There should be a warning before entering the Don McCullin retrospective at Tate Britain, stating, ‘Brace! Brace!’ This extraordinary photographer has covered most major conflicts in the world for the past sixty years, including the Berlin Wall in 1961, Biafra, Cyprus, Republic of Congo and Vietnam, all in the sixties, and Cambodia in the seventies, along with the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Throw in Iraq, Beirut and Bangladesh, and with a section on the East End and the industrial northern landscapes of Britain, one has a heady mixture of poverty, social injustice and suffering all over the globe. Virtually all the photographs on display are black and white gelatin silver prints from film, printed by him in his own darkroom, although there are a couple of colour spreads and covers of the Vietnam War from The Sunday Times.
In a limited edition, large-format book called Indecent Exposure, Gerald Scarfe once drew McCullin as a rapacious Voltaire figure in a tree, focussing his long lens right onto a starving African child, with the underlying message that he was capitalising on people’s misfortunes in times of war or famine. Current thinking then was that, wherever there was strife, there was McCullin, snapping away for the glossy colour supplements. Later on, Scarfe regretted doing the drawing, as he felt that all McCullin was trying to do was to tell the truth. This raises an important question about the role of the war photographer, a term he hates. He prefers ‘photojournalist’, or just plain ‘photographer’. He certainly does not see himself as an artist. ‘I don’t belong to the world of art,’ even though some of his arresting images hang in famous galleries and museums all over the world, including this one. ‘You have to bear witness. You cannot just look away.’ He adds, ‘ Seeing, looking at what others cannot bear to see, is what my life as a war reporter is all about.’ He sees his job as to stir the conscience of those people who can help. In the case of starvation, he felt a sense of powerlessness, but it ‘doesn’t do to let it take hold.’ If photographers like McCullin had not pointed their cameras at a starving mother and child in Biafra, we would be none the wiser about what was really going on in far-flung pockets of the world. These days, with the proliferation of mobile phones and satellite cameras, we are used to seeing images beamed in from anywhere on the planet, live, but in the Sixties, it was mainly the printed press who were providing the information.
The images are relentless in their raw graphic power, from battlefields on the other side of the world, to the poverty and deprivation so close to home; it is embarrassing, and within living memory for many visitors. ‘The poor you will always have with you,’ said Jesus in the St John’s Gospel. The abject misery of homelessness is still with us, although we think there is a safety-net in this, the fifth largest economy in the world, in the Twenty-first Century.
After years in war-zones, he gave that all up after he suffered, what they used to call, shell-shock, and retired to a cottage in Somerset, from where he walks and takes landscape photographs of the Levels; all quite bleak, mostly in winter, with leafless Rackham trees, and skies that could have been painted by Constable. He also drives up to Glencoe and Rannoch Moor in Scotland; eerie enough places at the best of times, but rendered chillingly unwelcome**(ing)? through McCullin’s lens. Even so, these landscapes, and his still lifes, are a welcome change from the war-torn images of the previous galleries.
His early works include photographing protests in London against fascism, the Bomb and the Cuban missile crisis in the early 1960s. A couple of years earlier, he photographed the Finsbury Park gang called The Guv’nors in their Sunday Suits, arranged on various floors of a derelict building. This, he claims, is the picture that launched him as a professional photographer, when he showed it to The Observer and they asked for more of the same. He went to Berlin on his own accord and took some remarkable shots, which led to him being sent to Cyprus by The Observer to cover the civil war between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. Cyprus was to become an independent, non-aligned republic with a Greek Cypriot President and a Turkish Cypriot Vice-president, but talks broke down and fierce fighting broke out, which McCullin was able to capture with stark realism.
He then worked for The Sunday Times, and Harold Evans its editor-in-chief, placed him alongside Robert Capa, Larry Burrows and Philip Jones-Griffiths, as one of the greatest war photographers ever. His studies in Vietnam, Cambodia, India and Iraq, are heart-stoppingly poignant in their unflinching candour. Aged 83, he now wanders around England, going to posh events, like Glyndebourne, Royal Ascot and the Goodwood Revival Meeting, as well as more popular places like Eastbourne, to watch a brass band resolutely performing in a downpour. He professes to love the eccentricities of the English, and happily snaps away, looking like an old buffer with a Brownie, but still taking uncomplicated compositions of everyday life, a million miles away from his own brand of Goya’s Disasters of War.