Northern Ireland, The Bogside, Londonderry 1971

This is Humanity
This is Truth
This is Politics

Don McCullin is a photojournalist whose career has taken him to reaches of the world where war, politics and human tragedy have been brutally played out. He has dedicated his life and camera skills to documenting these events in the hope of bringing about change by those with the power to effect that change.

The exhibition at Tate Britain is a retrospective of 60 years work and contains over 250 black and white images, each carefully printed and mounted by McCullin himself.

McCullin’s career began in 1959 with the publication of his photo of a North London gang, ‘The Guv’nors’. He describes himself as being a captive to photography and his career is far from finished.

The exhibition is a testimony to McCullin’s ability to capture small human gestures and heart-rending moments of intimacy against backdrops of unspeakable horror. The starkness of the black and white images focuses our attention and sucks us in. McCullin has deliberately avoided colour, which he maintains can be distracting and ‘Hollywood’. However, to see McCullin’s work as purely black and white does an justice to he way that he harnesses light, depth and every shade that exists in the monochrome. His print of the homeless Irishman in London is a striking example of how black and white photography can enhance features and depict texture and nuance with revealing radiance.

Here are the almost living and the nearly dead. Here is the skeletal albino boy in Biafra clutching the corner of an empty can of corned beef, the suited Catholic teenager pitted against soldiers in Northern Ireland, the hollow stare of the shell-shocked soldier in Vietnam, the woman waving goodbye to a loved one on the other side as the Berlin wall is erected and many more. Poignancy slices into the soul of the observer and etches itself upon our brains. This is humanity. This is truth. This is politics. Visitors stand silent. Staring. Paralysed. Some weep

The benign surroundings of Tate Britain do little to protect visitors from the visceral and harrowing impact of McCullin’s work and the discomfort of being a ‘voyeur’ of suffering.

What has been the personal toll on this man who walked so close to the edge? McCullin’s honesty about his own dilemmas reflects the searing truth of his work. His commentary describes how he struggled with despair and helplessness in the face of such appalling suffering. He would use the onslaught of his own emotion rather than his skill with the camera to capture the images. He was constantly plagued by moral dilemmas but fought back by reminding himself that his task was to remain a neutral observer so that he could accurately record for decision makers and all people, the experiences before him. McCullin admits that he still restlessly questions the morality of his work and continues to relive the nightmares he has witnessed. He still disputes whether or not he was successful in his goal of bringing about change.

The exhibition is not for the faint-hearted. Be prepared to be moved and challenged. Stark, disturbing images will stare back at you through McCullin’s lense. McCullin strikes hard at the heart of the issues where there is no room for debate and where ‘fake news’ would not dare to tread. Every image shouts: ‘WAKE UP! This is us. This is the shame of humanity. This is the corruption within politics.’

Sheelagh Barton

Volume 33 no 5 May / June 2019

8 thoughts on “Don McCullin

  1. I will always remember Kevin Carter’s photo of the starving child and vulture, entitled The Struggling Girl. “Struggling” is too light a word to express what she was experiencing.

    Carter committed suicide at the age of 33. It makes one wonder about the ethics of photojournalism. McCullin is also able “to capture small human gestures and heart-rending moments of intimacy against backdrops of unspeakable horror”. Is it worth it so that people in wealthy countries can see what others are living or dying so that we can call it art?

    1. I believe it is absolutely worth it. Yes, the debate about whether or not this is art is a tricky one, but let’s not forget that this is a theoretical debate born out of western, capitalist luxury. It’s also a debate which is of secondary importance and which pulls us away from the content of the material and soothes our guilt and horror. We all prefer not to dwell on the brutal consequences of politics and war. I totally welcome this exhibition. It brings shocking realities into the public domain and shakes us out of our cotton-wool worlds.

      McCullin’s photographic skills and artistry certainly underpin the content of his work. But how about we debate the content of the work rather than the side-line of whether or not this is art?

      1. Thank you Sheelagh for you answer. We can of course debate the content of the work, and be shaken out of our cotton-wool worlds, but will it change anything? We remain just visitors to a show, you writing a review and I commenting on it.

        1. Thank you for your comments, Ken. And the photo that you have posted is both searing and sobering.

          Regarding your question as to whether it will actually change anything – probably not visibly or immediately. But when we are touched/shocked deeply by what we see, there is potential for changes to occur in our individual realignment. The seeds of change.

          Perhaps there are similarities with exhibitions which now have climate change as a theme. I personally struggle more with this than I do with Don McCullin’s work. Nevertheless, I can appreciate that art has the power to influence and if it brings us closer to the tipping point for real change, that can only be good.

  2. Regarding Don McCullin’s work, is it art or documentary photography? Where do we draw the line on what is art and what isn’t? What about the reviews of Ayn Rand’s books; where do they fit in with the visual arts? I invite readers and our writers and editors to give their opinions on this.

    1. If we look at what encompasses the visual arts, we generally consider it to be painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, architecture, ceramics, video, performance art and crafts (anything else?), but it also encompasses academic areas that deal with aesthetics and creativity. It can be very difficult to draw the line on what is art and what isn’t, since anything viewed in a creative context could be considered art, rather any visual experience. Then we start having an issue with what comprises a visual experience, as a poem can elicit a visual experience, a text also. A memory can elicit a visual experience; is that art? Memory might belong to one’s personal collection of visual experiences, one’s inner art collection. It leads me to ask, to be considered art, does it have to be recorded in some physical way or can it just be an idea?
      Don McCullin’s photography was shown at the Tate Britain, an art museum, so if his work was shown at an art museum, it is considered art by most people, while it is also very much documentary photography, high class documentary photography.

        1. I agree with Andre Caron. What if this physical or material form only remains an idea internalized inside the imagination? Does it really have to physically exist to be considered “art”?

          “I believe that what Lucy Lippard and John Chandler meant was that ideas and actions (or products) in the context of art are very closely related – so much so that ideas may eventually become the art. Whether we take On Kawara’s repetitive paintings or Lee Lozano’s action through non-action pieces, these works seem to embody the fusion of art as an idea and art as an action (or product).”

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