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The Soldiers Playing Piano
Photographers capture moments of humanity amid the chaos of war.
While photographing the Lebanese Civil War in 1983, Ramzi Haidar followed a group of militiamen into an abandoned mansion. Despite the fighting happening all around, he found a soldier calmly playing a piano. Haidar lifted his camera and captured this unexpected, beautiful moment.
Minutes later, Haidar was shot in the head. The “piano man” and other members of the militia helped Haidar to a hospital, saving his life.
Haidar’s image reminded me of a similar photo from Chechnya, and another from World War II. The symbolism, though obvious, is a reoccurring, contradictory theme throughout the history of conflict photography.
One of the earliest images I found that touched on this theme was from 1918, during World War I. Sergeant J.A. Marshall, a US Army Signal Corps photographer, documented soldiers gathered around an organ in a bombed-out church in northern France. The religious iconography adds another layer to the photo.
Later, in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, Robert Capa photographed two Republican soldiers playing a piano in Madrid. This image, less dramatic than Capa’s other work, was taken a year after he made one of the most famous war photos of all time — The Falling Soldier.
During the final days of World War II, Dmitri Baltermants captured this magnificent, epic image of Russian soldiers gathered around a piano.
The details are exquisite — the perfectly-arranged flowers, the crumbling wall, the rim light on the soldier on the right. Baltermants, a Russian photojournalist working for a Soviet Army newspaper, titled his photo Tchaikovsky, Germany. Soon after, the soldiers went back to fighting.
Another Russian photographer, Anatoli Egorov, photographed a Soviet tank crew that had discovered a piano in Breslau, Germany, in 1945. This photo is often falsely associated with a story about a Nazi soldier forced to play piano by his Russian captors until he collapsed. The story goes that the Russians congratulated the captured soldier, then executed him.
There’s a slew of photos of American troops gathered around pianos during World War II. That’s because Steinway and Sons created a specially-designed piano, called the “Victory Vertical,” that was airdropped onto battlefields to boost morale.
This photo, taken by the US Army Signal Corps, is from a demonstration at Fort Meade in 1943.
Another photo by the Signal Corps from 1944 shows three American soldiers lounging around a piano in a destroyed house in Normandy, France.
Fast-forward to the Bosnian War in 1993. Jack Picone was running from heavy fire in Gradacac and found cover in a school. “There were all these soldiers sitting around,” Picone told HQ magazine in 1999. “They were burning textbooks to keep warm.
“Then I heard music. It was coming from the other end of a really long dark corridor. Outside I could just hear the cracking of bullets. And then this music. It was a surreal experience, walking down that corridor.” Picone then photographed a man hunched over a piano in a classroom, playing Bach.
“When we got to talking, he told me that he had been the music teacher and art master at this very school. Now he was a sniper taking potshots at Bosnian Serbs from the windows of the classroom,” Picone recalled.
“Curious, every time I see it again, I wish his AK-47 was sitting on top of the piano.” Great picture regardless.
In December, 1994, Oleg Nikishin had just arrived in Grozny, and was exploring the war-ravaged city when he saw a piano. “Suddenly, a car braked nearby,” Nikishin told me. “Several Chechen fighters jumped out, and one of them sat down at the piano and began to play. This went on for several minutes, then they suddenly got back into the car and sped away.”
Nikishin’s photos from the Beslan school siege in 2004 are unforgettable. The attack remains the deadliest school shooting in history (more on that TK).
Another riveting photo from Grozny was taken by Alain Keler in 1996. The hand truck on the left and rug on top of the piano suggests that a family was forced to flee, leaving their belongings behind. The composition is outstanding.
Keler described the photo in his book, Journal d’un Photographe. “As darkness falls we reach the army’s headquarters in what had been one of the most beautiful parks in the city, but now looks like a battle field. The first scene we encounter is that of a soldier playing the piano in front of other soldiers,” he wrote. “There is virtually no light left. I take two pictures at very slow speed. I reach the end of the film and have to change it as fast as possible; but the light is dying. I push the trigger just twice.”
After Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was deposed in 2003, The New York Times Tyler Hicks photographed American troops inside a wrecked palace. While the soldiers aren't playing the piano, this photo is too good to leave out. The ornate details are fascinating.
A few weeks later, Associated Press photographer Alexander Zemlianichenko shot this image of an Iraqi man playing that same piano as the palace was looted.
Photographers covering the most recent war in Ukraine have encountered similar scenes. Gaëlle Girbes’ image of a Ukrainian soldier playing a piano inside a school destroyed by Russian bombings was widely seen, even shared by the office of the President of Ukraine.
Girbes described the photo as “A very short moment of peace in the middle of war.” The soldier playing the piano, Oleg, was killed by a Russian bomb less than two months later.