Before going to this exhibition at Tate Britain, I had the good fortune to watch a documentary on Channel 4 in which Don McCullin revisits his childhood haunts, and also the areas in northern England where he photographed various people and events early on in his career. He also talked about his time as a war photographer, and his feelings now on how he looks back on that time. When I visited the exhibition I felt I had a greater understanding of his work having first seen this programme.
The exhibition showed the different phases in McCullin’s career: growing up in London and how he became a photo journalist, his time working for a newspaper, recording events during his time as a war photographer and his work since retiring from working in war zones.
One thing which struck me was his aim of trying to photograph the real victims of war. In his view the real victims were often the civilians caught up in violence or poverty and famine as a result of the violence.
One very poignant image was that of an albino orphan in Biafra. This young lad was not just the victim of famine, but also because he was albino, he was ostracized by his own community. McCullin noticed the boy as he walked towards him holding out an empty corned beef tin, and he took this photograph.
Don McCullin came across as a very humble man, kind and mild mannered, in the documentary. This despite seeing these events during his time as a war photographer. I have tremendous admiration for anyone who is prepared to risk their own lives and their sanity to photograph such events. His own life was saved on one occasion by a camera in his top pocket. It took a bullet which undoubtedly would have fatally injured him had it not embedded itself into the camera. He still has that camera to this day as a reminder. And without such photographers, we in the more peaceful parts of the world, would have no real idea as to what level of suffering exists in other parts of the world. He also said he made the decision on more than one occasion to put his camera down, when he felt it was not appropriate to record an event.
He now lives in Somerset, photographing landscapes and nature, and spending time in his beloved darkroom. He feels by doing this he is continuing with his documentary genre, recording landscapes as they change over the seasons and years.