If you know anything of the history of photography in it’s wider context, then you’ll know the work of Sir Don McCullin. In a recent show at Tate Britain, the byline stated ‘the most famous documentary photographer of our time’.
My awareness of Don McCullin started in the early 1990’s when I was studying photography, and I went to see a retrospective at the Royal Photographic Society’s old base in Bath.
Around this time I very unexpectedly suffered a stroke, aged twenty, which left me with a portion of my peripheral vision permanently deleted: caused by the bursting of blood vessels in my brain. This is something most people do not know about me, and it is hard to explain, what with looking ‘normal’ and being a photographer, but suffice to say, it took some getting used to.
The reason I mention this, is, just a couple of years ago I was looking through some old books on a shelf, and pulled out an A4 publication from that Retrospective. As I flicked through, I discovered in the back of the book, along with some correspondence from the Press Officer at the RPS was a written speech I had prepared all about Don McCullin. I assume this was to be performed to my classmates on the course I was then studying at Berkshire College of Art & Design. It is very impressive, and I have no recollection whatsoever of creating this piece of work. He was obviously someone I greatly admired back then, and that has not changed.
Don McCullin is most famous for his photojournalistic work which saw him cover atrocious scenes of war and deprivation in places such as Vietnam, Biafra, and Cambodia. The title of war photographer has never sat well with him, and he has grappled with the demons created by his experiences for decades.
Earlier this year a lot of people were talking about a programme on the BBC Looking for England, which was a documentary about Don McCullin, as he traced his footsteps around the UK, starting from his first home in north London. I watched this with my son, as Don both reminisced and revisited places such as Bradford, whilst sparking up conversation with all manner of people on his way. He traversed the country finding humour and solidarity with his fellow countrymen.
2019 has been quite a year for Don McCullin, with a large-scale exhibition at Tate Britain, spanning sixty years of image-making. I knew a lot of the images that were on display, but Beirut for instance was an eye-opener and another reminder of the awful things people are capable of inflicting on their fellow man.
Soon after that I got the opportunity to attend a talk organised by Penguin Live, the events-arm of Penguin Classics who are the publishers of Don McCullin’s new book ‘The Landscape’.
This was held at Kings Place in London. Following on from my son’s recent introduction to Sir Don McCullin I took him along. We sat amongst a full audience, listening in awe to a conversation between Don McCullin and esteemed Foreign correspondent Fergal Keane OBE. It was a fascinating evening. Both men have witnessed so much cruelty across the globe. They sadly, and understandably are horrified by the injustices served, and did not sound optimistic at this point in their lives, having once believed changes could be possible through the highlighting of such events. As the floor opened up to questions from the audience, one visitor made a heartfelt statement that I am sure resonated with the collective crowd. She said something like ‘Please don’t feel guilty for the things you have seen, and the things you feel unworthy of bearing witness to’. He said he has been carrying this heavy weight of guilt around with him for years, and he knows it will never leave him.
Don McCullin is now 84 years old, fully articulate, just a little hard-of-hearing. He talked of darkness; black, the darkness in him. Even his landscapes are dark, but here he finds some solace. It made me think of Johnny Cash’s Man in Black ‘I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down, Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town, SIC But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back, Up front there ought 'a be a Man In Black SIC.
Like a lot of photographers, when I was younger I considered many fields: wildlife, medical (why) and fashion amongst others. I did consider being a photographer in the army, but only once did I really hope I could go and make a difference with my camera: I don’t remember exactly when, but there were lots of reports coming out of the Democratic Republic of Congo, talking of the raping of women as a weapon of war. I was sickened and angry, and I had a strong urge to go and do something. My son was young at the time, and his Dad told me I couldn’t just go and risk my life. I know what he meant. I may well have ended up dead, and what do I know of conflict zones. For whatever reason, I have always had the utmost respect for those reporting in these kinds of places and situations.
Whatever the reason, Don McCullin has found himself armed with only a camera, whilst witnessing some of humanity’s most recent horrors. Some people can and some people can’t, some people land up in roles they never imagined or aspired to. During that talk with Fergal Keane, Don McCullin said any photographer could have done what he did. With all due respect, no way could everyone have done what he has. Thank-you.