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


Own Research 2 -In conversation: William Eggleston @NPG 2016

On 21 July 2016, I was lucky enough to attend this talk with a small group of   like-minded ‘photography people’; tutors, an ex-tutor of mine and some other ex-students of his. It was just how I expected it to be and spent most of the evening giggling away and totally entertained, probably for all the wrong reasons. One of our company was most disgruntled and wanted his money back as he had come to hear William Eggleston “talk” which proved to me he had never researched the man nor understood how he operates.

If he had, he would have known from the outset that “In Conversation” was a misnomer. Eggleston knows just how to avoid talking about anything whilst “In Conversation” and gave the audience a masterful display in how to control an interview.You learn more from the YouTube video posted below about his ways of working, the background of some of his images etc than you did from the “talk.” That was just a masterclass on how to be William Eggleston.

I’ll give you the video version and then the talk version. I have to admit to not being a huge fan of his work. I appreciate his place in history, I admire how he has managed to stay in the frame (no pun intended) for so many years, I love the saturation and rich colours, how he makes a living from photographing the banal. Some of his images I really do like, but the majority don’t resonate or make me feel any emotion other than, ok it’s life. But in actuality, that is exactly what is really good about it, as that is what he photographs. When asked what his images are about his response is “life today.” So you have to hand it to him, his images do exactly what it says on the tin. He documents life today in all it’s bland and ugly glory. As a young man he complained “What shall I photograph? It’s all ugly!”  [in Memphis] To which a friend replied “then photograph the ugly!”

He decided very early on to only take one image, as he got confused with choice and having to opt for the best shot. He also doesn’t caption his shots believing they are what they are and need no explanation, which is quite relevant to the next exercise…

Some fascinating facts emerge as you watch; he was born to a very wealthy family who owned a large plantation, was adored and virtually “kidnapped” by his grandparents who seemed to bring him up surrounded by an equally adoring plethora of servants. What the video does not mention is that his father was killed during WWII so maybe not so much of the “kidnapped” then. An unconventional man, into drugs, guns, women and a taste for the wilder side in life he was given his first camera at 18. He shot first in black and white, with composition heavily influenced by Henri Cartier Bresson. He studied art at a variety of universities for 8 years, but never graduated, and shot his first roll of colour film in the mid 1960’s. At this point I smiled in my head because he omitted, and has done for years, to reveal that as a young man, in 1967, he went off clutching his box of black and white shots and presented them to the man I do feel is the master of colour, Joel Meyerowitz.

The documentary shows Eggleston  (Bill or Egg to his friends) wandering round, fag in hand, snapping away in a totally relaxed manner. In a style which, like his film making, has been described as ‘loose, organic, one take only.’ It was through his friendship with Andy Warhol that he was introduced to a Sony video camera, which resulted in the film Stranded in Canton. Shot in infra-red it depicts life in a night club setting revealing his friends, and the flip side to Eggleston’s family man persona, the drug taking, drunk rebel who associated with those who can only be described as ‘drunks, geeks and misfits’ who really ‘liked Quaaludes’ at the time…He ran two households, one for his family, one for his mistress. He used to have huge house parties where he would entertain the rich and famous; his photographs grace the front of many an album cover. One being the red ceiling, which becomes more poignant as you discover the history behind it. TC Boring was Eggleston’s best friend. One night there were three of them (Eggleston, Boring and Boring’s wife) lying on the bed, Eggleston looks up at the ceiling and snap…history is made. Sadly TC was later murdered, his body burnt, in the very house made famous by a red room with white cables running across the ceiling…

It was John Szarkowski who took a gamble in 1976 and chose to exhibit William Eggleston’s Guide, the first one-man show of colour photographs ever presented at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Interestingly all the images chosen were taken after 1968, postdating his visit to Joel. It was also the Museum’s first publication of colour photography. The reception was divided but on the whole derogatory, with Hilton Kramer calling the show “Perfectly banal … Perfectly boring.” The New York Times called it “the most hated show of the year.”

Eggleston rails at the critics;they didn’t understand it, and it was their job to, they didn’t get it, it was the Museum of MODERN Art, they were just pretty stupid. But, years later they ‘apologised’.The film ends more or less by telling us that journalists hang on his every word…I hope there aren’t many of them, or else that single word is going to be very crowded…

So back to July 2016 and the NPG exhibition of William Eggleston: Portraits. Taking to the stage is Sean O’Hagan and the curator Phillip Prodger. A rather frail William Eggleston is pushed out in a wheelchair.His familiar, slow Southern drawl is much slower than it was as he ponderously delivers his few words of wisdom. Have the the wild days of sex drugs ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll caught up.? Possibly, yet possibly not, as this was taken from an interview conducted by Sean O’Hagan back in 2004:

Eggleston is the slowest and most softly spoken person I have ever met, and the silence while he considers a question is so deep and long that I find myself wondering if he has simply chosen to ignore my fumbling attempts at elucidation. His thoughts, when they emerge into speech, are expressed succinctly and in oddly illuminating phrases that, like his work, are both simple and complex.

