“I just stayed behind my tank repeating a little sentence from my Spanish Civil War days, ‘Es una cosa muy seria. Es una cosa muy seria.’ This is a very serious business,” he wrote. “The tide was coming in now and the water reached the farewell letter to my family in my breast pocket. Behind the human cover of the last two guys, I reached the beach. I threw myself flat and my lips touched the earth of France. I had no desire to kiss it.”
Capa is said to have shot 106 photographs over the course of 90 minutes, the most iconic of which is now known as The Face in the Surf; it depicts a blurred soldier, water up to his shoulders, charging ahead through the war-torn sea. The man was later identified as 22-year-old Private First Class Huston “Hu” S. Riley, who made a 30-minute approach to the beach using a flotation device to keep himself above the tide. Capa immortalized the GI on film, and The Face is his only surviving image from the assault featuring the countenance of a soldier.
Its power lay in depicting a single face proceeding in spite of danger—a human anchor for the public to lock onto in the midst of an uncertain, terrifying landscape. Soon after the photograph was taken, PFC Riley was shot in the shoulder by a machine gun; Capa and a nearby buck sergeant helped him to safety. PFC Riley later recounted
his inner monologue: “What the hell is this guy doing here? I can’t believe it. Here’s a cameraman on the shore.”
When Capa spotted an approaching vessel transporting the wounded, he took the opportunity to flee the beach and boarded it. En route to England, he helped medics lift stretchers rather than photograph his surroundings. Capa then passed off his film and a packet of information to a courier, noting to John G. Morris, the picture editor at Life, that “the action is in the four rolls of 35mm”—which he shot along with six rolls of medium format film. By the time the images arrived at Life’s London office, it was about 9 p.m. on June 7th, one day after the invasion, and Capa was on his way back to Normandy to resume photographing.