McCullin

In a recent workshop with some mental health users, we were talking about iconic documentary images and almost of the participants mentioned the work of Don McCullin. To people from a certain generation, his work is iconic, whether you are a photographer or not.

The film McCullin was made by his former assistant, and was mostly funded by the photography community including the photographer, Rankin.  It is a simple honest account, with the film narrative swept along with McCullin’s voice, accompanying film news footage, and some famous Don McCullin stills

The film McCullin begins with the camera focused on Don McCullin recounting a story of an execution. In the story he questions the ethics and morality involved in taking the photograph of the man. Unlike other photojournalists at the scene, he did not take the photograph. It is a powerful beginning to a film that questions the purpose of war photography, and the relationship between photography, art, and journalism.

I recently read a series of essays called ‘The Photographs Not Taken’. In the collection, Will Steacy asked different photographers to reverse the process of making a photograph. So, instead of looking at an image from the views of a camera lens, we look directly into the photographer’s mind and eye and focus on what the photographs thought in its barest and most primitive form. Interestingly, many of the writers contrasted the act of taking a photograph with the state of being present as a human being. This issue of being present on the side of humanity is ever present throughout the film.

mccullin-02I first came across McCullin’s work during a casual visit to the South Bank centre in the 1980’s.  At the time, I was working with street homeless in central London, and many of the images of the homeless community were familiar. The images were immediately powerful. Unsurprising given that Henri Cartier-Bresson called him ‘Goya with a camera’ and his former editor at Sunday Times, Harold Evans, called him ‘a conscience with a camera’.  The images must have had some impact as shortly afterwards I was led me to buy my first camera, a Canon AE1 from the London Camera Exchange at London Bridge.

McCullin began life wanting to be an artist, however following the death of his father early in his life, he was forced into work and eventually joined the army. It was while doing military duty in Kenya in 1955 that he purchased his first camera, a Rolleicord. Once he returned to England he began taking photographs of his hometown, Finsbury Park in North London.  Among his early subjects were people his grew up with, members of a local gang, the Guv’nors, who posed wearing their Sunday suits, standing in a bombed-out building. The resulting image, The Guv’nors, got him published in the Observer, and so began his career in photojournalism.

tumblr_ljwc16Pz2e1qdy7vgo1_500This image of the gang, “The Guv’nor”, was shot from below and perfectly composed, working class youth displaying rock-star cockiness. His working class environment made him in more ways than one. It was a “horrible” district, he explains, that oozed all kinds of hatred and violence. His childhood was marked by adversity, especially wartime evacuations and the early death of his father. The sense of struggle and injustice never left him, “I had to struggle for each and every word. I grew up in total ignorance, poverty and bigotry, and this has been a burden for me throughout my life” he explains.  Later in the film, he recalls going back to Finsbury Park and sitting in cafes with people he grew up and being treated as ‘a Walter Mity character’, when explaining he had just come back from the war in the Congo.

DM-main_0The film charts his journey in photojournalism, and he recounts how it learnt the skills for his trade. Playing with camera angles, become more sensitive to the story by focusing on little details, learning how families cope with death, and focusing on the composition and form. McCullin compares his photography to the work of Goya, shown most notably in a photograph of a grief stricken woman in Cyprus who looks up to the sky in a ‘Goya-esque’ way, helplessly reaching out for something.

The film records McCullin’s career at The Sunday Times which started in Cyprus in 1964 and ended in Lebanon in 1983, featuring everything in between: from the Congo, through to Vietnam, Cambodia, Biafra and Northern Ireland. The film is mainly about McCullin’s war images, though interspersed with images of England, old people in greasy spoons in Finsbury Park, fat Brits sitting on deck chairs in Brighton, and homelessness in East London.

mccullin-03The film introduces each assignment with contextual newsreel footage, then allows McCullin’s personal observations to tell the story, illustrated by the photographs he shot, often accompanied with details about how they came to be. His words and turns of phases often poetically present documentary photography. For example in one section he explain “It is difficult to associate the word “dignity” with conditions such as I photograph, yet dignity is what I try to show. I find it most in the people who suffer the most, they seem to marshal the energy of dignity, because they will not surrender. In the Biafra I photographed a mother with the child at her breast, you cannot imagine a more dignified human being.”

He points out that was lucky because he worked at the time when there were no restrictions on journalists or photographers, on what they could cover or how. McCullin took full advantage of this. The freedom combined with his willingness to risk his life to document the truth, and a deep sense of moral duty, meant he worked far beyond any job title.

Shellshocked-soldier-001He recounts his time in Vietnam spending weeks with the American troops, when all the other photojournalists had already left. This was how he came across his most famous image from this trip, the traumatised soldier. He tells us how uncomfortable he feels about the image now. “There’s an iconic look about it and you have to be careful of icons because they can border on art.  I have to mindful about playing that card because I don’t want to be associated with art.  I’m a photographer, a photojournalist.  I don’t belong to the world of art.”

He clearly worked to shake us.. to ensure that people looked the images through whilst having breakfast with their morning papers.  He also aware that the world media is so saturated by images of extreme violence that we have become almost culturally accepting of such brutality. As Susan Sontag argued, “seeing’ deceives us into a sense of understanding and knowledge  –a cliché that is barely capable of holding our ocular attention for the time it takes to flip the page. “  McCullin captures images with an eye for composition and form, communicates the inexplicable nature of the subject. .. we become defenceless to do anything but marvel at the incomprehensibility of such suffering – as Harold Evans, points out he had the “The cold eye of the lens with the warmth of the empathy”.

We learn that his career ended with the take over of the Sunday Times by Murdoch. His new employer chose someone else to cover the Falklands war, rejected on the premise that his photography was ‘too honest.’ Then later, when Andrew Neil became the new editor he declared that the Sunday Times magazine would have no more wars, just lifestyle and leisure. By then he knew he was on the way out. As the newspaper chased advertising revenue, and became obsessed with celebrity, its ethos changed and McCullun left. We don’t get to find out what he thought of the Leverson Inquiry.

Nowadays, McCullin is more content photographing inanimate objects — like the landscapes around his house in the south of England. He says he shoots his landscapes mainly in winter because he likes the drama of the naked trees, the “threat” of winter.

‘It’s not about photography, it’s about humanity’, Don McCullin continually reminds us. For people interested in humanity, how newspapers have changed and photography this is a very engaging film.

McCullin available to buy now, or you can watch it online at Curzon on Line here http://www.curzoncinemas.com/film_on_demand/1050/mccullin/

Jagdish Patel

 

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