On McCullin

This entry is more personal than most I plan to post on here. I wanted to write not only about a great film about a great photographer, but also to think about how the work of one journalist can inspire another.

I was not expecting the parcel, but I thought I recognized the handwriting.

It was from a friend who had posted on social media earlier that week that he had been to a book signing. The parcel contained a book of Don McCullin’s photographs. It was inscribed to me. I was so pleased.

In 1992, back from my first experience of reporting on armed conflict – the civil war in Georgia at the beginning of that year – I bought McCullin’s autobiography Unreasonable Behaviour. For more than two decades, I have treasured it.

His account of his experiences made such an impression on me that I even considered giving up my career as a TV journalist, and retraining as a photographer.

I stuck with TV because it was getting me to the places – the Caucasus and the Middle East – where I wanted to go then.

Don McCullin’s work has for me an enduring power.  For years, on the walls of various flats where I lived around the world, I had a poster of his picture of a ‘shell-shocked’ U.S. Marine. You can see a detail of it here, on a Guardian review of a recent exhibition.

I could not wait to see the recent documentary about McCullin’s life, directed by Jacqui Morris. I was disappointed to miss it during its brief time in the cinema here in London. I finally saw it this week. At the time of writing, you can still watch it on BBC iPlayer if you’re in the UK.

I was blown away. It was inspiring and heartbreaking by turn. Although famous for his silent images, McCullin is rewardingly articulate. He is also disarmingly honest.

‘My duty is to be there for a reason, not just to have a bloody good time,’ he says at one point in the film. To a question from Michael Parkinson, about whether his photographs made a difference, he replies, ‘Actually, I don’t think they do.’

Many of us who have reported on conflict might suspect this about our own work; few would have thought Don McCullin would say it of his. It may seem that way to him. It does not to the rest of us.

Then there are the personal elements. Compared to Don McCullin, I have just tiptoed around the edge of reporting on armed conflict – yet I recognized the feeling of compulsion he described (even if I had it in much lower doses than he), and the cost to family and relationships. I have lost count of the number of times I have been with a group of colleagues, and realized that more than half the company was divorced.

He understands humanity in the midst of what he calls in Vietnam, ‘total madness and insanity’. The only picture he admits to preparing is one where he rearranged the few remaining possessions of a Vietcong soldier after he had been robbed as he lay dead.

The result is a Vietnam version of Keith Douglas’ Second World War poem Vergissmeinnicht, remade in a photograph.

Watch the film, see the picture, and hear McCullin speak about it.

Countless thousands of words have been written about why journalists want to report on war. It is a question many frequently ask themselves. McCullin – the photographer, and the film – give the answer.

‘I’m meant to be doing this.’

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