THE BLOG

True Courage: Cornell Capa

May 27, 2008 | Updated May 25, 2011

When the great photographer Cornell Capa died at 90 last week, the obituaries said he covered conflicts from Latin America to the Middle East, including the 1967 Six Day War between Israel and her Arab neighbors.

What the obits didn't describe was the pivotal moment when he decided, during the last days of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, to stop being a war photographer and realize a much bigger dream. It was a courageous decision - to break off covering a war - in order to take on the biggest challenge of his life and leave something monumental behind.

At age 55, Cornell had seen his share of war. And the Capa family, of course, had suffered a tremendous loss in 1954 when Cornell's charismatic brother and photographic mentor, Robert, was killed on assignment in Indochina.

But when the fighting erupted in Israel in 1973, he shouldered his camera bags and began covering the war with me for The New York Times. I was the paper's bureau chief in Israel at the time and felt lucky to have a veteran like Cornell by my side.

We traveled with the Israeli forces as they regained the initiative against Egypt in the Sinai and then headed up to the Golan Heights for the climactic battle against the Syrians. The Israelis had the Syrians on the run, but the fighting was intense.

At one point, we were pinned down in a ditch by the side of the road as Syrian artillery shelled an advancing Israeli armor unit. Suddenly, Israeli jets screamed low and fast over our heads and knocked out the Syrian guns. The Israeli tanks started forward again and Cornell and I picked our selves up and followed. The sign by the side of the road said: "Damascus, 55 kilometers."

That night, after I had filed my copy to the Times and Cornell had transmitted his pictures from the Israeli northern command headquarters in Safed, we had a beer and turned in. We knew the war would not last much longer -- a ceasefire was being negotiated -- but there was more fighting to be covered tomorrow.

About 1 a.m., Cornell came to my room with a tormented look on his face. He said he had come to a tough, but inescapable decision. "I can't do this anymore," he said. "I am the last surviving male in my family. I can't put them through anymore of this."

Cornell went on to explain that he had arranged for a gifted Israeli photographer to take his place. The Times would have its pictures.

Cornell hadn't lost his nerve. He had that to spare. He had found his mission. He said he was going home to New York to raise money to create a center for what he called "concerned photography" - his term for photojournalism that made a difference. He had a vision for something that would be a monument to his brother, and much more. He owed it to his family, he said, to fulfill that vision.

Good to his word, Cornell the next year established The International Center of Photography, which has grown into what The Times described in his obit as "one of the most influential photographic institutions for exhibition, collection and education in the world."

The Yom Kippur War, incidentally, ended a couple of days after Cornell left, in a ceasefire that continues unresolved with a peace treaty to this day. The armistice line between Syria and Israel is not far from that sign that read, "Damascus, 55 kilometers."