Inside Story

“Even my darkroom is a haunted place”

Although he is best known as a war photographer, Don McCullin has aimed to do much more than record his own adventures, writes Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone 20 October 2014 2723 words

Signature structure: English soldiers charge rock-throwing Catholic youths, Londonderry, Northern Ireland, 1971. Don McCullin/Contact Press Images

Don McCullin: The Impossible Peace: From War Photographs to Landscapes, 1958–2011 (exhibition)
State Library of New South Wales until 26 October 2014

Don McCullin: The Impossible Peace: From War Photographs to Landscapes 1958–2011 (book)
Edited by Sandro Parmiggiani and Robert Pledge | Skira | $70

Don McCullin is widely admired as one of the great photojournalists of his generation. He used the relative freedom accorded to the press in the 1960s and 1970s to travel to difficult and dangerous places and produce some of the most memorable images in the specialist genre of war photography (a term, with its connotations of adventurism, that McCullin dislikes). But war and conflict are far from being McCullin’s only subjects. He laid the foundations of his career when, as a young man in the 1950s, returning home after time spent in national service, he began taking photographs of the world of his youth, finding his material among the urban decay and the bleak prospects of London’s Finsbury Park. These early images – including most famously his photograph showing members of a local street gang called the Guvnors posed within the precarious-looking remnants of a burnt-out house – set the tone for much of his later work, with its lowering light (“I like darkness,” he has said), its human figures located in dilapidated and even threatening surroundings, and its oddly affecting formality.

Partly as a result of this striking photograph, McCullin’s early work was noticed and taken up by the London Observer. His career moved quickly from then on. First with the Observer, and later with the Sunday Times, sometimes on his own initiative and sometimes on assignment, McCullin travelled to many of the world’s trouble spots throughout the following two decades – Berlin, Cyprus, Biafra, Lebanon, Vietnam, Cambodia, to say nothing of many other sites of natural and manmade disasters, the names of which were not always familiar then and are largely forgotten now. But times changed, and he found that he could not go everywhere after all. He missed the Falklands war, for instance, when he was denied accreditation by the UK Ministry of Defence on the grounds that by the 1980s, with his career and reputation as a documenter of conflict now solidly established, he was too wily and experienced a professional for the ministry to be confident of keeping him under control.

It was an act of exclusion that continued to rankle for years afterwards. “I was heart-broken,” McCullin recalls in his autobiography, Unreasonable Behaviour. His reputation for getting at the visual truth had begun to count against him. In the 1960s and 1970s McCullin had been the man who, through a combination of courage and talent, could be entrusted with the task of penetrating conflict zones and bringing back images of what it was really like. In fact, he would bring them back quite literally, typically carrying the rolls of film himself and developing them when he got home, thus continuing through the whole process of producing a photograph and remaining physically close to the images of cruelty and suffering he had captured. “Even my darkroom is a haunted place,” he says in Jacqui Morris and David Morris’s revealing film of 2012, McCullin, in just one of many references he has made, in interviews and in his own writing, to his inability to let go of the horrors he has witnessed.

Having thrived throughout the golden age of photojournalism, McCullin has continued to bring a distinctive eye to scenes of human tragedy and resilience using a larger range of photographic genres, including landscape, portraiture and social documentary. Over 150 examples of McCullin’s work, taken between 1958 and 2011, can be seen in the exhibition Don McCullin: The Impossible Peace, curated by his friend and colleague Robert Pledge and now showing for an all-too-brief period at the State Library of New South Wales. It is the first time that McCullin’s work has been shown in Australia as part of a curated exhibition. The images on display also appear, with accompanying text, in a book of the same name, published in 2012 to coincide with the staging of an earlier version of the exhibition at the Palazzo Magnani in Italy, itself a sign of the increasing regard in which McCullin is now held.

