Don McCullin’s ‘Shaped by War’

Both the persona and work of Don McCullin, conflict photographer and self confessed “war junkie”, have always held a mesmeric allure over me.  Echoing in miniature what he cites as “a magnetic emotional sense of direction pulling me to extraordinary places”, when seated before my beloved collection of coffee-table books, I repeatedly reach for his self-titled hardback rather than the aesthetically magnificent National Geographic collections, and other more visually ‘pleasant’ treasures.  His photos are timeless images of human suffering and I can get lost in their depths for hours.  As with my equally misplaced romantic obsession with old Vietnam War movies, I also find myself (somewhat morbidly) intrigued by the mystique of a working class North Londoner chasing calamity across the globe, equipped with an apparent death wish as well as a sensitivity and eye for composition that sets his photographs leagues apart from other atrocity images.  Unlike so many of the pictures exploited by UNICEF and others to ruthlessly extract our pity, McCullin’s photographs of victims at the height of deprivation always retain a sense of that individual’s humanity and dignity.  The experience of looking at them is utterly disturbing, but at the same time, somehow uplifting.

‘Shaped by War’, a retrospective of McCullin’s incredible career is currently showing at The Imperial War Museum, and thoroughly satiated my desire to see more of his work, as well as my rather gawkish attraction to the man himself, fuelled by that famous image of a rugged photographer in US Marine attire just minutes before he was hit by mortar in Cambodia in 1970.  The exhibition is organized chronologically, delineating his progression from iconic photos of gang members in Finsbury Park, through his manic global wanderings and onto the “healing” landscapes he has taken to in later life.  The powerful black and white images are set dramatically against grey and orange backgrounds and accompanied by a foray into his lesser known (and needless to say, less commanding) work in colour.  Personal items are on display and a half an hour video commentary from the man himself, provides the personal and human stories behind the iconography of war and famine.

Atrocity photography has attracted much critical controversy, and rightly so.  World media is so saturated by images of extreme violence that we have become almost culturally accepting of such brutality as banality.  As Susan Sontag argued, ‘seeing’ deceives us into a sense of understanding and knowledge  – I have seen a thousand soldiers torn to pieces in beyond human conditions on newspaper pages and therefore I may feel I am to an extent privy to the depths of their destruction.  Equally, what kind of a world is it in which the image of a starving African child, so shocking to the Geldof generation, has become a cliché that is barely capable of holding our ocular attention for the time which it takes to flip the page? Herein lies the strength of Don McCullin’s opus – for me at least, there is something about his work which defies you to hold your gaze and attempt to see rather than look.  These images are old now, but they will never become old news and serve as an uncomfortable yet resonant reminder of “the terribly damaged family of man to which, I’m afraid we all belong” (Linfield).  Somehow McCullin’s camera seems to shoot with extreme respect for its subjects and as a result our shared humanity shines through with a terrifying intensity.  The extremity of many of the situations which McCullin captures, teamed with his unparalleled eye for composition and form, communicates the inexplicable nature of the subject.  His photos are so striking, we become defenceless to do anything but marvel at the incomprehensibility of such suffering – a much more emphatic reaction than the enervated pity inspired by much of the atrocity photography which we are continually exposed and subjected to.

The critical distrust surrounding atrocity photography also has a finger to point straight towards the practitioner.  Accusations of voyeurism and mercenary profit from poverty are some of the many indictments pandered around the masters of this art, crystallised in the case of Kevin Carter who won a Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of a baby crawling towards an aid station being shadowed by a vulture, and later killed himself after the world press dubbed him a ‘human vulture’.  However ‘normal’ the video commentary reveals the twinkle eyed and aging McCullin to be, he still talks candidly about avoiding madness by fastidiousness, his distrust of humanity and most tellingly he intones to the camera that “there is a darkness in me”.  On a copy of ‘The Shell Shocked Soldier’ 1968, post-it note handwritten instructions for the developer read ‘DARKER’ in several places and I could not help but draw parallels with a Conradian journey into the heart of horror, nightmares and darkness.  Like Marlow, McCullin’s work tells of an unspeakable truth.  Undoubtedly McCullin’s career in the line of fire and the face of misery has left its wounds and the burden of guilt is something that all war correspondents surely carry through civilian life.  The Imperial War Museum’s exhibition makes a few subtle attempts to assuage this idea, with plaques informing us of McCullin heroically leaping into the frame after taking a shot and helping people to safety.  However I feel his heroism lies in the very fact that, for the most part, he must have been powerless to intervene, and instead bore the weight and guilt of the impassive voyeur.  He has plunged deep into that heart of darkness, returning with images that make the world look twice.

© Kate Kelsall 2012