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.


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!


Listen to Don McCullin talking about his exhibition Shaped by War on Radio 4’s Excess Baggage

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 [Accessed 16/05/2017] [Accessed 16/05/2017] [Accessed 16/05/2017] [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

Legacy documentary for social change – Continuing the tradition – Marcus Bleasdale

Moving swiftly on to the next exercise…looking at the work of Marcus Bleasdale. I need to read the interview in Eight magazine (V4N3, Dec 2005) and in particular look at his work in the Congo and his publication One Hundred Years of Darkness, 2002. I had issues with the rest of the instructions as the Guardian Magazine 16 January 2010 was nowhere to be found, and the link for the tear sheets of his work, on the agency VII, also came up blank…I’ve emailed the OCA who hopefully will amend the coursework pages or tell me what I am doing wrong! In the absence of those links I’ll just do my own thing 🙂

If you go to Marcus’ website and click on the ‘about’ page he is definitely keeping up the traditions of the concerned socially committed photographers’ ideals of wanting to influence the world, as it states:



and a huge chunk of lazy copy paste…

Over the past fifteen years spent documenting some of the world’s most brutal wars Marcus has focused on campaigning against human rights abuses. He has been documenting these issues for Human Rights Watch and he is a contributing photographer for National Geographic Magazine.

Using his background in business and economics, he researches the sources of financing driving the conflicts, which usually leads to the mines, and the armed networks linked to them. Marcus covered the wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Somalia, Chad and Darfur, Kashmir and Georgia.

Since 2000 Marcus has worked extensively in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo documenting a war funded by the extraction of the minerals used in every day electronic products. Marcus has partnered with international advocacy groups Human Rights Watch and the Enough Project to engage US and European politicians and multinational companies to change government policy and working practices.

Over the past three years Marcus has been working in the Central African Republic documenting the conflict in the region. The work from Central African Republic won the Amnesty International Award for Media in 2014 and the prestigious Robert Capa Gold Medal from the Overseas Press Club of America in 2015.

Marcus has published three books “One Hundred Years of Darkness” (2002) documenting life along the Congo River after the overthrow of Mboutu”The Rape of a Nation” (2009) documenting the exploitation of natural resources in Eastern Congo and most recently “The Unravelling” (2015) documenting the brutal conflict in the Central African Republic.

Marcus is currently studying for an MSt in International Relations at Cambridge University whilst still documenting human rights issues around the world.

He lives in Oslo with his wife Karin Beate.

He has also won a tremendous amount of awards:

2015 Overseas Press Club of America The Robert Capa Gold Medal
2015 FotoEvidence Award
2015 Amnesty International Award
2014 Soc. of Environmental Journalists Award
2014 Overseas Press Club of America The Photography Prize
2013 World Press Photo Contemporary Issues
2013 The Photographer Society The Hood Medal
2011 USA Webby Award
2010 Picture of the Year USA Book of the Year Award
2010 Hansel Meith Award
2010 Anthopographia Award Human Rights and Photography
2009 Days Japan Readers Award
2009 Picture of the Year USA
2008 American Photography Award
2007 Freedom of Expression Foundation
2006 Overseas Press Club of America Olivier Rebbot Award
2006 World Press Photo Daily Life Singles
2005 Open Society Institute
2005 Alexia Foundation for World Peace Award
2005 Picture of the Year USA Magazine Photographer of the Year Award
2004 UNICEF Photographer of the Year
2004 Picture of the Year USA Magazine Award
2004 NPPA Magazine News Story Award
2003 Picture of the Year USA News Award
2002 Picture of the Year USA Magazine Award
2000 Sunday Times Nikon Ian Parry Award

On looking through his other bodies of work Bleasdale does not shy away from showing the world exactly what is happening within the areas he embeds himself. The images are shocking and disturbing, and they have to be in order for the international community, and the people who are supposedly in a position to do so, to affect change! Sadly, this does not always happen – as outlined in the interview he gave back in 2005.

And even if laws are passed it does not always have the desired results.

I also found some superb YouTube videos, which I have only skipped through at this moment in time, but fully intend to watch in their entirety once blogging is caught up with.

