Friday, 18 November 2016

It’s not about photography, it’s about humanity’: McCullin (Jacqui & David Morris, 2013)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2013) 

‘My eyes were my voice, and my eyes were the journeys that we, myself and my eyes and my feelings, travel through and we brought back these images.’

Two photographs. In the first, an old woman holds two sticks in front of her to help her flee from gunfire but she is lame and her legs will not hurry, will hardly move, despite the coaxing of a young British soldier, concern battling with impatient frustration in his face. The woman looks at the photographer and out of the photograph from dark, deep-set eyes, her own face the still centre of the picture, balanced between helpless resignation and curiosity.

In the second picture, a suited man holds the old lady like a rag doll in his arms, her sticks held in her hand, pointing the way. Her other hand clings on to his shoulder as, in an almost farcical scene, he runs her out of danger, his trousers flapped around his legs, his face gaping and gasping with effort, the trees behind them blurred.

These two photographs – the first, taken by Don McCullin, of an elderly woman unable to escape gunfire in Cyprus, and the second, of McCullin himself, having put down his camera and picked the woman up, running her to safety – contain some of the ever-present themes both in his photography and in this important documentary portrait of the man and his work. There are questions of the role and actions of a war photographer, of dignity, humanity, doubt and moral responsibility ­– the words occur time and again in McCullin’s interviews – and then there are the recurring qualities in the photographs themselves, no matter how horrific their subject, qualities of empathy, composition and nerve. And the viewer keeps coming back to the eyes of the photographed, eyes questioning, challenging, wondering, but rarely daring or accusing or silently screaming their discomfort and displeasure at being pictured. As McCullin says, those were the photographs he didn’t, couldn’t, take. ‘It’s not about photography, it’s about humanity,’ he says, adding that he now detests the label ‘war photographer,’ the occupation to which he has given so many years of his life. ‘Empathy is something you can’t fake,’ says Harold Evans, his ex-editor at The Sunday Times, where McCullin was given free rein to edit his pungent photographic essays from hotspots across the globe.

The film takes us from his early days in Finsbury Park and the ‘Guv’nors of the Seven Sisters Road’ – pictures of people from the tenements where he grew up, the local gang posed in the skeleton of a derelict house – and he talks (without apparent irony, given his subsequent profession) of photography as an escape from the violence and bigotry of his childhood background. At the very least it stood him in good stead for the violence, intolerance and bigotry that he would encounter on a world scale, in cold war Berlin, Cyprus, Congo, Vietnam, Biafra, Cambodia, Northern Ireland. He found himself troubled, after the adventure had worn off, by the thought that the people he was photographing doing terrible things seemed to be assuming his tacit legitimisation. That wore off though. His photographs were just too honest to take the side of anyone but the shattered innocents. As he says, he learned that ‘it’s better to be on the side of humanity’ in his line of work. ‘Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.’ As he says, growing up poor in a rough part of London helped put him on the right side of things.

A photograph taken in Stanleyville, in the Congo in the mid 1960s. A man in a vest is cowed as a dog on the ground, his face down in the earth. He is held there by five rifles pointed in his direction from above by spectacles-wearing soldiers. One is hamming it for the camera, outsize gestures for a diminutive man who in another life might be the joker in a musical group, the showman vocalist. Another soldier looks down on the pitiful creature on the ground as if he is already dead, which he soon will be. Three men stand to the side, petrified. They will soon be dead too.

‘I’ve never forgotten it,’ says McCullin, time and again during his interviews and you can tell this is the truth as he recalls the nightmarish scenes in which he has found himself. His voice pauses and catches as he recalls photographing Turkish Cypriot men murdered in a house in their village and their family surprising him in the act of photography; a dawn execution in Saigon in 1965; Congolese police dragging people behind trucks with wire, skinning some of them alive, the open eyes of a 12 year-old boy in Stanleyville, shot by a Rhodesian mercenary in the night for some trumped-up reason, or in Hue in 1968, during the Tet Offensive, men flattened into ‘Persian carpets in the road’, or the children’s department of a hospital in Beirut where, after days of shelling, he saw fly-spotted children tied to their beds. No wonder McCullin talks of his darkroom as a haunted place and his archive of photographs at one end of his house, full of pictures of devastation, pain and suffering as a place of noise, unquiet, dark energy and mischief.

