Don McCullin at Tate Britain

“I found I was able to share other people’s emotional experiences, live with them silently, transmit them.”
Don McCullin

Can war, genocides, poverty, and terrorism be beautiful? Can art and cruelty fuse as one? Can you be moved to sympathy by simply looking at a picture? The retrospective of Don McCullin’s extraordinary photographs, which opened at Tate Britain last month, seems to prove that all of this is possible.

Sir Don McCullin was born in 1935 and grew up in Finsbury Park, North London. He got into photography by informally documenting the deprivation of the area at the time, the local gangs and fights, the beggars and homeless, and the life in the local cafés – right from the outset, he was “unflinching, but full of curiosity”.

From the 1960s, he began to travel to countries such as Cyprus, Biafra, Republic of Congo, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Iraq, Bangladesh and (sadly) many more war zones. His work earned him the status of one of the UK’s foremost war photographers, working primarily for the Sunday Times Magazine and other publications (which are showcased in a fascinating slideshow in the Projection Room).

Don McCullin, Wounded North Vietnamese soldier retrieved from his bunker

Don McCullin, ‘Wounded North Vietnamese soldier retrieved from his bunker’ (1968)

McCullin’s photographs are not easy to take in. There are mothers and babies starving, women grieving for their husbands, shell-shocked soldiers, persecuted rebels, disfigured corpses, rifles, tears, tanks – the things we usually don’t want to think about, here they are, right in front of us. These are picture that don’t simply portray suffering: they generate almost physical distress in the viewer. Going through the galleries, I noticed how everyone was unusually quiet, with the most eloquent visitors at most whispering at each other. It was as if, by uttering any louder sound, they would disrespect and violate the gravitas of the photos and their subject.

So much war photography portrays harrowing situations, though – so what is it that makes McCullin’s work stand out? I put it down to two things. On the one hand, he developed the capacity to feel with his own subjects, with an exceptional degree of empathy. In his shots, he approaches people with respect and integrity, coming close enough so they know they are being photographed, trying to seek their approval before taking the picture. There is no patronising or “white-saviour” gaze. There is just humanity, captured in its lowest possible recesses, but documented with the highest degree of dignity. Far from being a “visual storyteller”, as Steve McQueen once defined himself, Don McCullin is, before anything else, a highly perceptive human being. “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”, he aptly said.

Don McCullin, A dignified presence in a 16-year-old victim

Don McCullin, ‘A dignified presence in a 16-year-old victim’ (1968)

On the other hand, the exhibition celebrates McCullin’s unparalleled ability as a photographer, and his unique aesthetics that is just too compelling to be ignored. Playing with high and low perspectives, creating calibrated contrasts of blacks and whites, adding a touch of sepia to increase a sense of depth, composing his scenes as if sketching a canvas, he creates “an uncomfortable kind of beauty”. Which is why his work, originally intended to feature in newspapers and magazine, feels completely at home in an art gallery.

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Don McCullin, ‘A young girl taking the family laundry, Bradford’ (1970)

Through his empathy and artistic talent, he succeeds in making us look at the worst atrocities without remaining indifferent. “You have to bear witness. You cannot just look away”. McCullin’s shots demand our attention, and we are compelled to grant it, primarily because of their intense, magnetic quality.

The exhibition also includes photographs taken closer to home and, at the very end, a series of landscapes and still lives. After a lifetime of depicting inhumanity, McCullin’s gaze was naturally drawn to see dereliction, desolation, and devastation around him. He even projected this onto the most serene natural landscapes. As he puts it, he tended “to turn his landscapes into battlegrounds”, and to print his photographs very dark because “the darkness is in him, really”.

Evening in my village, Somerset, 2008.jpg

Don McCullin, ‘Evening in my village, Somerset’ (2008)

It is both heart-breaking and cathartic to see how much these visual meditations are dripping with anguish. But taking these pictures had a therapeutic power for McCullin, eager to “sentence himself to peace” after witnessing so many atrocities. As the exhibition closes, with photos of Palmyra’s Temple of Bel pitted with bullet holes, the urgency has become real. Human suffering is something we simply cannot shy away from, but must be painfully aware of, in order to do something about it.

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