Sunday, April 22, 2007

Don McCullin

"I only use a camera like I use a toothbrush. It does the job."

Don McCullin has to be the best living conflict/war photographer. His work from wars and conflicts from Cyprus, through the Congo, Biafra, Indo-Pakistan, Northern Ireland and - most of all - his iconic work from Vietnam is superb. In addition, his work from the massacres in Beirut in the Palestinian camps brought home what happened there like nothing else did (his maniacal lute player in the ruins of Beirut must, I'm sure, haunt many dreams).

In addition, McCullin has to be one of the most down to earth and brutally honest photographers out there. He seriously doubts his - or anyone else's photographs - ever really make a difference. And his autobiography is fascinating, if searingly painful as times.

I also find I'm very fond of his work after he withdrew from external (though perhaps not internal) conflict - the Somerset Levels (for a short while I lived up the road from him there); India and Indonesia among others.

He has lately returned to some of his old issues - photographing AIDS in Africa and the conflict in Darfur, even though he is about 70 now.

I recently managed to track down a good interview (transcript) with him I heard a while back on the BBC - click here (Real Audio file) - well worth a listen. There's also a good article from the Guardian here

Finally, I was surprised to find only a limited selection of his photographs online - only the more classic icons. I wish I could have found a wider selection.

"I want to pass another image past you, if I can re-create it for you adequately, and that is, one from Beirut . And there's the body of a young Palestinian girl lying in the street, and behind, there's a semi-circle of six Falange, that is right wing, nationalist Lebanese, serenading, doing a chorus over her dead body because she's dead. Now, you see! It makes me angry to describe it; what did you feel?"

Well, first of all, I'd been expelled from the area. I was watching Falange executing groups of men in 10s and 20s, butchering them in front of me; stabbing them, kicking them in the face... and you know, building up, know, often people when they murder people like that in a genocide fashion, they have to build up hatred, and by doing so, they have to work themselves up and they have to become bestial; and they kick people, and punch people, and degrade people, because they have to bring on the courage and the excuse, and reason to murder. And I was watching this in doorways, and I could see men being shot down in cold blood in front of me; brains going all over the wall; I almost broke down. I saw some men standing there, and the next thing I know, they were dropping, and one of them was just saying, Allah, with the last breath from his lungs. And I went around into a stairwell, and I thought I was going to break down. I thought, God you know; this is not real! What's going on? And I'd been with the Falange because we weren't allowed to operate on the other side in what they called the green line in those days; that's in West Beirut, so I was in East Beirut . But what shocked me before I end my story, was the fact that I was with people who call themselves Christians; that's what really got me. And so they said, 'you leave this area and you take no pictures'. And I was with a very nice journalist from The Sunday Times, who's now a professor at a university in the north of England , and we were walking quite shakily away from this butchery, and I heard music. And I said to Martin, 'do you hear music?' And he said, 'yes', he said, 'but let's just get out of here; let's get going'. And I said, I can music; it's getting louder. And I passed a cross-roads, an intersection, and sure enough, I looked up and I saw this dead young Palestinian girl who could have been no more than 16 to 20 years of age, lying in this horrible, cold, damp road, because it had rained heavily the night before. And lo and behold! There was a group of young Christians; one with a Thompson machine gun and another with a Kalashnikov. One of them had a lute. And I said to Martin, 'I've got to get this picture.' And he said, 'no, no, no; let's go; we don't want to make any problems'. And then, one of them, the man with the lute said, 'hey mister! Come and take a photo'. And I said to Martin, 'I'm going to do this'. And I went off, and I took two shots, didn't even use my exposure meter, I guessed it; and then we fled. And it's, in many respects, I think it's more akin to a religious painting."

"I realized that you could shoot photographs until the cows came home but they have nothing to do with real humanity, real memories, real feelings."

(caught by a fellow photojournalist McCullin puts down his cameras and rescues an old lady while under fire in Cyprus)

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