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How Sir Don McCullin has touched my life

Sir Don McCullin © Tom Stoddart

Sir Don McCullin © Tom Stoddart

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.

The prepared speech, which was never presented

The prepared speech, which was never presented

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’.

Awaiting Don McCullin and Fergal Keane

Awaiting Don McCullin and Fergal Keane

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.

Sir Don McCullin and Fergal Keane OBE in conversation

Sir Don McCullin and Fergal Keane OBE in conversation

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.

Breaking copyright for a college student. Those were the days!

Breaking copyright for a college student. Those were the days!

Photos I love. Photos that inspire...

There is something happening on Instagram right now - 'the best nine', showcasing people's favourite nine images of the year, neatly presented as a montage to roundup their year in pictures.

This got me thinking; what makes one photograph stand out above others, especially in a world that is saturated in imagery?

A good picture is a good picture at the end of the day, but who gets to decide what is good? We could argue about the subjectivity of viewing images, and the education of 'reading pictures', but let's keep this light...

For the viewer it might be the way the light falls, or a memory that is evoked. It's not always obvious why we react to something. Certain images and styles resonate with us at different times of life. Some images stay favourites precisely because of this. 

And so, for various reasons here are some images that have resonated with me over the years:

Don McCullin ©  A shell-shocked US Marine, Hue, Vietnam, 1968

Don McCullin ©

A shell-shocked US Marine, Hue, Vietnam, 1968

Don McCullin was the first photographer I studied in any depth and I have been in awe of photo-journalists covering conflict ever since. McCullin started young, as he found photography whilst carrying out his national service in the RAF. 

Don McCullin © The Guvnors in their Sunday Suits, Finsbury Park, 1958  I've added this one for my local readership!

Don McCullin © The Guvnors in their Sunday Suits, Finsbury Park, 1958

I've added this one for my local readership!

Ansel Adams © Jeffrey Pine, Sentinel Dome, Yosemite National Park 1945

Ansel Adams © Jeffrey Pine, Sentinel Dome, Yosemite National Park 1945

There aren't many images from the great American photographer, Ansel Adams that do not wow the viewer. This may not be one of his most iconic images, but I have it on my wall, as I'm a big fan of Mother Nature, and love the way the wind has fixed this tree over the years.

Shooting on large-scale cameras and creating the zone system, with Fred Archer to form a grading system from the whitest white to the darkest black, his images were a scientific delight.

William Klein © From the series Pray and Sin New York

William Klein © From the series Pray and Sin New York

In my mid-twenties I was heavily inspired by William Klein. I spent considerable hours wandering through the backstreets of London's East End, somehwat emulating his style. 

I haven't kept on top of his whole career, but earlier this year as part of Photo London, I had the great pleasure of going to a talk at the National Portrait Gallery of William Klein in conversation with David Campany. Although he is old, and physically weary, he could still wax lyrical about his amazing accomplishments as a photographer and he remains high on my list of achievers.

Amanda Eatwell © Aldgate East circa 1997  This shot was taken around the time I was inspired by Klein. I finally got around to framing it just last year, so I see it every day!   Found the neg's - it was shot on Tri - X, rated 800 ASA / Processed in HC110 Dev. Oh! The memories!

Amanda Eatwell © Aldgate East circa 1997

This shot was taken around the time I was inspired by Klein. I finally got around to framing it just last year, so I see it every day! 

Found the neg's - it was shot on Tri - X, rated 800 ASA / Processed in HC110 Dev. Oh! The memories!

Spencer Murphy © Mark Rylance

Spencer Murphy © Mark Rylance

Bringing my favourite images up to date is Spencer Murphy. I first became aware of him in the 2012 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize where this image won him Third Place. I have been following his career ever since.

Single images are becoming a harder way to arrest people's imagination,  but I still love a strong portrait.

Nowadays, I am a huge fan of Instagram, with it's easy access to imagery. Any time of day I can easily access some amazing images. On this platform, I find photographs that appeal to me offer awe, beauty, or humour. 

A couple of my favourites are Benzank, with his extremely witty, stylised photographs and Jimmy Chin who literally seems to live on top of the world. I've also enjoyed following Niall McDiarmid's Town to Town and Graeme Oxby's The Kings of England (Elvis impersonators). Check them out if you get a chance. 

So, there you have a few of my favourites. Let me know yours. Let's start a conversation!