A review of the exhibition which opened on 7th October at the Imperial War Museum London.
‘Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling’ wrote Don McCullin and this wonderful retrospective at the Imperial War Museum London is an epitaph, as he sees it, to his life’s work. Renowned as a war photographer, he obviously doesn’t shy away from atrocities, but highlights with tenderness and compassion the pain and suffering of individuals caught up in conflict. McCullin wanted his photographs to make a difference, and they have.
Born in 1935, his earliest memories are of the London blitz, and in the late fifties, he photographed the local gangs he hung out with on the bombsites around his home in Finsbury Park. National Service in the RAF had already fostered his interest in photography and taken him to Suez and Kenya, where he served during the Mau Mau rebellion. In 1961, a photograph of a German soldier leaping over the barbed wire into West Berlin inspired McCullin to travel there and document the deepening crisis as the wall went up.
Assignments followed. In 1964, The Observer sent him to Cyprus and he won the World Press Photo of the Year Award for this work which included ‘A Turkish Cypriot woman mourning the death of her husband at Ghaziveram’. McCullin's photographs are without artifice or trickery and the black and white ones on show in the exhibition were mainly hand printed by himself. The display also includes some of his photographic contact sheets, as well as personal items such as cameras and the second-hand US army equipment he used in Vietnam.
A large section of the exhibition is devoted to The Sunday Times Magazine with spreads of his pictures. For nearly two decades from 1966, McCullin worked with a brilliant team under the editorship of Harold Evans covering hard stories, including Vietnam, El Salvador, Northern Ireland and Cambodia, where he was wounded in 1970. His colour photographs are very striking, but he considers ‘black and white images in war’ to be ‘much more powerful’. When Rupert Murdoch bought the newspaper in 1980 and Evans left, McCullin openly criticised the new editorial policy and use of images, and after a couple of years, he too was forced to leave.
He speaks of the adrenaline rush of photography under fire, his personal control and lack of fear. The memories live on, however, and he now finds peace and tranquillity in photographing landscape. His advice to aspiring young photographers is to learn about their own society and its wars before looking further afield. Don McCullin has been shaped by war, but also by a strong sense of social injustice and his photographs give voice to those who have none - ‘I want to become the voices of the people in those pictures’.