Jan 21 2016

Don McCullin “Conflict-People-Landscape”

by Billy Kung

On the subject of some of the most famous images associated with conflict in the 20th and 21st centuries, from the Vietnam War to current conflicts in the Middle East, one immediately recalls Britain’s most celebrated and respected photographer Don McCullin (b. 1935), who is best known known for his stark and searing black-and-white images of wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, which appeared in the British newspapers The Observer and The Sunday Times.

The current exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Somerset, “Don McCullin: Conflict – People – Landscape,” covers over five decades of his work, presenting a comprehensive view of the photographer’s repertoire, from his first published photo of The Guvnors, a local Finsbury Park gang in The Observer in 1958, to his more recent images of landscape in the surroundings of his home in Somerset. In addition, the show includes a collection of McCullin’s personal memorabilia including the Nikon camera that saved his life from a sniper bullet during the Vietnam War.

Born in London in 1935, McCullin left school at the age of 15. He signed up for National Service in the Royal Air Force, becoming a photographic assistant who worked on aerial reconnaissance printing. While in the service, he bought a Rolleicord camera for GBP 30, and after his period of service ended, he returned to his poor neighborhood of London and began running around with a gang called The Guvnors, and would occasionally photograph them. Needing cash, he pawned his camera for GBP 5 but fortunately, his mother redeemed the pawn ticket and returned the camera. A few weeks later, some of the Guvnors got in a fight with a rival gang, which resulted in the death of a policeman. The media swarmed around the news of the crime. Capturing some of these moments on film, McCullin took his photos of the Guvnors to editors at The Observer, where they were published in 1958. Subsequently he secured a contract working with the newspaper where he would go on to cover the 1964 Cyprus War, leading to the beginning of his long journey as a photographer of war and other human disasters.

In the period between 1966 and 1984, McCullin worked for The Sunday Times. It was during these years when McCullin produced some of the most memorable and iconic images of the world in conflict, coinciding with a time when the newspaper was producing some of the most cutting edge of investigative and critical journalism, under editor-in-chief Harold Evans. McCullin’s assignments began to take him to the Belgian Congo, Biafra, the Northern Ireland, Bangladesh, Israel, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, El Salvador, Czechoslovakia, Uganda, Lebanon, and of course, Vietnam and Cambodia. For the next two decades McCullin covered every major and minor war, every genocide, every revolution, every famine or disaster around the world. He once said he used to chase wars like a drunk chasing a can of lager.

McCullin was once quoted as saying: “In the beginning I used to shoot a few pictures and run away, thinking ‘I’ve got the story.’ In the Six-Day War (1967 Arab-Israeli War), I stayed the one day of the battle for Jerusalem and left the next day. Then I realised that I should never run away, until the thing was finished. And I stayed longer, and longer, and longer. In the citadel of Hue, Vietnam, in 1968, I stayed for two weeks.” It was in Hue where his most famous images were taken; among them—and I can still recall my own reaction upon seeing the photograph—a shell-shocked marine sitting down with his grubby hands wrapped around the barrel of his rifle, whose eyes were so forlorn, so seemingly lost, as if he had seen too much, done too much, slept too little, and knew he would soon have to go out and do it all again.

It is hard for many to understand the mind of a photographer who engages in conflict photography while risking his life day after day, year after year. One thing is certain, the need to bear witness and the hope of bringing change is perhaps one of the most potent driving force behind such noble undertaking.

But here the cost is high. As McCullin entered each successive conflict zone, it left him with scars, both physical and emotional. He reported having been most frightened when arrested by former Uganda president Idi Amin’s men and taken to a notorious prison where they were murdering hundreds of people every day with sledgehammers. ”Sometimes if felt like I was carrying pieces of human flesh back home with me, not negatives. It’s as if you are carrying the suffering of the people you have photographed.” In Cambodia, McCullin was forced to take cover in a rice paddy during an ambush, he kept his body in the water while he holding his Nikon in the air, shooting several photographs before the camera was hit by an AK-47. Shortly after, he was wounded by fragments of mortar shell in a firefight, taking shrapnel in the legs and crotch, and having his ear drum blown out.

McCullin’s long relationship with The Sunday Times came to an end in 1984. The new editor was more interested in what McCullin called “style pieces and garden furniture” than in the grim, serious work to which he had dedicated himself. He soon found himself out of a job. However, he settled in a house in Somerset and continued to photograph and travel internationally. Though he left war photography after his last coverage of Beirut’s civil war in 1982, he remained rooted in conflict and darkness. He photographs homeless people and derelicts, bleak winter landscape scenes, notably of Somerset.

In 2012, nine years after announcing his retirement, McCullin spent a week in Aleppo during the Syria civil war. When he saw firsthand that the world’s capacity for suffering had not diminished since his days on the front line, he said: “I talk in a slightly war-weary way as I’ve seen it for 50 years. It’s vile. Everyone’s had enough of it. It’s outrageous we haven’t learnt from past histories.”

Among the many accolades McCullin has received over the course of his career, it comes to no surprise that McCullin was the first photojournalist to be made a Commander of the British Empire in 1993. What McCullin has done with his life is remarkable and important, and what we have gained from that life are images of stark horror, unbearable suffering, monstrous inhumanity and intense compassion. It is vital that we remember the works of this extraordinary man.

DON MCCULLIN, Shell-Shocked U.S. Marine, Hue, 1968. Courtesy Contact Press Images and Hauser & Wirth, Somerset.
DON MCCULLIN, Shell-Shocked U.S. Marine, Hue, 1968. Courtesy Contact Press Images and Hauser & Wirth, Somerset.

Billy Kung is photo editor at ArtAsiaPacific.