit posed for him during a lull in the fighting. The Canadian playwright Ted Allen told yet another variation to the story, saying he once  had a conversation  with David “Chim” Seymour, a war photographer who later perished in the Suez invasion in 1956. “Chim told me that Capa had not taken that photograph. Whether he then told me he, Chim, had taken it or that Gerda had taken it, I cannot now remember.”

In any case, I am pretty sure  it is one  controversy that Filipino photojournalists will perfectly understand.

Capa’s  debut as a photographer was as auspicious as any. When he was barely 19, he made his first big break: at that time, Leon Trotsky, the exiled erstwhile comrade to Joseph Stalin, was to speak at the Copenhagen stadium – a very rare public appearance – on the strange twists and turns of the Russian Revolution that had now betrayed him. Capa was sent from Berlin, where he had recently moved to study photojournalism only a year before, to cover the event.

Self-portrait of a legendary photojournalist

His photo of a dramatic moment in Trotsky’s speech, the revolutionary gesturing wildly with both hands in the air as he spoke in the packed hall, his right palm obscuring a part of his bespectacled face from the flash of cameras, caught the intense and deep frustration the Russian Marxist intellectual felt in his heart following his expulsion by the Stalinists from his native land.

Such were  Capa’s formative years away from his homeland, the Weimar era, which spanned the years after the end of the First World War and the rise of Hitler in 1933, an era that ironically  saw the blossoming of   artistic, literary, architectural, philosophical and scientific endeavors in Germany- thus making it the center of cultural life in the Continent – but also presaged the death of freedom and the democratic way of life in much of  Europe;

But as I looked at Capa’s photographs once again, I searched for the right words to describe his life – the rootless, wandering Hungarian Jew who couldn’t return to his native land because his own country didn’t want him, or had no place for someone like him who, in his young life, believed in a progressive ideal that didn’t sit well with the spirit of fascism that was sweeping the Europe of those days.

Capa's falling soldier

Handsome and reckless, he only found happiness, even if oh so brief, in a fellow wanderer, his fellow Jew Greda Taro, who was Polish in origin but whom he met in Paris; it is said that at times, she’d take photographs that they’d dispatch to news services under his own name.

For a short time, she was his comrade-in-arms in the dangerous pursuit of a committed journalism amid a world at war with itself. Short, because she was killed in a tank attack as she was covering the Spanish Civil War, a war that was a magnet to many like minds who thought none of a neutral, objective journalism but who, more often than not, ran to the frontlines with pen and gun in hand, in the fight against the spread of fascism: Ernest Hewingway, Marta Gellhorn, George Orwell, Federico Garcia Lorca, to name a few well-known literary figures whose writings and political views were shaped by the tumults of the time.

Of course he’d have other love affairs, famously, with the American actress Ingrid Bergman, but he wasn’t quite the same after Gerda’s death. Rumors had it that Bergman was ready to divorce her husband for him but Capa wasn’t going to get married – he was a wanderer, he told her, whose profession demanded his full attention.

Of their love affair, the filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock would do the movie Rear Window, in ill-disguised tribute.
But his and Gerda’s love affair was  something. In Paris, he struggled to sell his photographs under his birth name: Endre Ernő Friedmann.  And so, she decided she’d take charge. At that time, Frank Capra was the Oscar winner, in Holywood.

She made a cover story for him: a famous American photographer, so famous he’s hard to find (the original drowing, one might say!). It would not take long before the ruse would be uncovered. But by then, the name had stuck – a name that would soon become legendary in the annals of war journalism (it must be noted that as some observers had remarked Capa, in Hungarian, means “shark.”)


Trotsky, betrayed by his own revolution, at the Copenhagen Stadium, 1932

Robert Capa was killed by a landmine while covering the conflict in French Indochina in 1954. He took to his grave the mystery behind the Falling Soldier. He was only 40 years old. His death was a tragic emphasis to his own motto as a photojournalist:  “To me war is like an aging actress—more and more dangerous and less and less photogenic.”

……..

The photo exhibits led into a room where a haunting documentary of the photojournalist’s life played. I sat at a corner and found myself spellbound, as were the others, I believe.

I am forever drawn, it seems, to the Weimar  era and its ideas and personalities.

………

As I stepped out of the exhibit I headed for the Museum’s store to buy  three postcard reproductions of Capa’s works, that: (1) of Picasso and his son Claude on the beach (2) of Madrid residents watching as Nazi planes flew overhead to bomb the city and (3) of a clarinetist at a New York Jazz Club.
——

Rain. Dutch rain, not quite a downpour, but it lingers. It fell as I stepped out of the Museum. I forgot to bring my raincoat!

5/27/2007 Notes from Amsterdam

(all photographs featured here had been downloaded from various on-line sources)

Postscript: For the latest twist to the Falling Soldier controversy, as discussed in the New York Times, click here

Magnum Photos, which Capa helped found, as it is now.

Written by Romel

May 8, 2011 at 8:06 am

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