An exhibition in Tate Britain's currently taking over the spring season with a deep, insightful and refreshingly sober showcase on one of today's most important documentary photographers, Don McCullin, running through 6 May.
British photojournalist Don McCullin's first professional exposure to photography was when he was a photographer's assistant at the National Service in the Royal Air Force. During this time, he bought a Rolleicord as his first camera but ended up pawning his equipment due to lack of funds. McCullin started street-level, photographing gangs based in London in 1958, which he photographed The Guvnors and got published in The Observer. This moment led him to a straight path to becoming a professional photographer. In the '60s and '80s, McCullin worked as a correspondent for The Sunday Times to document wars in Biafra, Cyprus, Falklands, Vietnam, the Tet offensive, the Northern Ireland conflict as well as the AIDS epidemic in Africa.
In his autobiography, McCullin wrote: “ Cyprus left me with the beginnings of a self-knowledge, and the very beginning of what they call empathy. I found I was able to share other people’s emotional experiences, live with them silently, transmit them.” McCullin also went to Cambodia to cover the rise of the Khmer Rouge. Many of his experiences on the job molded his ethos, beliefs, and approach to photography, often depicting a down-to-earth, realistic yet empathic and concerned gaze on them. Assistant Curator Aicha Mehrez described McCullin's style:
“...McCullin has never been one for sunshine and rainbows and the lyricism of his landscape work is Wagnerian rather than romantic. McCullin’s photograph of the battlefield of the Somme sits perfectly next to his pictures of the flooded Somerset Levels and other landscapes, often printed very darkly, with their torn earth and dark, metallic skies resembling trenches more than bucolic country scenes. For McCullin, these landscapes are politicized too with the constant closures of dairy farms and ever-increasing development of the green belt. Though they may appear to the passerby as quiet images of rolling fields, they remind McCullin of the various theatres of war to which his mind is constantly returning. In his book, The Destruction Business, McCullin says of these works, ‘I dream of this when I’m in battle. I think of misty England.”
McCullin has described a particular experience during his coverage in Cambodia where he was walking along with a group of soldiers when the breeze blew off his hat. When retrieving the hat, AK-47 rounds began, and the soldier next to him went forward and were taken down by the explosion. McCullin recalled the feeling of sudden burning feeling and looking down in a daze, seeing blood over his legs and crotch. Injured, the man dragged himself to a group of medics who dumped him onto an open lorry. Mc Cullin recognized him. He further narrated in his autobiography:
“The man pictured in the center of the image above was the man who had been just ahead of him behind the jeep before the explosion. McCullin said ‘We had shared the fragmentation, but he had taken most of it in the stomach…[he] sat up and was kicking his legs, pleading for life. Minutes later I noticed he was lying down again, his feet drumming too perfectly with every motion of the lorry. I knew that he had gone. It could so easily have been my dead corpse rattling. I thought He’s gone instead of me.’
Over 250 photographs from McCullin's body of work is up for viewing in the exhibition, all processed and printed by McCullin himself in his own darkroom. For more information about the showcase, visit Tate Britain's website.
All images are with permission from Tate Britain.