On guard?

“Soldier on guard” (1936) Agustí Centelles

This photograph by AGUSTI CENTELLES has always been for me a paradigm of the ability to explain so much with so little. Let me start by saying that Centelles was an exceptional photojournalist during the years of the Republic and the Spanish civil war. He was our Robert Capa and his photographs of those years collected in different publications constitute an implacable record of our history. In addition, they have a great photographic quality; excellent composition and above all a great ability for synthesis, something not easy to find in street photography. Unfortunately, first his exile and later the prohibition imposed on him from working as a photojournalist distanced the photographer from his country and from active photography. As a result we lost, as in so many other fields, an important part of our identity.

Happily, however, in 1976 Centelles recovered the collection of negatives that had been hidden for almost thirty years in a suitcase in the home of the French peasants who had taken him in during his exile. In this way we recovered this great photographer’s work.

Many pages have been written on the reasons which contributed to Franco’s victory. One of the most common arguments is the nature of the republican army, made up of a mishmash of elements from very different origins, nationalities and ideologies. An army with few resources, badly organized with a low level of discipline where confrontation within different political factors was common. In summary, an inefficient army that could barely resist a conflict with more professional military forces blessed with a conventional structure. Without going into this debate, for me this photograph of Centelles could be considered a veritable treatise. Granted it’s not a spectacular photograph, nor a particularly attractive composition unlike many that the author took during those years, but it really says it all.

The single character is this volunteer soldier, shot in a full body portrait. He is on guard at the gate of a barracks or a public building, we can’t be sure. There is no sentry box where he can seeck shelter; only the upside-down waste paper basket he has obtained from a nearby office. From time to time he will probably sit to rest his tired slippered feet. The rest of his uniform, with the rolled up stripped pants and a black armband, gives him an air of total precariousness and impotence. The bandaged leg makes him seem even more fragile. What would happen if the enemy appeared, we ask ourselves? Not much; he would have to put down the bag and the watering can, put aside the flag that is hanging from the gun, put out his pipe and lastly try to respond to the aggressor. But, we fear, it’s clear who will win the exchange.

The image is quite pathetic and sad. If it were not for the tragedy that is under the surface this could be seen as a black humor antiwar statement. But I think that the details that it shows are so real that its true meaning comes through. The republican soldiers, full of goodwill and courage did not seem to be equipped for a long and cruel war. And this picture shows that in an admirable way making it abundantly clear; in fact, the words you have just read are hardly necessary.