I’ve never been able to understand the motivations behind war photography. As someone who probably enjoys looking at and participating in photography even more than watching films, I cannot understand the motivation of photographers to go into countries torn apart by war. I understand that war photography is vital, and exposes the horrors of war in a way that news crews and amateur footage can’t, but how does the photographer reconcile their own role as bystander with what goes on around them? What gives them the right to take these pictures? It turns out that, from the evidence given in McCullin, those same questions haunt the photographers themselves.
Don McCullin‘s work has exposed the horrors of conflict throughout the 20th century. He covered the Vietnam war, atrocities in Biafra, and the troubles in Northern Ireland. He got started at a young age after working in the dark room in the RAF, then taking pictures of the colourful characters he found himself amongst in 1950s London. His photographs were published in The Observer, which led to paying work, and eventually higher profile projects covering war zones and catastrophes.
What sets this documentary apart is not just McCullin’s astonishing photographs, which remain seared in the brain long after the credits roll. It’s the way in which McCullin struggles and fails to justify to himself, throughout his career, what he is doing and why he is doing it. A lot of his stories are tinged with regret, and a telling interview with Terry Wogan (of all people) reveals that actually he doesn’t believe that what he does makes a whole lot of difference in the world – not amongst those who matter, anyway.
To get his images, he was forced to run, jump, and hide amongst those he was photographing. He speaks of a two week spell in Vietnam at the end of which he realised that he hadn’t changed his clothes, his underwear, or shaved, the entire time that he was there. He threw his clothes in the bin afterwards. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be exposed to war over and over again, many more times that most soldiers would have been – he visited Vietnam alone eighteen times. He is a haunted man, and it’s difficult to come away from the film without thinking that in exposing mankind’s deepest inhumanities, he lost some of his own humanity in the process; a humanity that he is working hard to regain.