It’s always nice to watch films alone with a blanket and a cup of tea and a cat on your lap. I stuck on McCullin ignorantly expecting a nice documentary about a nice photographer that I had guessed was pretty good at taking pictures. It’s fair to say my cosy little set up was shattered somewhat – war, and pretty grim war, is not my first choice for Monday evening chillout time. But, as gruesome as it was watching the murder and poverty of real people, McCullin gripped me like no documentary ever has. To be completely honest, my doc-history is a fairly short one – the genre has only appealed to me more recently but is fast becoming one of my favourites.
So, what did I learn?
Don McCullin is an English photographer, or photojournslist, most prominently known for his documentation of wars and, generally, the grimmer parts of life around the world during the 60s, 70s and 80s. He grew up in Finsbury Park in North London, a downtrodden part of the capital at the time, littered with poverty and gang violence. And that’s where McCullin began, snapping pictures of life in his own society and using what he had, however impoverished, to create art. From Second World War London to the Vietnam War and the rise of the Berlin Wall, I guess you could say McCullin hasn’t strayed far from death and brutality, seeking out uprising and developing cravings for terror and destruction. He once said “seeing, looking at what others cannot bear to see is what my life is all about”, and after witnessing a minute fragment of his experiences through his own lens, it is startlingly clear the truth in his words. And though this unusual intrigue of the darker side our world may repulse a large chunk of the population, when you really look at the snapshots of time he brought back with him, you can’t really blame his profound sense of duty. Without photographers like McCullin, who risked his life in countless battles, we may not know what bygone wars looked like on a human level. (The film highlights a moment during one shootout where his Nikon camera takes a bullet meant for him. Cut to a relaxed McCullin slumped on a hospital bed, telling the camera his near-death experience with as much calm as if he’d just been pampered on a spa day. If it wasn’t for the blood and bandages, I would have thought just that.) He takes you into the homes of the suffering, immersing himself in both danger and grief. He doesn’t have to paint us a picture of what our lives would be like had we been born elsewhere – it’s all there on raw, untouched film.
McCullin is a treasure – the man and the film. The makers have done a brilliant job capturing him in his own environment, with beautifully detailed recounts of his photo’s back stories and an insight into his own mixed feelings about his work.
I’ll leave you with something deep and meaningful:
“I realised that you could shoot photographs until the cows came home but they have nothing to do with real humanity, real memories, real feelings.”
And of course, his pictures…