McCullin, the high quality documentary about the photo journalist Don McCullin known for his black and white images of war and human suffering, stays with you long after it ends.
Born in to the poverty and street violence of Finsbury Park in the 1930’s, McCullin was friends with a gang accused of murdering a policeman. He took their photograph in a derelict building and it was bought by The Observer for £50. That was the start and he learnt his craft on the job and followed his gut instinct.
Sir Harold Evans, editor, Sunday Times (1967-1981) states McCullin’s technical genius mixed with his sensitivity, empathy and integrity as the qualities that have made him one of the UK’s greatest photo journalists.
McCullin adds his intuition to that list, which led him to the epicenter of some of the world’s most important news stories. As East European soldiers were jumping the border in to West Berlin McCullin was compelled to go but the Observer wasn’t interested. That didn’t stop him. He went anyway and found himself on top of the world’s most important news story of a generation as the Berlin wall went up.
I particularly appreciate his questioning of his purpose and role in the wars he has photographed. He speaks of a time he was feeding on the energy of war. And the conflict of wanting to take the photograph and at the same time stop what was happening. He adds that as a photographer he was powerless to stop it. It leaves me questioning whether this is the underlying communication in his photography. War: we are powerless to stop it.
After a few days of anger at McCullin so insistent on forcing upon us these images of suffering that we are apparently powerless to do anything about I start to reach acceptance. This is part of the human psyche. Denying it will only exacerbate it. From here I can start to question what may take us to a better place.
After all his photography gave McCullin “freedom from ignorance, bigotry and violence, an escape from Finsbury Park.” If his photography can do that for him perhaps it can do that for the rest of humanity?
The film reminds us too of the glory days of English journalism and the Sunday Times under the leadership of Sir Harold Evans. Pre-Murdoch the culture was rooted in independent thinking and integrity with journalists trusted to disappear, follow their instincts and chase down a story. McCullin speaks against its demise and in particular the control on photographers in war zones today.
McCullin has certainly led an incredible life and at the age of 77 went off to photograph the conflict in Syria. He lives in Somerset and spends his time photographing the winter landscape of Avalon, as he says, “indulging my romantic side.” If anything can repair some of the trauma of war it is this ancient and beautiful land.
“The vibrations of a still photograph can be intense and last forever.”