Sunday 21 December 2014

Witness to atrocities

Published 11/01/2013 | 18:00

mccullin

(Club, Light House, 95 minutes)

Director: David Morris, Jacqui Morris Stars: Don McCullin

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Though he hates being called one, Don McCullin was a war photographer, arguably the best there's ever been. After teaming up with Harold Evans and the Sunday Times Magazine in the mid-1960s, he travelled the world seeking out conflicts and capturing harrowing and unforgettable images of famine and war. In doing so he showed a bravery that bordered on recklessness, and an absolute determination to tell the truth. And in this simply made but absolutely compelling documentary from David and Jacqui Morris, McCullin looks back on a long and action-packed career.

Don McCullin was born in Finsbury Park, north London, and raised in that quarter's crumbling tenements. After being introduced to photography while doing his national service in Suez, McCullin began taking candid portraits of the London hoodlums he'd grown up with. When he sent some to the Observer newspaper, his raw talent was immediately spotted. He had sensitivity and an instant empathy with his subjects, and Harold Evans would later call him "a conscience with a camera".

The young McCullin was fascinated with war, and in 1964 he got his first real chance to photograph combat when he was sent to Cyprus to cover the nasty civil war between the Greek and Turkish communities. His harrowing pictures of dead and displaced peasants won him the World Press Photo Award in 1964.

He witnessed even worse atrocities when he went to the Congo to cover the civil war that had erupted after the end of Belgian rule. After managing to blag his way into the war zone around Stanleyville by pretending to be a mercenary, he captured unforgettable images of the slaughter of innocent civilians by local militias and the foreign guns for hire he was travelling with.

It was after he joined the Sunday Times in 1966, however, that Don McCullin really came into his own. In Vietnam, he spent weeks on end with a platoon of American soldiers during the Battle of Hue, and his stunning portrait of a shell-shocked trooper became one of the most iconic images taken during that war. He went back to Vietnam 16 times, was badly injured in an explosion in Cambodia, followed the riots in Belfast and Derry, and witnessed the most unimaginable atrocities in Beirut.

This admirably concise documentary mixes archive footage of various wars with McCullin's photos and extended commentaries from the man himself, who talks candidly about the contradictions of his former profession, and what he describes as the "insanity of war".

These days, the 75-year-old McCullin lives in rural Somerset and takes carefully composed pictures of the English landscape – photos, as he points out, with no one in them. Given some of the awful things he's seen people do, his aversion to human subjects is entirely understandable.

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