Directed by David Morris and Jacqui Morris, the 2012 documentary McCullin provides an insightful journey through Don McCullin’s war photography in various conflict zones. His matter-of-fact accounts and background information about individual images reveals amazing and truly horrific stories surrounding the decisive moment—how events impacted individual people.
The documentary provides an intriguing behind the scenes look at how war photographers operate, and especially the thinking behind his own experience of the horrors. Having witnessed atrocities, murders, horrific brutality, as a viewer you wonder: why did he keep going back for more? Why didn’t he switch to less disturbing assignments? Was the kick of being at the heart of the action an adrenaline shot, an addiction? To some extent I’d guess that his own identity became wrapped up in his job: Don McCullin the war photographer. It was part of how he saw himself—who he was and what he did. It’s difficult to know the truth, but it’s probably a mixture of many things: the journalistic desire to record the truth, an addiction to the adrenaline, and being where ‘the action’ is.
His descriptions are incredibly powerful because they are cool and unemotional. Matter-of-fact. Always simply stating what happened; describing the horror of the event, letting the acts and actions speak for themselves rather than imposing his own emotions and views. This is perhaps most poignant in his coverage of conflict in Africa involving mercenaries who had a psychopathic contempt for human life and who took pleasure in stealing, torturing, raping and slaughtering people. McCullin’s coverage of starving children in the Biafran war is also profoundly shocking; his descriptions of near-death children dying of malnutrition and disease is difficult to watch and disturbing. One can only image what it was like to be there, witnessing such an awful tragedy—seeing it all around you.
McCullin’s career took a different path when conflict coverage was phased out of The Sunday Times in preference for celebrity coverage, which was perceived to be advertiser friendly. Who really wants to see death, destruction and starving children while they’re eating their Sunday breakfast? This change also signalled a mainstream shift in the media to celebrity news and popular culture (which is also cheap to produce) instead of in-depth coverage of global conflicts and investigative journalism (which is expensive). His latter career saw him cover the Lebanese war, where he photographed further brutality and massacres, but assigning him there was widely seen as a way of side-lining him. This continued with the Falkland’s War when he was refused a press pass. It was a time of patriotic jingoism, when being loyally ‘on-message’ was more of a priority than giving journalists free access to report the truth.
His work can be seen as an indictment of the West during the Cold War, which fought numerous proxy wars against the Soviet Union and Communist nationalists fighting Western backed regimes in Asia, Africa and South America. His war photography captures the full horror of war—and the innocent civilians caught up in brutality and injustice. And, we should never forget, behind these individual horrors lies the bigger reality of political power, corporate investments in mining, national interests, foreign policies, widescale corruption, theft from the people, and the casual use of intimidation and violence as a means to an end.
Don McCullin ended up retiring from journalism to take up landscape photography. Traipsing around the English countryside to capture landscape shots devoid of people, devoid of suffering and horror. It must have been a meditative experience, possibly an attempt to exercise the ghosts.
This documentary covers harrowing material and it certainly isn’t for the squeamish, but it tells a story about real people caught up in real events: life is complicated, filled with small acts of kindness as well as savagery. McCullin captured these images from the front line leaving behind an amazing body of work; recording moments that would otherwise have been long forgotten and reminding us that since the ‘peace’ at the end of World War II conflict has raged on continuously around the globe. He documented both the psychotic brutality people are capable of—as well as individual acts of empathy and heroism.