O’Hagan and Prodger took it in turns to ask questions and received the best monosyllabic one liners I’ve heard in a long time, mixed in with a few pearls of wisdom.The embarrassed shuffles, and furtive glances between them, as they tried to extract more information out of him, or fill in the gaps, were truly magnificent. Eggleston seemed to be perfectly aware of the cat and mouse game he was playing, cue interview:

Were you surprised when we approached you to put together an exhibition of your portraits?

I take it you’re happy with the results?

Based on the exhibition; in your opinion what constitutes a portrait?
I couldn’t tell you. It’s the looking at the result that is important , not the writing or talking, infinitely more important. Later on I never had a studio I never asked people to pose.

On what is on display; are the wrong ones being shown, or are any missing?
I’ve not thought about it.

On his first colour image, a young man with a shopping trolley; I understand this is the first one you were happy with?
It was the first one I took – I had no choice.

Did you know it was good when you took it or did you have to see the print?
I don’t know, another difficult one to answer again, I don’t know the difference.

Do the prints ever surprise you?
No…maybe they should.

I found it amusing that in the video he is described as gently and fleeting capturing peoples portraits, as if they didn’t even know he was there but in the talk he is the one who does not ‘see’ them.

[He sees]  shape and form, some are people, [they are] just as aesthetic as that table over there – little elements – whatever results is positive.

On his back catalogue; What does it say about the archives, are they all good?
Pretty good.

On his image of Marcia Hare, did you see the symbolism? What is the significance of her holding the camera?
She was asleep, perfectly healthy, she’s not dead! No I don’t [think about the symbolism] She had a camera, she liked taking photographs.

On the reception of his first exhibition, was he surprised by the reaction?
When pressed a little more:
I thought they were infantile responses.

On Stranded in Canton; I shot 2-3 hours – no it was 30 – no it was 1
Sean O’Hagan interjects that it was 30.
How do you know?
You told me when I last interviewed you. I have it on tape!
Did I, Oh well. – shrugs.

Who are the painters that have influenced you?
It’s a long list.

On his commission to photograph Graceland in 1984;
Oh Priscilla rang…
Had Elvis Presley been important to him.
I was not an Elvis fan. Period.

On his opinion of Andy Warhol:
Oh, I don’t know what to say…

On his opinion of Andy Warhol’s work:
I wouldn’t be doing it myself.

On his relationships with many well known personalities: There is an elegiac element [to his portraits] as many have passed on:
That’s the way it is.

Tell us about your relationship with Stephen Shore?
We were friends.

Did he have any influence on Stephen Shore?

Then it was over to the audience, for the brave souls who dared to ask…

Do you ever crop? Or is it perfect in the viewfinder?’

What advice would you give to your younger self if you were starting out now?
I would say I am not the one to ask.

One of our party managed to ask a question – What was his impression of contemporary photography, particularly portrait photography by women. He didn’t hear and when the question was repeated the “women” part was omitted…
No comment.
When Philip Prodger pressed – is that being polite?
I am saying no comment.

And that was it. Hopeful fans beetled down to the front of the stage, clutching various books in the vain hope that they might get the man himself to sign a few…but he declined, with an enigmatic wave of his hand, and his son wheeled him off stage right…

my reflection will follow tomorrow..that took much longer to write than anticipated and am off to bed…..

Awake but needing to get ready for work I thought I would quickly add this link to Apollo magazine who were also there and saw what I saw and heard what I heard. Sean O’Hagan has responded in the comments.

Incredibly selective. He spoke at length in response to many questions. If you know anything about Eggleston, it was an expansive interview. This misrepresents it somewhat.
Sean O’Hagan

I took quite extensive notes, admittedly some were a little scribbled and deciphering them several months later is fun. I have the name Richard Laycock? MIT …not sure what it means now but the response underneath was:
experiments- didn’t add up to much.
But it did as an art historian?
No – it didn’t add up to much.

His thoughts on William Christenberry-
Walter Hopps –
In tune mentally.
Dennis Hopper –
Visited in Mexico…
Joe Strummer?
Oh I don’t know what we talked about – we just kicked back.
Alex Chilton?
I don’t remember taking that..

Yes, in places Eggleston was a little more expansive, for example talked more fully about dye transfer, but not terribly more so. If Sean would care to provide a video of the interview or a transcript of his notes I don’t think there would be that much of a difference between what I have recorded nor by the author of the other article. I don’t think it misrepresented. Compared to some interviews, where he has barked at reporters for asking stupid questions, or just got up and walked out, this could be considered an expansive interview, hence my initial comment that one of the people I attended with obviously had no idea what he was going to see. However, given the fuller responses, by other photographers, at other events, in this instance if words were food most of the audience would have left a little hungry. I found it really hard to find any other reviews about this talk. Maybe because the people attending also struggled to find anything to write about?


National Portrait Gallery (2016) Curator’s tour: William Eggleston portraits. Available at: (Accessed: 20 October 2016).

O’Hagan, S. (2004) Out of the ordinary. Available at: (Accessed: 20 October 2016).

O’Hagan, S. (2012) Joel Meyerowitz: ‘Brilliant mistakes … Amazing accidents’. Available at: (Accessed: 20 October 2016).

THE RAD PHO (2013) Imagine | the Colourful Mr Eggleston. Available at: (Accessed: 20 October 2016).

Rakewell (2016) William Eggleston and the sound of silence – Apollo magazine. Available at: (Accessed: 20 October 2016).