The first video echoes a lot of questions and responses within the interview, which I shall bullet point below:

  • Enjoying photography as a serious hobby Bleasdale took some evening classes in B&W printing – obviously due to financial constraints etc – have posed the same question to Marcus as I did to Nick Danziger re shooting in B&W versus colour. Be interesting to see if I get a response :)*
  • disillusioned with banking and spurred on by the lack of compassion shown by colleagues, Bleasdale set out to pursue his passion in photography and record what was happening in the Balkans.
  • Earning money as a photo-journalist can be very difficult.
  • Photo-journalism does not always have to be about conflict – he cites Eugene Smith and the country Doctor as an example.
  • He thinks carefully about how he is going to try to create his images and refers back to other photographers work all the time.
  • He takes inspiration from other Ats as well – citing  Heart of Darkness as his road-map for his journey through the Congo.
  • Politics plays a huge part in whether conflicts or atrocities are reported and how they are reported – links to the FSA and the Government want to promote the reforms they wanted to push through – would they have funded this project otherwise?
  • The media has a moral responsibility to focus on important issues and raise awareness and help implement change.
  • He works with NGO’s to put pressure on the UN, Governments, banks, commodity traders and directly responsible companies.
  • Hopefully this pressure and communication will not only raise awareness but also enforce responsibility.
  • He believes that the general public are quite capable of ‘reading’ single images or a series of pictures.
  • He cites Tom Stoddart – shoots in B&W, Don McCullin – shoots in B&W, and Eugene Richards – shoots in B&W and colour, as photographers who have had a huge impact on the world and having the ability to touch people.
  • He feels it is possible to record events yet still treat people with dignity and, that as a human being, it is most important that you don’t forget that first and foremost a photo-journalist is a human first and a photographer second. – a sentiment echoed by Dorothea Lange, as highlighted in the video on a previous research post. 
  • When working with NGO’s he shoots what he wants to, then edits for the brief later.
  • Another photographer he mentions is Heidi Bradnor – shoots in B&W and colour- and her work in Chechnya – both she and Bleasdale have stuck with the same topics for a long period of time.
  • Winning awards is not only nice, but also financially rewarding, and allows for his work to continue as even years later it is still difficult to sell work that is a political hot potato.

I can quite understand why Bleasdale is included within this section of the coursework as he is truly committed towards raising awareness of the atrocities happening across the globe, and uses his images to petition for this change. Although he does shoot in both colour and B&W, the work we are asked to look at follows the tradition of hard-hitting B&W documentary photographs.

In interviews given, and in the videos he makes, he mentions the use of multi media and cross platforms to put his argument across, emphasising how, as photographers and humans, we need to make sure we are media savvy and target people of different generations, companies, governments and consumers to ensure the constant pressure for change to occur.

There is much to be gleaned from this interview and the videos, for example: on his approach, how he may defuse a tense situation by offering cigarettes to start a dialogue, his use of other photographers and writers as inspiration, how NGO’s may support your work where publications may not.


I think it is brilliant when busy, famous people take time out to reply 🙂

Hi Marcus,

I hope you don’t mind me emailing to ask you a question? I work in a grammar school helping out in the Art and Photography dept as well as currently undertaking a Photography degree with the OCA.

Currently I am doing research into the tradition of B&W photography with the Documentary genre and as one of our exercises we have to read your interview with Eight magazine and look closely at work body of work One Hundred Years of Darkness. I note that on your own website you also use colour photography. Could you tell me if you would prefer to always shoot in B&W and are the colour images at the request of the NGO/Agencies that you work for?

Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and thanking you in anticipation,


Jan Fairburn

Hi Jan.

I use the medium the situation demands, more recently I shoot more colour. It is me who determines that not the client. But that said, I wouldn’t sell so much to national geographic in Back and white as they rarely publish in that medium

I hope that helps



About (no date) Available at: (Accessed: 22 December 2016).

Houghton, M. (2005) ‘Interview with Marcus Bleasdale’, Eight Magazine, December, pp. 68–70.

Parra, D. and (2010) My best shot: Marcus Bleasdale. Available at: (Accessed: 22 December 2016).

Raghavan, S. (2014) Obama’s conflict minerals law has destroyed everything, say Congo miners. Available at: (Accessed: 22 December 2016).