Rafael Wollmann | Falklands

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Taking an iconic photo is sometimes about being at the right place, at the right time. No one could attest to that more than Rafael Wollmann.

The Argentine photographer had taken an assignment from a French photo agency Gamma to take a “geographical” photo-essay on a remote series of islands in the South Atlantic Ocean, about 300 miles east of Patagonia. He arrived there on his 23rd birthday, on March 23 1982 and spent the next week documenting the island life.

On the afternoon of April Fool’s Day, 1982, Wollmann was greeted by the grave voice, coming from the radio, of the island’s British governor, Sir Rex Hunt — whom he had interviewed earlier. “We have apparently reliable evidence that an Argentine task force could be assembling off Stanley at dawn tomorrow. You will wish to make your dispositions accordingly,” Hunt repeated in verbatim a telegram he received from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Wollmann stood in the middle of a pub, where everyone turned around to look at him — the only Argentinian in the pub. The Falklands War had begun.

Accused by Hunt of having being ‘planted’ by the Argentine junta (two days earlier, he had sent some of his films back to Argentina with air mail), Wollmann was detained briefly in Hunt’s chauffeur’s house, from inside which he took pictures. An unknown solider shot at him, mistaking his lens with some weapon, and missed Wollmann by only a few centimeters.

After Hunt had surrendered — in the full ostrich-plumed uniform befitting a British governor — and was bundled off to exile in Uruguay, Wollmann got out into the courtyard and took the photo above of British Marines being forced to surrender. He remembered:

“They were marching towards the courtyard of the governor’s house where they were delivering arms, then they went to the garden and were seated. They were already prisoners of war. I took a lot of caution, and I did not want to be imprisoned or they taking my camera, so I shot a picture and left the scene, not knowing what I was going to find when it was revealed.”

On April 3rd, Wollmann returned to Argentina, where a bidding war for his photos ensued. “I was able to pay for my house overnight” joked Wollmann.  Editorial Atlántida, an Argentine publishing house which had fired him four months earlier, put a private jet at his disposal to return to the islands. Wollmann gave his film to Gamma, which had initially hired him, and in France, another bidding war broke out between Paris Match and VSD magazines, which the latter won. It ran the photo with a deliciously schadenfreude caption: ‘England Humiliated’. In Italy’s L’Espresso, the title was “Hands up, England!”. Some would later argue that these images and captions prompted Margaret Thatcher to act decisively in dispatching troops to retake the islands.

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The Yomper

On 2 April 1982, after a period of rising tension, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. Although Argentina viewed the islands as theirs, the islanders, almost all of British descent, did not want to be ruled by a junta from Argentina. In a decision supported by the both sides of the aisle, Britain sent a naval task force that would ultimately consist of  38 warships, 77 merchant and auxiliary vessels, 11,000 military personal, and 261 aircraft. The Argentineans were already numerically superior and the United States believed that the British were attempting ‘mission impossible’, a view shared by many in the British Ministry of Defence.

The British public was overwhelming behind the deployment, but the government had learnt from the lessons of Vietnam War and worried that the support would wither away if some bad news from the front reached home. Thus, all the significant news, good or bad, were censored or at least delayed; in those days before internet, the reporters had to use the Royal Navy carriers to send their reports back home, which make the task easier. Only two photographers were onboard the task force too — one from Press Association and one from the right-wing Daily Express. Don McCullin was refused accreditation, and there were no pictures for 54 of the 74 days the conflict lasted.

In their place were jingoistic headlines: Yomp, Rejoice, I Counted Them All Out, I Counted Them All Back, Invasion, In We Go, Stick It Up Your Junta and the worst of all, Gotcha. The memorable images of the conflict included the departure of the fleet, a file photo of the Belgrano, the camouflaged Max Hastings, the reconstructed face of Simon Weston, burial of the dead at Goose Green, and Argentinian prisoners with P&O cruise labels around their necks.

The iconic image of the conflict was reprinted above: the original photograph taken by Petty Officer Peter Holdgate, Commando Forces Photographer, showed 24 year old Corporal Peter Robinson ‘yomping’, the Royal Marine slang for a long distance march carrying full kit. Taken in June 1982 as the Royal Marines proceeded along the Moody Brook track towards Port Stanley, Robinson took out Union Flag from his pack and attached it to the aerial of his radio with masking tape when he heard the news of the Argentine surrender. It was used by every British national newspaper, including The Sun which used its as its Falklands War logo. On the 10th anniversary of the occasion, Mrs. Thatcher unveiled a statue in front of the Royal Marines Museum honoring this iconic moment.

Gotcha

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Falklands. It was a little war in a godforsaken place. The last spasm of post-imperial imperialism, it was at most Thachter’s war in the British public’s view. One newspaper managed to turn this public opinion around and it was the Sun.

The Sun’s editor Kelvin MacKenzie’s Falklands coverage — xenophobic, bloody-minded, ruthless, reckless, black-humoured and ultimately triumphalist — captured the zeitgeist of a new gung-ho Britain. The first headline reporting the invasion read “STICK IT UP YOUR JUNTA!”, the retaking of South Georgia, “INVASION!” and even prematurely announced “IN WE GO”. Single-word headlines became the Sun’s trademark throughout the war … and it worked too. Within a week, thousands of T-shirts bearing the Sun’s headlines were being sold.

The most memorable headline and the image came when the Argentine vessel General Belgrano had been hit. MacKenzie seized an editor’s ecstatic words and designed a front page which said: “GOTCHA. Our lads sink gunboat and hole cruiser.” When the Sun realized there was a huge loss of life (about 350 Argentines drowned), MacKenzie changed the cover for the subsequent editions.

MacKenzie later produced the headline: “BRITAIN 6 (Georgia, two airstrips, three warplanes), ARGENTINA 0.” When Private Eye spoofed the Sun with the headline, “KILL AN ARGIE AND WIN A METRO”, MacKenzie laughed off joking: “Why didn’t we think of that?”