Shaped by War: Photographs by Don McCullin

IssueApril 2010
Review by Catherine Bann

At the end of this powerful retrospective of the work of photojournalist Don McCullin, there is space for visitors to question the photographer. I wrote “How could you experience this, and not become active in opposing war?”

The photographs, mostly in his stark black-and-white style, many the subject of awards, are well-known and need few words.

If nothing else in the Imperial War Museum can persuade you of the unbearable realities of war, McCullin’s photographs surely must. The images of battle are gripping, but it is where McCullin focuses on the civilian tragedies that the true power of his photography manifests.

The guilt for “just taking pictures” is described by McCullin in the filmed interview and book which accompany the photos.

“They think you’re bringing them something,” he said about the people he has photographed, “But you’re bringing them nothing when you have a Nikon with some 35mm film. You’re bringing them no hope whatsoever.”

One particular dying Biafran boy has continued to haunt him: “My god, this is like he’s been sent to frighten me.”

It is interesting to consider whether the short-term help he could have offered had he stepped out from behind the camera (and he did on occasion do this) is equal to the long-term impact an iconic image can have.

His photos of starving people in the Biafran war shocked the world into mounting a humanitarian effort and the power of war photography to stir us into action is some justification for the “terrible way to earn a living”.

The military acknowledge the power that war photography has in forming opinion. That is one of the reasons they now prefer “embedded” journalists, a practice that McCullin abhors.

That McCullin was a “war junkie”, excited by war, unhappy when at home, does not change the fact that we must be grateful that he and others risk their lives to document war.

Perhaps this answers my initial question.

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