Monday, 7 January 2013

His humanity makes McCullin’s photos so iconic

Don McCullin in the biopic

To make a movie about a stills photographer sounds as though the producer has chosen an entirely inappropriate medium. But Jacqui and David Morris’ film about Don McCullin (McCullin, 2012 - see trailer here)  proves that not only can it be done, but it should be done.
The biography/showcase for the (now 77-year-old) creator of iconic imagery that focuses  on the horrors of war and violence, is a huge success. It interweaves the images themselves - many of which you will have seen - with (mainly) interviews with only two people; McCullin himself, and Harold Evans, his editor at the Sunday Times Magazine for 14 years. (Evans himself, is of course no slouch at identifying a good news photo, as he proved with his 1997 book, Pictures on a Page.

The Guv'nors of Seven Sisters' Road
What was the secret of the success of a photographer who was brought up in the impoverished surroundings of Finsbury Park, North London and who first came to attention with photos of his gang member mates? 

As most photographers who have concentrated on the horrors of war and conflict, McCullin has been criticised as a ‘voyeur’ - someone to whom the photograph is more important than the suffering.  While McCullin admits his propensity to become a ‘war junkie’ increased along with his travels, the reality is more complex than that. Starting in Berlin, the Congo and Cyprus in the early sixties, his journeys read like a history of the late twentieth century conflicts - Congo, Cyprus, Biafra, Vietnam (many times), Cambodia, Northern Ireland, and Lebanon, where he documented the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Perhaps Thatcher did him a kind of backhanded favour when her government refused him permission to travel to the Falklands.

One of McCullin's first assignments -
But plenty of war photographers have recorded the same problems - not one has had the same impact as McCullin. Partly this is because of his humanity. His best photos are of the innocent sufferers of war; the civilians caught in the cross fire, the children left to die, the wounded soldiers. He bears witness to their plight, and tells us again and again what a savage waste it is.

But it is not just that. It is - I think - because his roots, grounded in working class London, have given him an empathy with these sufferers. He himself points out that it is always the poor, who can’t get away from conflict, who provide these subjects.

And of course, his eye to frame the picture brings its key point - the humanity - to the viewer. 

Lebanon was his final war. He now lives quietly in Somerset trying to exorcise the ‘vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain.’ as fellow photographer Kevin Carter wrote in his suicide note. 

The film is a fitting record of his life and work, and balances the still and the moving image with particular skill. Anyone interested in news, photography or even the fight against war, should see it. It continues at the GFT until Thursday (10 Jan).

1 comment:

  1. McCullin emerges as an unsentimental, plain-speaking, thoughtful man, disgusted at the inhumanity of war - and yet candid about how he is also personally and professionally drawn to its drama.

    -- --