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Don McCullin at Tate Britain

That one man should witness so many horrors is hard to process. That nations like ours continue to facilitate such atrocity and poverty is devastating.

Turkish Defenders Waiting for the Attack, Limassol, Cyprus 1964.

Familiarity with Don McCullin’s photography does little to lessen its impact in the gallery. Tate Britain’s retrospective is a chronological record of his career, examining brutal conflict abroad and poverty at home through his lens. It’s a deeply affecting exhibition, amplifying our horror and shame by immersing us in a complete timeline. Room after room, war after war, it grinds at the soul.

McCullin’s professional life has a satisfying narrative that begins and ends in England: from formative shots of the Finsbury Park Guvnors to his present-day search for peace in rural Somerset. Everything in between is perhaps more inhumanity and despair than one person should ever have to witness, though this is Don McCullin, a man addicted to conflict.

There’s an entire room dedicated to his self-assigned Berlin trip. He was drawn to the division, and particularly the human face of separation: residents and soldiers peering over the hardening divide, and sometimes directly at him. We see ordinary people attempting to get on with things as tensions intensify. US and Soviet soldiers wear uniforms reminiscent of World War Two, McCullin visually linking the contemporary tension to its political foundation.

Horror is everywhere

Shell-shocked US Marine
Shell-shocked US Marine, The Battle of Huế 1968.

In the next room, we find McCullin thrown into his first real assignment: the civil war between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. From there he leads us through a succession of brutal conflicts: Biafra, the Congo, Cambodia, and Vietnam (notably the desperate Siege of Huế). His passports and press badges are under glass, alongside his Magnum helmet and the camera body that took a bullet and saved his life. Tangible objects help us piece together the logistics and danger. I have a passport and so, probably, do you, but these are Don McCullin’s passports: the passports of a war photographer (a label that haunts him).

Between foreign assignments, he sought the dark underbelly of England: from inequality in Bradford to the industrial landscape of the North-east. The exhibition leads us from Cambodia to London’s East End and on to Africa, a path that feels natural when McCullin is your witness. A homeless man sleeping face down in Spitalfields wasteland reminds us of a dead Vietcong fighter in the jungle. His reports from Northern Ireland echo the street-level conflict of Cyprus, and also the getting on with things of divided Berlin. Horror is everywhere, but so is humanity.

We recognise our fears in the faces of others. Some expressions won’t let you go: the anguish of a grieving Turkish woman; the terror of a teenage rebel facing execution; the dignity of a young orphan; the shellshocked soldier, the homeless Irishman. The albino boy in Biafra held my gaze for several minutes. An abandoned child lying in the dirt is heartbreaking; what a crazy moral situation for McCullin. We know he helped retrieve injured soldiers in Vietnam, but so often he’s unable to intervene. You begin to think about the role of the photograph, and how one anguished human tragedy lasts forever while many thousands of identical moments go uncaptured. Why this child? What happened next? How many times has humanity broken down like this? What should I do with this photograph? Why is it horrific and beautiful?

Young Christian Youth Celebrating the Death of a Young Palestinian Girl
Young Christian Youth Celebrating the Death of a Young Palestinian Girl, Beirut, 1976.

His photograph of Christian Youth boys celebrating the death of a young Palestinian girl is shocking. While one boy gestures toward the muddied corpse with a gun, another plays the mandolin. There is a threat here — McCullin could easily have been killed himself — but it’s their joy and nonchalance that creates a terrifying sense of hopelessness. To look at this image is to feel exposed and alone, and fearful for our future. The boys had asked McCullin to take the photo, but following publication, they pledged to kill him should they ever see him again.

An uncomfortable beauty

You can’t help but imagine what it was like to be him, risking everything in that moment, that place; everything it took to get that shot. You stand there almost in the photographer’s pose, aware of the camera lens. You share his gaze; feel it. You’re in his shoes, but you could never really feel like him, see what he’s seen. He shows us stills from the nightmares he has lived.

