In World War II, Tony Vaccaro played two risky roles, serving as a combat infantryman on the front lines, as well as a photographer who shot 8,000 photographs. Though he began as a young GI eager to record the war, he vowed never to take another war photo on the day the conflict ended, horrified by what he had seen.
Directed by Max Lewkowicz (the New York Emmy®-winning “Morgenthau”),
“UNDERFIRE: THE UNTOLD STORY OF PFC. TONY VACCARO” chronicles the life and vision of this remarkable man, exploring how photography defines the way the public perceives armed conflict, and revealing the sheer difficulty of survival while taking photos in a war zone.
Through interviews with Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers and Vaccaro himself, this intimate film examines issues raised by witnessing and recording conflict, following him as he retraces his journey across Europe as a soldier, sharing the stories behind some of his most powerful pictures along the way.
In 1943, a newly drafted Tony Vaccaro hoped to join the U.S. Army Signal Corps in Europe as a photographer, but was told he was too young. Undeterred, he found that his $47 personal camera, which was much more compact than the bulky, standard-grade military one, allowed him “the ability to run with the camera, to move it [and] to react quickly.”
As an infantryman, Vaccaro was also uniquely positioned to gain the trust of his fellow soldiers, and was able to capture up-close-and-personal photographs that brought the war into focus in a way no one else could. Vaccaro spent the next 272 days in the 83rd Infantry Division as an unofficial combat photographer. Revisiting Omaha Beach, Vaccaro recalls tearing a hole in his raincoat for his camera after being told photography was not allowed. The resulting serene photo of the beach (“My First View of La Belle France”) belies a horrific scene he later discovered.
“There is a war smell that is ugly,” he says. “And I smelled that the minute I arrived in Normandy.” After his first taste of combat in Sainteny, Vaccaro found an abandoned camera store in the city’s ruins and mixed chemicals to develop “ten rolls in four army helmets,” hanging them on tree branches overnight.
Having taken portraits of all the men in his battalion, Vaccaro also captured by chance a fellow soldier’s final breath (“The Last Step of Jack Rose”), a “live battle moment of death” that curator Anne Wilkes Tucker calls “incredibly rare.” Until WWII, most combat photography was staged because of unwieldy equipment.
In Ottre, Belgium, Vaccaro narrowly escaped death when he was ordered to remain at headquarters and stand guard on the night his entire platoon was killed. Walking the battlefield the next morning, he photographed a snow-covered body at peace (“White Death”), which he only later recognized as a dear friend. The photo later helped connect the fallen soldier with his son.
On the 70th anniversary of D-Day, with Secretary of State John Kerry in attendance, Vaccaro delivered a speech at Saint-Briac-sur-Mer, Normandy, recalling “Kiss of Liberation,” a photo he took of a soldier kissing a young girl on the cheek. Afterwards, he received hugs and kisses from two women who were dancing in the background of that photo.
Though he traveled through Europe working with Stars and Stripes newspaper following the war, Vaccaro struggled to cope with the horrors he had witnessed. He went on to become a world-renowned fashion and magazine photographer (capturing everyone from Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren to Pablo Picasso and John F. Kennedy) and start a family, but never took another image of armed conflict.
In addition to Tony Vaccaro, interviewees include Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalists Lynsey Addario and Tyler Hicks; New York Times senior photographer James Estrin; bestselling author and historian Alex Kershaw; Anne Wilkes Tucker, a curator of the photography exhibition WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY; and John G. Morris, photo editor of LIFE magazine during World War II.