McCullin is a little seen documentary about the life of famed photojournalist Donald McCullin. Nominated for two BAFTA awards, the film charts the career of its subject from his humble beginnings in poverty ridden Finsbury Park, London in the late 1950s, through his many and varied warzone assignments and towards his later, peaceful retirement. The documentary is narrated by and features extended interviews with the man himself and gives great insight into the reasons behind his adventures as well as descriptions of often horrific events and how he composed some of his most famous photographs.
For several years Don McCullin has been my favourite photographer having stumbled upon an exhibition of his war photography at the National Media Museum in Bradford. I’ve since been to another of his exhibitions in Manchester and one of his many photographic books became my most expensive book purchase ever at the second exhibition. I’d been looking forward to seeing the film since its original release and was thrilled to find it on television late last night as part of The BBC’s Insight series.
The movie opens with a brief overview of McCullin’s early years but focuses mainly on his association with local gangs who, in the late 1950s would terrorise the North London neighbourhood in which the photographer grew up. It was here that McCullin started taking photographs and captured one of his most enduring shots. The photograph is exquisitely composed and features some local teens standing nonchalantly in one of the many half destroyed buildings which littered the area. It was this photo and others which drew McCullin to the attention of The Observer newspaper and it was here that he began his career as a photojournalist. This documentary focuses most of its attention on McCullin’s time with The Observer and then with The Sunday Times, for which he spent many years working.
The film, like McCullin’s photographs, doesn’t shy away from the more grizzly aspects of humanity’s perpetual attempts to destroy one another. There are several deeply shocking images, the likes of which one rarely witnesses. Something that the film does is that it gives the audience the truth of war. In wars people die. They’re mutilated. There’s suffering. It’s incredibly rare to see anything in either the print or television media that shows any of this suffering in the modern era. If I think back to the last decade, since the beginning of the Iraq War, I can’t remember seeing one body on the news or in any newspaper. The media hides the suffering from the public and instead shows us a burned car or a wailing woman. The blood and human suffering is hidden so that we don’t get put off our M&Ms while we watch. Something that this film touches upon in its latter stages is the censorship which McCullin and The Sunday Times were subject to from the early 80s onwards. It makes the case that The Falklands war was a turning point at which time it was decided that people didn’t want to see the truth of war anymore. This film shows that grizzly truth in all its stomach churning detail.
McCullin takes a fairly linear approach to detailing Don McCullin’s life. Staring, as I’ve mentioned, with his teenage years, it follows him to Cyprus, Lebanon, Vietnam, Cambodia, Nigeria and Northern Ireland, peppering the brutality witnessed in those locations with some of his ‘tamer’ excursions such as a trip down the Mississippi river. What stays with you though are those shocking images of starving children, executions and tank flattened corpses which McCullin photographs in such a way that one could almost describe them as beautiful. It’s an odd thing to say but McCullin’s eye captured both beauty and suffering in almost all of his photographs and it’s perhaps that which has made his work so well known. Many of his photos will be recognisable even if you’ve never heard of the photographer and his dedication to capturing the worst of humanity is something which the film looks at in great depth.
Don McCullin talks frequently about the internal discussion he has with himself when confronted by great agony and suffering and he talks about times when he questioned why he was doing what he was doing. It’s obvious that he still hasn’t reconciled with what he has witnessed in his life and there are several instances where he talks about being powerless to stop atrocities but still feeling guilt about witnessing them. For me, we have McCullin to thank for opening our eyes to these atrocities. While it could be argued that he may have in some way been complicit in them by his very presence, had he not been there then we wouldn’t have known about them. His role as a mass educator should not be under estimated. A slight problem with the documentary is that because almost all of the content comes from either McCullin himself or admires of him, there is little balance. McCullin doubts his own importance and talks about his shortcomings but it would have been nice to have had a few comments from people beside him and his editors.
The film works both as a documentary and as a videography of the man’s work. It’s great to have his photos discussed in his own words and the insight behind some of them goes into much more detail than his books or exhibitions. The movie isn’t easy to watch at times but that’s as it should be. It successfully coveys both the craft and subject of the photographs and will hopefully bring both the photographer and his work to new people. Its anti-war stance will also hopefully open the eyes of some who turn away from the gruesome truth of war. There is one word which jumped out several times in this documentary and that’s ‘insanity’. McCullin describes the ‘insanity’ he saw over and over and this film aims to thrust images that ‘insanity’ upon people who have either ignored it or not had access to it before now.