On Don McCullin

I'm not really sure where to start with this post. Sometimes, after reading or watching something that strikes a chord and leaves you in a headspace that you can't really describe, you just need to sit there for a while to digest what your brain has processed. That is pretty much what I've been doing for the past half hour after watching McCullin, a 2012 documentary by David and Jacqui Morris about British photojournalist Don McCullin. 

From conflict in the Congo and Biafra to the killing fields of Vietnam and Cambodia, and from the Troubles in Northern Ireland to the civil war in Lebanon, McCullin truly has seen it all. And that is exactly what I am trying to wrap my head around. How does one continue on after seeing man at his absolute worst? How can you ever be the same again after seeing children starve to death right before your eyes? Once upon a time in my life I held romantic notions about traveling the world and covering stories similar to what Don McCullin has seen. Little did I know. 

Shell Shocked Marine, Vietnam, 1968. Photograph by Don McCullin.

In the documentary, McCullin addresses us in a calm, sober and very honest way. Everything about him - his demeanor, his frankness, his humility and his ability to look back on his career and talk honestly about the things he has seen suggests a very sensitive and thoughtful individual, the exact antithesis of some of the mercenaries and murderous individuals that were often the subjects of his work. Unfortunately, and more often than not (as McCullin points out), the main subjects of his work were not necessarily the aggressors, but the victims - poor individuals unable to leave areas of conflict. The unwitting victims. You could even suggest that an 18-year-old kid soldier dying in a jungle or desert somewhere for a cause he does not understand is also a victim, and you'd be right. As McCullin points out, almost everyone who dies in war pays the ultimate price because of decisions made by other men who are far removed from the frontline.

I found it particularly poignant that McCullin, at one point in the documentary, said that he had spent a good portion of his life making a name for himself as a photojournalist in conflict zones, and when he finally reached the point in his career where he was renowned for his work, he was known mainly by his industry peers as a "war photographer" - a term, he said, that he did not like at all because, in his mind, it was similar to being called a mercenary.

I had mixed feelings about McCullin. On the one hand, you have McCullin quite frankly say that part of the reason he kept going back into conflict zones was for "the adventure." On the other hand, I know these images are important, and so did he, which I like to believe is why he was taking them. McCullin's work from Vietnam helped galvanize many Americans into firmly opposing the war. His images were just too honest. And that honesty, I believe, is imperative for free societies. Unfortunately, that type of reportage is practically nonexistent today (at least in the mainstream press) and in fact, the documentary does touch on how the paper McCullin worked for, The Sunday Times (specifically The Sunday Times Magazine portion of the paper), went from an honest publication that covered these topics for all to see to one that focused on "lifestyle" (whatever that means) in order to sell more - you guessed it - ads, after none other than Rupert Murdoch acquired it in 1981. By the way, there are some really good insights from Harry Evans, former editor of The Sunday Times, throughout the documentary.

Check this documentary out if you can. But be warned, an examination of McCullin's work reveals a truly unsettling vision of the horrors man is capable of. To his credit, McCullin now spends his time taking photographs of the English countryside.