This week I watched a film about documentary photographer Don McCullin.
He is known particularly for the war and famine documentary photographs that he has taken over the past forty or so years. What struck me most about him is that even though he has been to some terrible places and seen some appalling things he doesn’t appear to have been hardened by the experience. He still seems to be very sensitive to the victims that he has photographed over the years.
He began his career working for the Observer magazine in 1959 by shooting photos of the boys he grew up with in Finsbury Park but his first experience of conflict was in Vietnam where he was shocked to see his first execution. Sadly it wasn’t the last execution he witnessed and he speaks of how he never wants to glamourise death. At times he has even deliberately put his camera away and stopped taking photos, especially when soldiers or mercenaries have been showing off in front of him.
Over the years he has worked for several newspapers and magazines including the Observer and Sunday Times magazines, but many of his assignments have been through his own intuition or determination and he has gone to dangerous places because he chose to go and wanted to go. He clearly enjoyed the thrill of being in war zones but he has always battled inside his own head about why he was going and what his purpose was.
“You have a moral sense of purpose and duty, you have to work out which of those purposes and duty you’re there for. Its very difficult too, you want to take this picture and you want to stop it.”
And that desire to ‘stop it’ has been what has caused him to intervene in some situations. He never wanted to to be a voyeur who simply looked. He describes the time when he carried an elderly lady to safety in Cyprus and elsewhere he is described as becoming one of the troops, risking his own life in order to help rescue wounded marines.
“Photography suddenly didn’t come into the picture even it was…, it had nothing to do with photography. After a while if you are that involved in that kind of situation, its not about photography, its about humanity.”
He demonstrates a deep empathy for the very poorest people and it is their stories that McCullen felt he needed to tell through his photographs. He had a passion to report and thought that there are some things that can only be found out through reporting. He could get to places and find out information that even governments didn’t know about.
“I’m a photographer. I am neither an artist or a poet. I’m a photographer. And one of the things I have learnt most of all, over and above photography, the very best qualifications you can have when you are in this situation and you are exercising this duty as a photographer or whatever, reporter is that it’s much better to be on the side of humanity.”
In terms of his photography he suggests looking for the little things, saying that they tell you more about a situation than the more obvious things and highlights a photograph he took during the civil war in Cyprus where a beautiful dog is in the middle of a team of fighting men who are crouching with old rifles behind a makeshift barricade.
McCullin feels that it is “My duty is to be there (in a war) for a reason, not just to have a bloody good time.” He always wanted his photos to be hard hitting and make the situation real for his viewers.
However it was the honesty of McCullin’s photographs that eventually worked against him. He wasn’t allowed to go and photograph the war in the Falklands for reasons that were never made clear but most likely because the forces were uncomfortable about McCullin’s honest and dangerous reputation. Soldiers felt that they had been let down by the media during the Vietnam war and now the forces wanted to carefully control the images that are released during war time.
I was building a reputation as a war photographer, which today I really detest. I worked for it and then when I suddenly felt that I was being acclaimed as a war photographer, suddenly I felt uncomfortable and dirty. I felt being call a war photographer was like being called a mercenary.
Today Don McCullin spends his time photographing the English landscape. It seems to me to be a welcome change from the haunting images of war, famine and atrocity that he has previously photographed.