Biafra 1968
Biafra, 1968.

We cannot experience these moments as he did, but McCullin takes care to help us connect. The exhibition addresses thoughts about the beauty of such imagery. McCullin steers clear of the word ‘art’, but his exceptional skills present moments of horror with an uncomfortable kind of beauty, the goal of which is to help these image stick in our minds. The beauty and quality of his images ensure we cannot ignore the atrocities taking place in our world. That, and his sense of feeling for those he photographs.

You’re aware that these moments would most likely exist without him, and I love his suggestion that his images would carry the same weight even with the cheapest camera. “The photographic equipment I take on an assignment is my head and my eyes and my heart. I could take the poorest equipment, and I would still take the same photographs. They might not be as sharp, but they would certainly say the same thing.”

An expert printer, McCullin prints the images so dark; so black. He even mentions his desire to represent a bright Somerset day as bleak and inhospitable. He wants us to feel the pictures, and there is 'art' in this approach. Were his prints not so dark the light might not be so memorable. The white contrast is brilliant: the moon in India, saris drying in sunlight, scratches on the face of the Irishman, the frame and wheels of a baby’s pram against a Consett coalfield.

In search of peace

In recent years McCullin has made visits to Syria and the ancient Roman city of Palmyra. Preserved for thousands of years and then so recently destroyed and misappropriated by IS, this is a different kind of tragedy. His beautiful images bring life to these ruins and invite us to imagine the living city. If I squint, I can almost see the original inhabitants going about their business.

Hadrian’s Wall
Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland, 2009.

The exhibition concludes with an exhalation. Photographing the landscape offers a “transfusion” and a means of decompression. McCullin loses himself in this work and briefly forgets the horrors of war. Arranging a still life, he can exert a different kind of compositional control. The peace this work gives him is what he needs, and in closing this exhibition of atrocity these images also come as a relief to us.

It’s fascinating to see the English countryside through his eyes as if there’s something new in that which we take for granted. In contrast to the war zones and urban decay, we now see rural England in Winter, where the threat comes in the form of skeletal trees, brooding storms and flooded fields. It’s as though he wants to share the peace he’s found here, offering us a small gift that we too should cherish. Some suggest his landscapes present pastoral England with a war photographer’s aesthetic, but I do not see it this way. I’m grateful that McCullin sends us through the exit with what I feel is a message of hope and renewal.

Humanity and censorship

McCullin photographed for the Observer
McCullin photographed for the Observer by Giles Duley, 2019.

McCullin speaks very thoughtfully about his life and work, and there is always modesty. He believes that he’s changed nothing; that he’s failed, and that we've failed because these horrors are still happening. He feels guilty for his good fortune, and that he’s been over-rewarded; that this period of conflict-rich history coincided with his working life and gave him so much. After visiting the show, I rewatched the documentary, McCullin. One quote stood out for me. “What I do is not about photography; it’s about humanity.” He often comes back to this idea of humanity first; that humanity drives his actions and intentions. He says that his pictures are about his soul.

I learned, too, that the establishment kept him away from the Falklands war, so terrified were they of surfacing the awful truth of a conflict designed to ignite British pride. The rulebook, he says, has now been rewritten to hide the real horror of war from the public. “Today you’re embedded with these people, and that’s the end of it. Embedded means censorship from my point of view. They won’t let you go to the front, and they don’t let you photograph wounded soldiers anymore.”

As tough to process as these images are, we should be grateful that they are in the public domain. McCullin’s presence during that compacted period of conflict and tragedy gives us a body of work that will always resonate. Though the methods of war change, the human cost on the ground is the same: destruction, displacement, famine, and death look now as they did then. In the absence of new images, we can at any time return to McCullin’s photographs to see the real cost of conflict, and deeply regret our inability to learn from past atrocities.

Don McCullin is at Tate Britain until 6th May 2019.