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Don McCullin: Images of Brutality

This article was previously published in Issue 20, ISLANDS (March 2019).

The opening  statement  of the Don McCullin retrospective at Tate Britain is bold and uncompromising: photography is ‘not looking, it’s feeling’. This is how legendary British photographer McCullin describes the sixty years  he spent as a photojournalist, capturing some of the most devastating scenes of suffering the world has seen. McCullin’s reflective  comment  concisely  sums up the response that his powerful and unsparing body of work demands of its viewer in this comprehensive exhibition. Showcasing some 250 photographs of war, starvation, poverty and death, McCullin’s stark  retrospective does not shy away from its explicit confrontation of the horrors  of violence and atrocity.

Don McCullin, Jean, Whitechapel, London, c. 1980, Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper, 36 x 51.5 cm, Eric and Louise Franck (Image: Tate, London, 2019)

The exhibition charts McCullin’s career with integrity and clarity. His photographs, thoughtfully curated into zones dedicated to specific events that took place in different parts of the world, become island-like microcosms of  global suffering. McCullin witnessed and captured these dramatic images on film, which he subsequently developed in his darkroom. The viewer is forced immediately to adjust to each war zone, crisis or situation – from 1950s London to 1960s Berlin, and the Cyprus Crisis of 1963, as described by wall captions in each room. Six of McCullin’s passports and press passes, their pages densely stamped with dates and visas, are displayed in a central case, a visual testament and stark reminder of McCullin’s extensive experience documenting worldwide events, which unfold before the viewer as the exhibition progresses. Iconic images of the Berlin Wall being built, American troops using Napalm in Vietnam, Kurdish citizens fleeing from Iraq, and Irish youths rebelling during the Troubles sum up the frightening day-to-day reality of life on the front line. The exhibition continues chronologically  until the present day.

Curator Simon Baker provides the perfect  viewing environment  for McCullin’s work, allowing each photograph the space it requires to absorb the viewer in intimate engagement. The audience is forced to confront the darkest side of humanity and to feel each pang of pain, despair, loss and hopelessness. Every image is as brutal, and as deserving of the  viewer’s  attention as the  next. Whilst McCullin insists he was a ‘totally neutral, passing-through person’ during his travels abroad, he acquired new scars with every photo he took. The bullet that was lodged in his Nikon camera during a trip to Cambodia is not only a symbol of his near-misses, but also of the pervasive mental guilt that troubles McCullin to this day: the feeling of walking away from a man being shot, a helpless starving child, or a woman collapsed over the dead body of her husband. 

The exhibition carefully juxtaposes  the  more objective impressions of social crisis and its anonymous victims with remarkably intimate photographs that bring out the unique personality of their named subjects. A series of three portraits entitled ‘Jean, Liverpool Street’ tells the story of homelessness on the streets of 1980s Britain through the eyes of one woman, Jean. A close-up image of her softly clasped hands, dirty with soil, conveys McCullin’s connection to his subjects through the compelling combination of physical hardship and beauty. 

Don McCullin, The Battle for the City of Hue, South Vietnam, US Marine Inside Civilian House, 1968, Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper, 49.5 x 32.5 cm, Artist Rooms Endowment (Image: Tate, London, 2019)

The visceral quality of McCullin’s strongly contrasting photographs cements his iconic images in the mind  of the viewer and holds them in the collective conscience.  Similarly,  the British public, when  confronted with McCullin’s photographs in The Observer and  Sunday Times Magazine during the 1960s and 1970s, was  forced to  acknowledge  the horrors taking place in communities they  probably  considered distant islands, isolated from their own small world: ‘nothing to do with them’. The empathy evoked by McCullin’s work is timeless – the viewer sees and experiences first-hand  what war does to individuals, communities and nations. Our present world becomes connected to communities  of  the past, as we try to understand and feel their suffering.

A central room in the exhibition shows  poignant images of British industrial landscapes and working-class life in 1970s Bradford, Liverpool and County Durham. Photographs of families living in poverty in dilapidated homes are displayed in the same room as upbeat  images of knobbly-knees contests at Southend-on-Sea, which convey the unwavering sense of pride that pulls the British nation through its enduring battles. Yet this determinedly positive example of the good old ‘British spirit’ becomes overwhelmingly plaintive when seen amidst the surrounding images of suffering.

Don McCullin, The Battlefields of the Somme, France, 2000, Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper, 42 x 29 cm, Don McCullin Collection (Image: Tate, London, 2019)

McCullin has clearly pushed the technical capacity of the photographic medium to the limits, working tirelessly in his darkroom to produce the ‘perfect’ image from each negative. Whilst the audience views McCullin’s  photographs  as ‘works of art’, there is something unsettling about using the word ‘perfect’ to describe his work. For perfection or beauty can surely not be reconciled with such harrowing images of brutality. McCullin’s work clearly teeters on the edge of some very complex ethical debates. Not even the cathartic images  displayed  in the final  room  of the exhibition – taken by McCullin to ‘sentence himself to peace’ – resolve this tension. His Somerset landscapes, frost-filled meadows and still-life images of plums and apples are as dark and painful as those of the starving child and crying widow. 

Don McCullin’s photography promises to shock and haunt every  viewer. It is nonetheless important that visitors step onto each ‘island’ on their journey through this compelling exhibition, and view in-depth every subject so vividly represented  in McCullin’s  work. For it is only by engaging with these tangible, painful sites of  world  history that the viewer can leave with renewed gratitude and a real grasp of life.

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