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Socialism Today 152 - October 2011

A legendary photographer of injustice

Shaped by War: photographs by Don McCullin

Imperial War Museum London

7 October 2011 to 15 April 2012

Reviewed by David Beale

SO OFTEN a brutal assault on the eye, yet immensely sympathetic to their subjects, Don McCullin’s photographs insist we look directly at the horrors of war, starvation and poverty that are so much features of our world. Memorably featured in The Observer and The Sunday Times, from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, these were fundamentally human photographs that screamed injustice and yet shocked middle-class sensibilities.

The Imperial War Museum’s retrospective exhibition, Shaped by War, is a quite outstanding, major display of the work of one of the world’s great photojournalists. McCullin’s photographs are displayed alongside magazines in which his work appeared, photo contact sheets, cameras and kit, as well as video clips of interviews with him. Combined with the exhibition’s accompanying book of the same name (published by Jonathan Cape, 2010), which includes an extremely honest and moving, almost confessional, autobiographical text, you are left with a sense of having stared into the abyss. But that what you have seen is happening to very real people with whom you share the same basic emotions and needs regardless of culture, religion and circumstance.

Born in 1935, Don McCullin had a hard working-class upbringing in 1940s and 50s London. He soon learned to look after himself. His first published photograph, in The Observer, was of a London gang he knew. His work quickly won acclaim, with regular work and press awards eventually to follow – though he writes in Shaped by War that his various press awards meant little to him and most of them are left in his garage.

His class attitudes and tough independent spirit clearly remained throughout his work. He photographed conflict and war in Cyprus, Congo, Biafra, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, Ireland, Germany, Uganda, the Middle East, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and El Salvador, frequently taking the legendary war photographer Robert Capa’s advice: if "your photograph isn't good enough, you’re not close enough". It is astounding he was not killed in the process. His camera that was hit by a bullet in Cambodia in 1970 shows just how close he came. A week later he caught the blast from a Khmer Rouge mortar and was seriously injured. He was also injured later in El Salvador.

In Biafra, the state in Nigeria that fought an unsuccessful war for independence in 1968-70, his photographs of children in advanced states of starvation demonstrated beyond doubt that here was a war crime. The British Labour government shamefully armed the Nigerian government. French imperialism armed the Biafrans.

McCullin writes about how he is still haunted by the experience of visiting a school full of 800 hundred starving Biafran children. An emaciated albino boy followed him around, clutching an empty corned beef tin. McCullin was so distressed he tried to ignore him but, finally, gave him the only thing he could think of, a barley sugar sweet, which the boy took and slowly licked. The photograph of this boy is one of the most moving you will ever see showing the utter outrage of starvation in a capitalist world of greed and plenty.

In Vietnam, he was regularly in the frontline with US troops, while never compromising his independence to take whatever photographs he chose. He demonstrated the appalling price the Vietnamese people paid, while showing the extent to which American soldiers were victims too of their own government’s imperialist foreign policy. One of his images is of a young dead North Vietnamese soldier. Disgusted by the looting of his belongings by the US troops he was with, McCullin respectfully rearranged the dead soldier’s personal possessions and family photographs, and took the picture: "He deserved a voice. He couldn’t speak so I was going to do it for him".

A photograph taken at the 1968 battle at Hué captures the face of an American soldier reflecting on his experiences. Again we know from his face that he has witnessed dreadful things. A third Vietnam image, one of his most famous, is of a haunted US marine at Hué. Sitting square to the camera and clutching his rifle barrel with both hands, the soldier looks upwards with a totally empty expression, so obviously incapable of fighting, shell-shocked. The picture hardly needs a caption.