This recognition comes at a time when the impact of the photographic image, and particularly images of violence and inhumanity, is much discussed. On the one hand, we now almost routinely question the capacity of the single image to hold our attention or to influence us one way or the other beyond, at most, a small moment of engagement. We are entirely overwhelmed by images – so the argument goes, and has gone for some time now – to the point where it is difficult to distinguish one from the other, or to retain any of them in our heads. A never-ending photostream rushes on, leaving no residue. “It has become a cliché of the cosmopolitan discussion of images of atrocity to assume they have little effect,” wrote Susan Sontag in 2004, going on to express scepticism over an opinion she had once held herself. On the other hand – runs the counter-argument – the single, stand-out image can, on occasion, and despite all the competing images that we come across every day, still have the power to shock and to motivate into action.

Yet even accepting that images, or certain images, can “have an effect,” it is difficult to define exactly what that effect might be, and what action it might lead to. Viewers can be moved enough by photographs to become donors, for example, to organisations providing disaster relief or support for refugees and for people displaced by conflict. They might even participate directly in relief programs and, in some cases, dramatically change their lives in the process. And an image can, if it strikes enough people in the same way, be a spur to political action. It is widely assumed, for instance, that Nick Ut’s photograph of a young girl fleeing a napalm attack during the Vietnam war helped to end that war. But such instances are not common, and are arguably less common today than they were then. And even when it can be shown that a photograph has had an impact, the impact is not always positive. In very recent times we have seen the disturbing ways in which photographs and videos, shocking in themselves, can be both created and deployed by combatants – participants in conflict rather than professional observers – to frighten and provoke their ideological enemies.

Watching: An East German soldier looks back at a West Berliner over the newly constructed Wall, West Berlin, August 1961. Don McCullin/Contact Press Images

McCullin has always been very aware of the question of what difference, if any, and in particular what positive difference, a photograph can make – of whether a picture of human aggression and suffering can play any part in preventing such aggression or alleviating such suffering. He has given voice to these doubts even as he has been repeatedly drawn to document scenes of violence and conflict. “I wouldn’t like to go through a year without being in a war,” he said in an interview earlier on in his career. (Sontag, a great admirer of McCullin’s work, said something very similar about herself: “I guess I go to war because it is my duty to be in as much contact with reality as I can be and war is a tremendous reality in our world.”) McCullin is also very aware that not everyone will see his photographs in the same way, that some will feel compelled to look and some to look away. As one who is himself compelled to look, McCullin often describes how his photographs are almost drawn from him, by subjects wanting to make contact, to have their often life-threatening predicaments recorded – and perhaps, in doing so, to prevent the inevitable, the moment of death that the photograph tells us is just about to occur.

“In the corner of my eye I could see the albino boy,” he says of the subject of one of his most unsettling photographs, taken in a Catholic mission in breakaway Biafra in 1969, where nuns and medical personnel were struggling to help the injured and starving victims of the civil war. “He was haunting me, getting nearer,” recalls McCullin, until the boy got close enough to touch the photographer’s hand. Only after that, when he has given the boy a sweet from the small stash in his pocket, and the boy has moved away, does he photograph him. It is the kind of story that McCullin often tells, of a physical or emotional connection that he feels with his subjects, and from which he derives a kind of unspoken permission to capture them on film. Human sympathy combines with professional determination, out of which comes the photograph. But to what end? “I would like to think” he said of the pictures he took in Biafra, “that these images brought help to the beleaguered hospitals with their dying children,” but he thought then and continues to think that whether they did have that effect is an unanswerable question.

McCullin is of course far from being the only “photographer of conscience” to wrestle with these issues, and to question his own motivations and practice. The Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, for instance, asks if we can “really point to things that have actively changed because photographs were made.” Her own answer to that question amounts to an expression of hope for the future, that we will get better at using photographs to influence social policy and encourage political involvement, that we will get better at using photographs “to create possibilities for engagement,” a phrase which in its hopeful vagueness seems to taper off into the unknown. McCullin has offered various answers over his long career, but in recent times he has favoured almost religious terminology in trying, retrospectively, to define what he was after in photographing people in extremity. “My ultimate aim,” he says in an interview included in the book of The Impossible Peace, was “to show the shame of the destruction of human beings who have committed no offence, no crimes. I wanted to portray the dignity of their suffering.”

