Museum  February 18, 2019  Caterina Bellinetti

A Message of Hope in a War Photographer's Moving Retrospective

Courtesy Don McCullin

Don McCullin, Protester, Cuban Missile Crisis, Whitehall, London, 1962

Courtesy Don McCullin

Don McCullin, Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London, 1970, Tate

Haunting is the word being used to describe the retrospective dedicated to Sir Don McCullin on view at the Tate Museum in London through May 6. McCullin, born in London in 1935, has spent his life behind a camera, covering some of the most brutal conflicts of the 20th century: Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Biafra, and Cambodia, just to name a few. One of his most famous shots of the Vietnam War is the portrait of a shell-shocked American soldier after the Battle of Hue in 1968. The wide-eyed soldier, with his dirty hands holding the rifle, shows the destruction that war brings to the human mind. But wars, for McCullin, are not just the ones fought on battlefields, but also the social conflicts that we can find in our daily lives: homelessness, mental illness, poverty. His photographs of the homeless of London, for instance, show a different city from the one we usually see in the media; one that thrives on contradictions: poverty and luxury, the famous and the forgotten. 

Yet, not all of McCullin’s photographs are about conflict. Since the 1980s, he has devoted his skills to landscape and still life photography. These subjects seem to bring him peace, or at least to distract his mind from the painful memories of what he experienced in the past. “I am tired of guilt,” he says, “tired of saying to myself: ‘I didn’t kill that man on that photograph, I didn’t starve that child.’ That’s why I want to photograph landscapes and flowers. I am sentencing myself to peace.’”

Don McCullin, Woods near My House, Somerset, c.1991
Courtesy Don McCullin

Don McCullin, Woods near My House, Somerset, c.1991, Tate Purchased 2012

Don McCullin, Northern Ireland, The Bogside, Londonderry, 1971
Courtesy Don McCullin

Don McCullin, Northern Ireland, The Bogside, Londonderry, 1971

Don McCullin, Grenade Thrower, Hue, Vietnam, 1968
Courtesy Don McCullin

Don McCullin, Grenade Thrower, Hue, Vietnam, 1968

With over 250 photographs—all printed by McCullin in his darkroom—and personal objects—his helmet and the camera that saved his life in Cambodia—the retrospective takes the viewer on an arduous journey. There is no shortcut, no rest for the conscience or the eyes. The black and white images shout at the viewers, forcing them to remember that we, as humans, cannot look away from the violence that permeates our existence. While photography’s purpose is not to stop conflicts, McCullin believes that it should “shout at you and tell you something’s wrong, that you’re not living in the right kind of world, something that words can’t explain to you.” 

Courtesy Don McCullin

Don McCullin, Local Boys in Bradford, 1972

Yet, photographs don’t tell us more than what we see. They are the viewpoints of those who took them; they are partial truths, moments taken away from the flow of time. Despite these shortcomings, photographs have the power to reveal some of the faults in the world. “I want people to look at my photographs. I don’t want them to be rejected because people can’t look at them,” notes McCullin. “Often they are atrocity pictures. [...] But I want to create a voice for the people in those pictures. I want the voice to seduce people into actually hanging on a bit longer when they look at them, so they go away not with an intimidating memory but with a conscious obligation.”

Photographs can make us aware. Let them haunt us.

About the Author

Caterina Bellinetti

Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.

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