Don McCullin, is one of the world’s most celebrated war photographers, whose unflinching photographs brought the reality of war into the homes of the Britain throughout the 60’s and 70’s.
Now well into his 70’s and living a quieter life in Somerset, a new documentary looks back on McCullin’s emergence as the most gifted observer of life, war and death, from his beginnings growing up in a poor district of Finsbury Park, North London, to his eventual focus on covering international conflicts. Many of his photographs from the early part of his career are wonderful, and capture an England that has largely disappeared, the poor desperate conditions of post war London, the East End Gangs, and assorted eccentrics. (Gallery at the end of this article)
War is madness
McCullin’s war photographs are un-flinching, un-varnished images of truth, and there is little light in the parade of high contrast images that document the madness and insanity of war. Certainly, in McCullin’s working life, there was no shortage of trouble torn locations to cover – African civil war of Biafra, the 1967 Arab-Israel war, Beirut, Northern Ireland, Cyprus and Vietnam. From these images, shell shocked soldiers gaze out of us, the civilian poor are shown displaced, grieving and homeless, the shattered bodies of both soldiers and civilians bear testament to the reality and violence of conflict.
The vibrations from a photograph can be intense and last forever
McCullin saw his mission to bring the truth about war into the comfortable homes of the West, and his gifts as a photographer, coincided with the reign of the great Harold Evans, the editor of The Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981. Evans’s crusading, investigative editorship resulted in many coups, including exposing the Thalidomide scandal, the exposure of Kim Philby as a Russian spy. During this period, The Sunday Times was also not afraid to cover world events with often hard-hitting photo-journalism, a stance that did not always sit well alongside the glossy advertising by major brands. McCullin’s best photography was often given multiple page spreads, and front covers, and brought the reality of conflict right into the Sunday morning homes of millions of British households. (The acquisition of The Sunday times, in 1981 by Rupert Murdoch, and the appointment of Andrew Neil as editor, brought about a change in editorial direction, and the Sunday magazine rapidly became a comfortable lifestyle, advertiser friendly magazine)
Even my darkroom is a haunted place
This is a man who has seen countless horror and atrocities in his life. Mass starvation in Africa, castrations, hangings, executions, torture. His face and sombre, deep outlook bear witness to these horrors. He claims not to have nightmares, but it’s when awake, and his memory working, that some of the images and circumstances of his decades in photo journalism return.
If you go to Afghanistan now, you’d never be able to photograph the price of war
War photography has changed immensely since McCullin’s era, but is it any more truthful? Embedded photo-journalists can often use digital technology and 21st century communications to get images back within minutes or hours from a location. But digital brings with it the ability and temptation to adapt images for a better picture, and while doctoring an image is as old as photography itself , the ease of digital makes it far easier and realistic.
Far bigger implications arise from the control over stories and photography in return for being embedded in a unit, means that very little of the photography coming out of Iraq or Afghanistan, shows the impact of military action on the civilians and soldiers caught up in it.
While we may see new photographers with the talent of Don McCullum, it remains doubtful we will see again the un-fettered, painful truth behind the headlines, illuminated by a detached eye, a powerful photograph and editorial freedom.