McCullin’s interest in photography began when, as a national serviceman in Kenya during the time of the Mau Mau uprising, he was assigned the routine task, back at base, of operating a bulk-processing machine to develop aerial photographs that would provide RAF crews with detailed and up-to-date information about prospective targets up country. “The intelligence people used these pictures for next day’s offensive against the rebels,” he explains in Unreasonable Behaviour. The dilemma, which he has faced throughout his career, was thus there from the very beginning, even before he recognised that a life as a photographer was where he was heading, namely that photography is quite as capable of facilitating human suffering as it is of exposing and alleviating it. It is an issue on which he has shown some sensitivity. In interviews he has bristled at the possibility that people might think that, by his presence in places where terrible things happened, “I was okaying it,” or that the presence of the camera around his neck might in fact produce an event that would not otherwise have taken place.

These are the kinds of impossible questions that McCullin has returned to again and again over the decades. This has had the paradoxical effect of focusing attention even more closely on what is, after all, only one aspect of his work – the photographs of war – while the other genres he has worked in have received relatively less attention. “I am always trying to throw off the cloak of this title of ‘war photographer,’” he says. Yet even here, in relatively less controversial, “safer” genres, he gravitates towards subjects – famine, homelessness, displacement – in which suffering is exposed (as in his 1969 photograph of the homeless Irishman, which appears on the cover of the book of The Impossible Peace), or violence and threat lurk beneath the apparently placid surface. It seems that, even in the classical beauty of his unpopulated photographs of ancient Roman sites, the thought of war and human suffering is never far away. “While I was admiring these amazing monuments, extraordinary, fantastic, romantic spots, I was feeling that beneath the sands there would be the souls of people who had been felled, or starved in the fulfilment of a dream.”

Seeing numbers of McCullin’s photographs together, in an exhibition or in one of the many book collections of his photographs, is a reminder of how structured they are, how thoughtfully if instantaneously composed. McCullin’s photographs often play on a kind of double perspective, whereby we the viewers are watching somebody else engaged in watching. The act of looking is present within the photograph itself, emphasising our own distance as viewers – standing in a gallery, gazing at a framed image on the wall, or paging through a book or a slide-show – from what is going on in the photograph. He is particularly strong at photographing small groups of people, often with one or more individuals visually separated from the others, either looking or being looked at. These photographs appear as both spontaneous and staged. We might be tempted to see one of his most arresting images, from Northern Ireland – of two women, half shrouded in what appears to be their own doorways, watching riot troops storming past their houses – as a lucky accident, a moment in time that could not have been anticipated, were it not for the fact that the structure of the photograph carries McCullin’s signature within it, whereby people are caught watching, often in trepidation, events over which they have no control.

It is sometimes said, of McCullin and other photographers who document human suffering and vulnerability, that the effectiveness of an image will depend on its capacity to pull the viewer into the photograph and convey something of what the inhabitants of that image must have felt at that moment. But the great strength of McCullin’s photographs is that they do not play to our capacity for sentiment or easy emotional identification – if anything, they emphasise the distance between the reader of a newspaper or browser in a gallery and the documented event. They challenge us with the difficulty of making connections. McCullin, while avoiding fatalism, manages to imbue his photographs with a kind of realism that runs against any idea that things can somehow just be fixed. In three otherwise quite different examples from the 1970s, all included in the exhibition – of people in deckchairs sunning themselves on the promenade in Eastbourne, of children in a bedroom of a rundown house in Bradford, and of two Catholic boys being arrested in Londonderry – the composition is strikingly similar. Four figures in a row, with one of them to one side, slightly separated from the others.

Whether danger is obviously present, as in the photograph of the boys in Londonderry, or present only in the shadows and the clouds in the otherwise benign shot of people relaxing in Eastbourne, the eye goes inevitably to the separated figure, the one who does not quite seem part of the group. It is this fact of separateness, of what it might take to bridge the gap between ourselves and others, that animates McCullin’s work. He is on record as objecting to having his work defined as art, fearing perhaps any implication that he has seen the people he has photographed merely as subjects, facilitators of his own artistic vision. But in a passage in his autobiography he seems more comfortable with the definition, if being an artist means bringing to people’s attention the things they need to attend to. “I felt,” he says of the photographs he took during the Cyprus conflict, “as if I had a canvas in front of me and I was, stroke by stroke, applying the composition to a story that was telling itself.” •