Documents of conflict and suffering – Don McCullin

In my last post I spoke about several well-known war photographers who are sadly no longer with us. However, one who is, is Don McCullin whose images of the Vietnam war and other more relatively recent conflicts have made for uncomfortable viewing in some instances.

My photographs are stark and they’re not meant to be comfortable to look
at. They’re to make you respond. The only way you are going to get the
message across to people is to shock them. They’re not going to be moved
by a cosy picture…I want you look at my photographs… and go away with
a conscience obligation.

Don McCullin, Shaped by War exhibition, 2010

This seems to be in direct contrast to Gilles Peress who wanted to inform, but not set out to deliberately shock, just allowed the contents of the frame and the viewers personal empathy to inform the level of reaction.

Sontag wrote: ‘There can be no doubt of the intentions of this tenacious, impassioned witness, bringing back his news from hell. He wants to sadden. He means to arouse.'(Sontag 2001)

Back in 2013 I saw Don McCullin give a talk at The Photographer’s Gallery and did a fairly extensive write-up which can be found here. The penultimate paragraph read:

McCullin acknowledges that you can’t go to war without some kind of damage, either physical or mental. He welcomed his injuries so he could acknowledge others suffering. Now he wants some time to himself; you go to war you suffer, he has had 55 years of this and now wants time to himself. “I have been manipulated, and I have in turn manipulated others, by recording their response to suffering and misery. So there is guilt in every direction : guilt because I don’t practice religion, guilt because I was able to walk away, while this man was dying of starvation or being murdered by another man with a gun. And I am tired of guilt, tired of saying to myself : “I didn’t kill that man on that photograph, I didn’t starve that child.” That’s why I want to photograph landscapes and flowers. I am sentencing myself to peace.”

I think one of my favourite photographs is OF him rather than by him. Taken by John Bulmer in Cyprus in 1964, it reveals the side of McCullin that did do something and didn’t just watch.

McCullin

Don McCullin is running; running as fast as he can. His mouth is open, hair neat and jacket crumpled. In his arms lies an elderly woman, her thick set legs bent over McCullin’s left arm. Her gnarled right fist clenches two long sticks; the wire and trees blur in the background. This unlikely couple are fleeing missiles fired into Turkish territory by the Greek army during the 1964 conflict in Cyprus. It’s McCullin’s first war and this now famous war photographer is captured in action in an extraordinary black and white photograph. The previous evening, McCullin had crashed on the spare hotel bed in the room of the photograph’s author, who had then driven them both into battle the following morning; “If I was going to get killed, I thought I might as well take some photographs”. The photographer is John Bulmer.

This was one of the images on display at the Peter Dench Great Britons of Photography exhibition, you never know what gems you can find unless you go look!

Exercise

Listen to Don McCullin talking about his exhibition Shaped by War on Radio 4’s Excess Baggage http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/player/b00qlgzg

Before listening to the interview I wondered if I would discover anything new having heard him speak and read his autobiography. The link wouldn’t work for me, no idea why, but I found it on YouTube! One of the things he said in this interview that struck a chord was , ‘I don’t carry my life’s work lightly,’ which suggested to me that he did consider the ethics of his actions and the consequences. Although interesting it did cover much of the ground I have read in other interviews.

We are asked to consider ‘ethical practice,’ both our own and that of other photographers. McCullin admits that, on occasion, people had the right to be angry with him photographing them whilst under duress, of making a story out of their misfortunes. However. he is also a strong believer in getting images out there to implement change and to tell important stories. In a different interview McCullin did comment that he no longer takes photographs that would not implement change or tell a new story. This followed his work in Syria.

So what are the consequences of such images? The examples given by Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others,  were that photographs of calamities can trigger opposing reactions, people will either call for peace or wish to exact revenge, or even be reduced to apathetic ‘bemused awareness’ of atrocities as they gradually become facts of life.  ‘Compassion fatigue’ (Sontag 1977) was touched upon earlier when talking about the FSA and charitable campaigns but it can be equally applied to images of conflict.  Sontag reminds us that over-exposure to gratuitous images of death and destruction does indeed have a ‘numbing, desensitising effect on the viewer.’

More food for thought for when producing images, be authoritative, reflective, consider the ethics, don’t labour the point and try to be different….I think I’ll put my camera back in its bag!

Research

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/feb/07/don-mccullin-shaped-war-review [Accessed 16/05/2017]

http://hungryeyemagazine.com/in-conversation-peter-dench-john-bulmer/ [Accessed 16/05/2017]

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/nov/27/don-mccullin-war-photographer-digital-images [Accessed 16/05/2017]

https://monoskop.org/images/a/a6/Sontag_Susan_2003_Regarding_the_Pain_of_Others.pdf [Accessed 16/05/2017]

McCullin, D., Evans, H. and Sontag, S. (2003) Don McCullin. London: Random House.

Sontag, S. (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador

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