Nonetheless, McCullin objects to the description of him as a war photographer, hence the name of the exhibition and book, Shaped by War. In addition to his work in developing countries, he has taken photographs of conflict in Northern Ireland, of working-class communities, hardship and the poor in Britain, and very important and interesting images of the British landscape, especially near his home in Somerset. His photographs of the poor, exploited and marginalised – an evicted traveller in Kent, unemployed coal searchers in Sunderland on a cold, wet and misty day – are fundamentally sympathetic and demonstrative of the hardship of so many people’s lives, those who are ignored by the mainstream media. McCullin wrote: "I could not help identifying with the derelicts and outcasts of society. I went into the slums it was hard to believe still existed in England, where people brewed their tea in old beer cans, where wall paper hung in great furls from damp walls, where fungus grew around greasy stoves that occupied (as in my childhood) the centre of impoverished homes that boasted few amenities or possessions". (Unreasonable Behaviour: An Autobiography, published by Jonathan Cape, 1990)

After close to 20 years on the frontline of countless war zones, the great price he was paying in personal and family terms was obvious. In addition, with Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in 1979 and Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of Times Newspapers in 1981, the writing was on the wall. Murdoch soon appointed Andrew Neill as the new, young Sunday Times editor and hatchet man.

McCullin was sacked in 1983. Nominally, this was for daring to criticise, in a Granta interview, The Sunday Times’ new preference for a consumer magazine focused on bourgeois lifestyle features. Effectively, it became a mail order catalogue, as McCullin put it. In a telling comment all too similar to more recent descriptions of the Rebekah Brooks regime at that other (now defunct) Murdoch publication, McCullin says Neill was appointed to "shake up the newspaper, to get those staff who would serve the new Murdoch purpose hopping in fear of their lives, and those who would not on the road". (Unreasonable Behaviour)

McCullin was also banned from covering the Falklands war in 1982, due to the intervention of a senior army officer who feared McCullin would give it the same treatment he gave the Vietnam war and record the truth on the frontline. No doubt, the photographs would not have been quite what Thatcher had in mind either.

With his life in chaos and mentally on the brink, deeply affected by what he had seen, he increasingly turned to landscape photography in Britain and, to some extent, still life. This marked an important turning point. The landscape images are frequently dark, winter shots but are also intense and beautiful, with a sense of great, dramatic landscape paintings not untypical of the 19th century. In Shaped by War, McCullin wrote: "I can understand Turner’s passion for skies. I like my landscape photographs to have the most perfect composition, because I want them to be kind on the eye. I want you to fall in love with them. You’re not going to love one of my war photographs, because they are never made for that reason. But my landscapes are for you to enjoy".

The relationship between his landscape work and his frontline photographs is interesting and important and, as McCullin indicates, the former has had a therapeutic and healing function. Since the early 1980s he has done a substantial amount of new work that includes stunning photographs taken in India. These seem to adopt a style with similarities to his British landscapes work, and go alongside documentary photographs of tribal peoples, more recent outstanding work in support of Aids victims in Africa, and some images of Iraq.

In spite of this change of direction, the fundamental sympathy for his subjects shines through as much as ever, subjects that are very often the vulnerable, victims of poverty and injustice. Even McCullin’s reflections on his recent photographs of Roman columns and remains demonstrate this, as he gives thought to their construction through the brutal slave labour of the Roman empire.

Overall, this exhibition and its accompanying book – especially but not only the images of McCullin’s 1964-82 period – is a magnificent and truly shocking display of the social injustices of the world. Thus, in its effects and implications, much of it is highly political, and demanding of radical solutions in favour of the victims of war, poverty, starvation and hopelessness. This great exhibition should be seen by all socialists, indeed by anyone who is genuinely committed to bringing about a radically better world.

Just as I believe they did for a previous generation in the late 1960s and 70s, McCullin’s photographs have great potential to radicalise and politicise a new generation outraged by what he has witnessed and what his images expose. Don McCullin states clearly that he wants us to see his photographs, to look and not to turn away, however horrified we may be. More than anything else, we owe it to those he photographed to do exactly that. Not as a sympathetic reflection in itself but as a heartfelt motivation to action in bringing about fundamental, radical, democratic and socialist change to the world in which we live.

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