““People have a tendency to call me a war photographer. I hate that.” These words are murmured by a genial old soul at the start of the recent BBC documentary Don McCullin: Looking for England, but a visitor to the large retrospective of his photographs at the Tate Gallery might be puzzled by the statement,” writes Geoffrey Wheatcroft. “This great artist of the camera has spent the best part of sixty years if not looking for trouble, then certainly finding it—in Cyprus, the Congo, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Syria. “War is hell” and “man’s inhumanity to man” could be the mottos of his life’s work; the exhibition is harrowing, and sometimes overwhelming.
“In his early twenties, he began taking photographs of his native Finsbury Park. One of them, The Guvnors in their Sunday Suits, showing a gang of lads who might have been modeled on the Jets in the contemporary West Side Story, was published in the Observer in 1958, and launched McCullin’s career. He took many more pictures of a now vanished London—in 1965 sheep were still being driven through the streets to a slaughterhouse in the Caledonian Road, Islington—before he was drawn to flash-points and hotspots: first Berlin, as the Wall was going up, then the bitter conflict in Cyprus in 1964, which McCullin saw from the Turkish side.
“Here, we have his first of so many images of dead bodies, grieving widows and mothers, starving children, and prisoners about to be shot, from wars in Biafra to Cambodia to Beirut to Iraq. McCullin was himself photographed in Cyprus by fellow photojournalist John Bulmer carrying an elderly woman to safety under fire. That wasn’t the last time that McCullin found himself in real danger. He was hit by shrapnel in Cambodia, and one of the more eye-catching exhibits in the Tate show is of the Nikon camera he was carrying in Vietnam in 1970 when—as he only realized afterward—it stopped an AK-47 bullet. Mercifully surviving, McCullin produced images that are now indelibly part of the visual history of the last century, such as a shell-shocked GI at Hue, a dead Vietcong fighter with his possessions, including family snaps, strewn beside him.”
For more information, visit tate.org.uk.