In a Radio 3 interview with John Tusa, McCullin said, ‘If you look into many of the books that I have published; the books on the Palestinians and Beirut, and other books which contain Vietnam and … Biafra, you’ll find many of the people in my pictures just looking at me, as if I’m the victim’. And it’s the eyes of people in his photographs that hold you, again and again.

Some pictures. One, taken in Vietnam, shows the grimacing mask of a face crushed into the ground, mouth and nostrils distended as if stilled in the act of an explosion, or caught in a wind tunnel, cheeks lined with the imprint of fabric, jaw crushed, a smashed, distended, rubberised face whose eyes, just peering through their lids still, seem alive with outrage.

A shell-shocked marine has eyes that are nowhere and focussed on nothing that can be seen. They are hardly present, existing only in tones of grey whereas the rest of face, the stubble, the shadow between his lips, is darker with life. His eyes are looking up – McCullin talks of the Goya-esque attitudes and expressions of the grief-stricken and helpless, the wounded and the injured looking up in war, for succour, for salvation, for god – and they will never lose what they have seen. They are divorced from the physical presence of the rest of his body, from his hands that hold the barrel of a rifle, from his hunched shoulders.

And from Biafra, a 16 year-old girl, sitting with a calm, composed demeanour on the edge of a wooden table, a forgiving look in her eyes, a wry smile even. Her naked skeletal body is shrunken and leathery and she is inches away from death, Her name is Patience, her clothing is total dignity.

One of the underlying themes of the film is how much McCullin’s photography owed to the times. As he says, ‘the sixties were packed with opportunities if you wanted to go to war’. And he admits that for a while he was a ‘war junkie’, needing an ever more frequent hit of conflict. But he also had the good fortune to be working under enlightened editors whose commitment to a strong, challenging pictorial story was not compromised by the needs of advertisers. ‘I’ve got to make sure that when they look at my pictures on a Sunday morning after breakfast that it’s going to hit them hard,’ says McCullin, in words scarcely credible today in a world awash with Sunday magazines filled with lifestyle and celebrity junk. Take a look at those striking, challenging Sunday Times magazine covers from the era that flash up through the film and reflect upon how far away such days seem now. As McCullin says, the rule book has been rewritten and telling the ‘unvarnished truth through the medium of film’ is at risk, contending that ‘the real thing, the price of war, the suffering and the loss’ may not be seen or printed again. Or even understood as such if it was.

As Susan Sontag writes in her 2003 book, Regarding the Pain of Others, we live in a ‘culture in which shock has become a leading stimulus of consumption and source of value’. McCullin’s images can be shocking alright, but one thing they can never be accused of is being a ‘stimulus to consumption’. Sontag adds that ‘there is shame as well as shock in looking at the close-up of real horror’. McCullin knows this all too well, has spent his life photographing this very edge, but it seems to be something that the rest of us are now encouraged to forget. And especially now the chief medium for seeing images of the world is a screen, of whatever size. McCullin’s images, reduced to the status of one momentary fascination among countless many on a monitor, or touchscreen, lose impact, meaning, context. All is reduced to the medium of the screen itself.

Harold Evans said, in response to McCullin's doubts about his photographs having any effect, that ‘the ripples go out’ and you can’t tell where they end. ‘Those are the consequences – look on these and think again,’ he says Evans of McCullin’s images and humanitarian approach to his work. Not to do so would be to devalue the suffering in his photographs, the scenes shot at the edges of insanity, to belittle McCullin’s experiences and to downgrade the quiet, insistent pleading of the countless eyes that command our attention from his photographs that such madness should not be wrought again ­– yet always is.

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