What Does Robert Capa’s “Close Enough” Rule Mean Today?

Photos © Robert Capa (left) and © David Goldblatt

Photos © Robert Capa (left) and © David Goldblatt

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” Robert Capa famously said. But was he right?

To celebrate the 100th birthday of Robert Capa and the upcoming show “Capa in Color” at the International Center of Photography, Magnum Photos has been asking photographers to reflect on the great photojournalist’s legacy—and his famous adage— in an online project called Get Closer 100.

Every day since Capa’s birthday, October 22, the agency has posted  a photo from Capa’s archive and invited the public to upload a photo of their own that mirrors it. They’ve also asked renowned photographers to share their response to the Capa image in the form of a single photo and a short written text. Photographers who have to date shared their thoughts on Capa include David Goldblatt, Richard Renaldi, Jane Evelyn Atwood, Thomas Ruff, Benjamin Lowy, Gideon Mendel, Stefano De Luigi, Thomas Hirshorn and many members of Magnum. Their thoughtful critiques on Capa’s “get closer” rule are as individual as the photographers themselves.

Magnum photographer Olivia Arthur notes that when she’s photographing people in intimate settings, she is often struggling to put more physical distance between herself and her subjects in order not to make them uncomfortable. She explains, “Being close for me is about being inside someone’s world, when they feel relaxed about my being around. I try to let people have their space.”

Micha Bar-Am of Magnum adds to Capa’s quote, “But if you’re too close to the grindstone, you lose perspective.”

Several photographers said that over time, they decided that Capa’s adage is a demand not for proximity but for empathy. Agnes Dherbeys, who won the Robert Capa Medal from the Overseas Press Club in 2011, paired a 1944 photo by Capa of a French woman accused of collaborating with the Germans with one of her own images from her series on the Red Shirts Crisis in Thailand in 2010. Dherbeys writes that she tried to empathize with the terror of the protester crouching in a street to take cover from Thai Army gunfire.

Ashley Gilbertson, another Robert Capa Medal winner, questions the image Capa inspired of the “swashbuckling photojournalist.” Gilbertson, who pairs a photo he shot in Falluja, Iraq in 2004 with one of Capa’s images of the D-Day landing on Omaha Beach in Normandy, says, “For the record, as hard as I tried, I never got that swashbuckling thing.”

The wide selection of Capa images underscore that he was much more than a conflict photographer.  Photojournalist Ed Kashi, who paired Capa’s photo of himself (seen in a mirror) photographing author John Steinbeck with a photo of Kashi’s father looking in a mirror, notes, “Conflict photographers of today are obsessed with only the agony, graphic violence and misery. Capa recorded those qualities with a quiet dignity, but he was also able to capture happiness. He was capable of portraying life in it’s full range of emotions, not just misery and death.”

There are 56 days left to the project. You can see Capa’s images—and upload your own response– at getcloser.magnumphotos.com.

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7 Responses to “What Does Robert Capa’s “Close Enough” Rule Mean Today?”

  1. MIchael Says:

    Looking at his pictures, I don’t actually see that rule at work.

    When I was a newspaper photographer I quickly learned that if my editor could crop a column width off my photos, he would, so I started to frame things compactly, so that there was nothing extra to cut. That didn’t mean getting close, but it certainly meant filling all of the available real estate with information.

  2. JG Says:

    “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”

    If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not composing good enough…

  3. Enlaces frescos | Juan Antonio Guerrero Says:

    […] Aquí se preguntan si la frase de Robert Capa de “si tus fotos no son bastante buenas es porque no te has acercado lo suficiente” sigue vigente hoy día. […]

  4. Noppadol Says:

    For me, “Close” may be not for distance but for the deeply-close understanding the relationship between subject and the circumstance.

  5. nadia Says:

    I don’t think he meant subject-to-camera distance.

  6. PJL: December 2013 (Part 1) - LightBox Says:

    […] What Does Robert Capa’s “Close Enough” Rule Mean Today? (PDN) […]

  7. Maria Daniel Balcazar Says:

    Why not both? First get to know your subject and then, with a 35mm lens, capture his soul.