Don McCullin at Tate Britain

Tate Britain chronicles the career of one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century and reveals a person deeply affected by his experience of war, writes Isabeau van Halm

Those who visit the exhibition will recognise many of the iconic war photographs McCullin shot over the years. The photographs give access to the frontlines of most big conflicts of the last decades, from Vietnam to Northern Ireland. Like one visitor of the exhibition exclaimed: “There doesn’t seem to be a war he hasn’t been!”

One of McCullin’s most famous photos is that of a shell-shocked soldier in Vietnam. McCullin found the soldier sitting on a wall, not being able to take any more of the fighting. He took five photos – in that time, the man did not move or even blink once. The soldier doesn’t seem to notice McCullin or anything else that’s going on around him. He is just staring into the distance. McCullin took this photo to express “a kind of silent protest against the futilities of war”.

The Battle for the City of Hue, South Vietnam, US Marine Inside Civilian House 1968

The style of his most famous photo represents the same style as the rest of his work. Humans are central in this work in war zones. He shows the horrors of war and what people are capable of doing to each other, but often it is not the cruelty that captures the eye. It’s the faces of those he captured. From captured Biafran soldiers who emit desperation and hopelessness, to a sixteen-year-old victim in the Biafran war who looks dignified in the camera, almost challenging those looking at her picture.

The Guvnors in their Sunday Suits, Finsbury Park, London 1958

In 1958, McCullin took some photos of a local London gang called ‘The Guvnors’ in Finsbury Park. When the gang got involved in the murder of a policeman, the press picked up McCullin’s photographs. The Observer published a photo of The Guvnors in a bomb-damaged building and asked McCullin if he would do more. This was the start of a career that would last more than fifty years.

With very little experience as a photographer, McCullin travelled to Berlin in 1961, where the tension between Americans and Russians was rising. As he didn’t have a contract with any newspaper, he travelled there on his own costs. Capturing the beginning of the construction of the Berlin War won him an award and a permanent contract with The Observer.

Londonderry 1971

His work for The Observer took him to his first big international assignments and his first jobs in conflict zones. He travelled to Cyprus, Congo, Biafra (now Nigeria) and Vietnam. McCullin bears witness to these wars, giving a voice to those who can’t. He is always close to the heart of the conflict, capturing intimate images of the lives of those affected by war.

When he returned to the United Kingdom between assignments, he turned the camera towards his home country. His pictures show the injustice in British society. Photos of homeless people in East London, many of them left to fend for themselves after the mental institutions they lived in were closed. He travelled to northern England, to capture the effects of industrialisation in cities such as Bradford and Liverpool. Even in England, he wanted to tell the untold truths in the country: that of poverty, unemployment and a class system.

Local Boys in Bradford 1972

Taking pictures of war began to take its toll on McCullin: “I have never been able to switch off my feeling, nor do I think it would be right to do so. Few are equipped to remain unmoved by the spectacle of what war does to people. These are sights that should, and do, bring pain, and shame, and guilt. Some sights heighten the feelings to an unbearable pitch.” He starts struggling more and more with the traumatic experiences of war and his role as a photographer in conflict areas. He feels guilty about the people he photographs. “Why should I be celebrated at the cost of other people’s suffering and lives? I don’t sit comfortably with laurels on my head.”

Even though he was becoming war-weary, McCullin kept going to war zones. The paradox he experiences of the need to bear witness and the increasing desire to take a step back from war is a common thread that runs through the exhibition. His images will take a toll on the visitor as well. While we can see Don McCullin struggling with the consequences of experiencing war, the visitor cannot remain unscathed while seeing countless photographs of the worst atrocities that humans are capable of.

Woods near My House, Somerset, c.1991 Tate purchased 2012

When the trauma became too much too handle and his memories continued haunting him, McCullin moved to the countryside of Somerset to distance himself from people. He turned to photograph landscapes as a form of healing. “To stand in the English countryside with my camera, I’m harming nobody.” But even in these photographs, it is clear that war never leaves his mind. All the landscapes carry a sense of darkness, often resembling battlefields like those seen in so many photos of the First World War.

This darkness will not leave the minds of visitors for a while either. But that is exactly what McCullin aimed for, the reason why he kept traveling to the front lines while being haunted by the harrowing wars he already witnessed. While he was not able to help as a photographer, his goal was to stir up the conscience of the people that can help. Looking at what other people cannot bear to see, is what his life as a war reporter was all about. “We cannot, must not be allowed to forget the appalling things we are all capable of doing to our fellow human beings.”

The exhibition Don McCullin at Tate Britan runs until 6 May 2019. For more information, visit the website here.

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