Don McCullin – inspirational, but dark

The Imperial War Museum in London is currently holding an exhibition of the work of photojournalist Don McCullin, one of the true pioneers of modern conflict photography. It’s called Shaped By War.

Don McCullin's Nikon

The Nikon 35mm camera that was shot while Don McCullin was on assignment in Cambodia.

For those of you that don’t know, McCullin was a London-born snapper who spent the bulk of his career with The Sunday Times, during a great period for photojournalism. The newspaper used to have an excellent magazine each week which made a true effort to showcase great photography, much like National Geographic does today. McCullin also worked for Magnum, the doyenne of photojournalism. It was while working for them that he travelled to Vietnam at the height of the Vietnam War to photograph the fighting between North and South Vietnam and the ill-fated American effort to aid the south Vietnamese.

McCullin grew up in gangs in London, and had a tough upbringing before realising his talents. He’d snap his gang mates, known as the Guvnors, and one set of his photos was published in The Observer, which kind of kick-started his career.

His career path is all documented at the exhibition, but the star of the show is, of course, the photos. There are selections from all the conflict zones in which he worked – Vietnam, Beirut, Cambodia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, El Salvador, to name a few.

His Vietnam work was probably that with which I most connected. He was in the thick of the battle in Hue, when the Tet Offensive was launched in 1968. Thousands of people died there, some of them next to McCullin while he was shooting rolls of film while they shot rifles and threw grenades in some of the worst close-quarters combat anyone could wish to endure. Three thousand people died in Hue in 25 days, and when I visited there in 2007, I was struck by how serene and peaceful the place now is. It seemed to me impossible that back then it was arguably the bloodiest place on Earth, littered with young corpses from both sides of the conflict. Some of the stories I read and heard there were unbearably stark and tragic.

McCullin’s work in Cambodia saw him work in equally dangerous conditions, so much so he was blown up by a mortar, had his camera shot by a sniper and spent a good chunk of time in hospital recovering from his wounds. But he went back and continued to take photos, because he felt it was the right thing to do. He wanted to world to see what he saw, to try and make a difference.

He claims now, in the video below, he hasn’t made a difference. Awful things continue to happen in the world despite his work and the work of many other photojournalists and news reporters who routinely put themselves in the firing line. He cited Rwanda in particular as a source of great discomfort to him. He wasn’t there, but his peers brought it to him and made him think all the work he’d done in the past was for nothing.

I disagree with that to a degree, and have the utmost respect for both him and all those journalists who continue to risk life and limb for the public. If their work means just one person thinks differently about the world, they’ve done a great service in my opinion. I know I am far more open-minded to the world’s problems than I used to be before I took an interest in journalism, and photojournalism in particular, and I thank those involved in that field of pursuit for their brave and tireless work.

If you’re in London, I highly recommend a visit to the Imperial War Museum to digest Shaped By War for yourself. It’s a fascinating insight not only into the work of one of the world’s great photojournalists, but also the affect such work can have on those that choose to pursue it. McCullin is a darker man as a result, and now leads a peaceful life shooting still life and landscapes in Somerset, south west England. It’s the complete opposite of where he has exposed the vast majority of his film over the years, but you can hardly blame him for that.

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