“Photography is the truth, if it’s being handled by a truthful person.”
The story is told that, upon viewing an exhibition of Don McCullin’s work, Henri Cartier-Bresson approached the photographer to say, “I have one word for you – Goya”. Between 1810 and 1820, the Spanish painter Francisco Goya made a series of prints later commonly and collectively known as The Disasters Of War. One of these, typically depicting atrocities of the Peninsular War between France and Spain, is entitled Yo Lo Vi – ‘I Saw This’. Although it’s unlikely that Goya was present at all the scenes depicted in the series, it’s this sense of bearing witness that permeates the whole. And though Don McCullin frequently resists the suggestion that what he does can be considered art – “I have a strong creative desire but I’m not trying to be an artist.”2 – the painter’s words are of course implicit in every frame of McCullin’s that is printed and published, and their meaning is evident.
The Disasters Of War was not published until 35 years after Goya’s death, when it was politic to do so, and the perceived freedom with which Goya undertook his work (knowing it would not be disseminated in his lifetime) grants it an air of unconstrained, brutal veracity. Cartier-Bresson’s oft-quoted comparison of Goya’s work and McCullin’s – both bodies of work being preoccupied with depicting and relating the atrocities of war – is almost a cliché by now, but the crucial difference is the question of the relative responsibility, even culpability of the artist/photographer.
With that in mind, it’s perhaps serendipitous that McCullin (Dir. Jacqui Morris, David Morris, 2012), concerned with documenting the long career of one of the world’s most respected photojournalists, should arrive at a time when the moral obligations of such photographers are once more under scrutiny. That long-running debate was recently reignited with the controversy over rather macabre photographs published on the cover of The New York Post, depicting the final moments of a subway passenger, seconds from gruesome, untimely death. R Umar Abassi’s photographs, published in early December 2012, immediately drew criticism for the paper, but more particularly the freelance photographer.
Abassi was accused of negligence in not helping the man, who had been pushed on to the tracks. The photographer countered that he had attempted to signal the driver of the approaching train by firing off his flash, while the Post suggested he would not have been strong enough to pull the man to safety.3 Nevertheless, the ensuing outcry called to mind a similar furore over Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer-winning 1993 photograph of a starving Sudanese toddler, shadowed by a nearby vulture. That photograph also attracted heavy criticism of Carter for his perceived failure to intervene (Carter killed himself just over a year later; in his suicide note he blamed money woes while stating, “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain, of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners.”)
Resisting the temptation to overload McCullin, brother and sister directing team Jacqui Morris and David Morris have chosen to focus primarily on the photographer and his own work, the only other onscreen interviewee being his Sunday Times editor, Sir Harold Evans. The result on one hand is to foreground the work itself, a wise decision given the overwhelming power of the imagery on display. On the other hand, the stated and perhaps obvious intention of the filmmakers is to provide McCullin the opportunity to “tell the story of his emotional journey behind the camera’s lens.”4
This is McCullin’s perspective on his life’s work, and an opportunity for him to make account of his actions. The photographer is not a religious man (as he has said elsewhere, “I am a professed atheist, until I find myself in serious circumstances.”5), but nevertheless a thoughtful and self-questioning one. The film could easily have the air of the confessional, if the photographer had not developed such a keen sense of his role and its worth. McCullin is also clearly aware that his compulsion to bear witness and record what he sees is perhaps precipitated by more selfish desires – the adrenaline rush of action for one – but doesn’t seem to need external approval or forgiveness.
“I have been constantly accused,” he explains, “of taking terrible pictures and people saying, did you ever help anyone? Of course I did, but I don’t want to brag about it.”6 Addressing the Goya comparisons directly, McCullin is typically confident in his response: “It wasn’t my fault if in Sabra and Shatila the light was almost biblical, if what happened in front of my eyes was like a scene out of Goya. I wasn’t there to make icons. I had to bring back information that could possibly prevent other such miseries.”7
McCullin retired from war photography in 2003. The close of the documentary (the interviews with him were filmed in 2011) finds him explaining that the country landscape he now calls home is his ‘heaven’ and that, “I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to eradicate the things we’ve been talking about.”8 However, in late 2012, McCullin journeyed to Aleppo in Syria to document the ongoing civil war there. That conflict has claimed upwards of 40,000 lives to date, while 72 journalists have lost their lives reporting on it, among them McCullin’s fellow Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin.
There’s undoubtedly some truth in the self-diagnosed war addict’s joke that “sometimes you just want to get away with the boys,”9 but something calls to mind McCullin’s vivid description of the old photographs stored in his home, and how those images haunt him as if they were happening today. However, reminded of his previous claims of retirement, he asserts the trip was, “Without any question of doubt, a last look at war and conflict, and pain and hunger.”10 He concludes, “I’m not going away with a negative image of my own personality – I’m not important in all this, I’m just the carrier pigeon that brings the message back home. I do still have a very good eye, I can see things.”11
Sean Welsh, December 2012
This article was originally commissioned as a programme note by GFT.
1. Don McCullin in McCullin (Dir. Jacqui Morris, David Morris, 2012)
2. Don McCullin, ‘Shaped By War: Don McCullin In Profile’
3. ‘Anger At New York Post Cover Of Subway Passenger Seconds From Death’
4. Jacqui Morris, Director’s Statement, McCullin Production Notes
5. Don McCullin, interviewed by Frank Horvat
6. Don McCullin in McCullin (Dir. Jacqui Morris, David Morris, 2012)
7. Don McCullin, interviewed by Frank Horvat
8. Don McCullin in McCullin (Dir. Jacqui Morris, David Morris, 2012)
9. Don McCullin, interviewed by Carole Cadwalladr
10. Don McCullin on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row