Images of war captured by Don McCullin
Published: 17 January, 2013
by DAN CARRIER
Directed by David and Jacqui Morris
Rating: 5 Out Of 5 Stars
TO bear witness is to offer us the tools to take stock and change our behaviour – and so the work of war photographer Don McCullin isn’t simply about having a ringside seat for some of the most brutal conflicts in the 20th century, it is about trying to educate and therefore hopefully stop atrocities happening again.
This extraordinary documentary, made by Camden-based Dartmouth Films and nominated this week for a Bafta, is a biography of the photojournalist.
Don grew up in Holloway on the Seven Sisters Road, and did his National Service in the RAF. He was posted to Suez and worked as a photographer’s assistant in a dark room, which inspired him to take up a camera when he was demobbed.
We learn that after getting married he saw the famous picture of an East Berlin border guard leaping over a barbed-wire fence and told his new wife Christine that he had to get to Germany.
He had no credentials nor assignments, but intrinsically felt there was a piece of photojournalism he needed to do.
He came back with rolls of film depicting the crucial moments in the construction of the wall – and it landed him a spread in the pages of the Observer and the respect of the editor. From there, Don travelled the world, heading to Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Congo, Lebanon, Vietnam and Cambodia, to name a few of the troublespots he worked in.
Watching this documentary on the same day as Django Unchained was a sobering experience.
While Tarantino’s film is full of a bloodlust-infatuation with violence, McCullin’s film makes you wonder what our infatuation with watching nasty stuff happen in fiction is based on.
With talking-head interviews and incredible pictures, this film is not just the story of a working-class man breaking through glass ceilings, and the art of photojournalism, it is about pacificism. McCullin, a street-corner bruiser, a handsome man with a rugged face, provides a vehicle for thinking about morality. He speaks candidly of the difficulties he has faced coming to terms with being exposed to man’s inhumanity to fellow man. In one interview, when talking about Beirut in 1982, he discovered an abandoned orphanage with tiny children living in their own fetid muck.
“I have never felt more ashamed of humanity,” he states quietly.
He is still working – he was recently in Syria, aged 77. Otherwise, he is taking pictures of the Somerset countryside, among other things, as he dwells on tough years in tough places.
McCullin is not just an extraordinarily brave man, with a burning need to bear witness, he is an exceptionally skilled photographer.