John G. Morris
There's a new film on the English photographer, Don McCullin, made by Jacqui and David Morris for a company called Artificial Eye. It's called, simply, McCullin, and subtitled For Your Consideration.
In my judgment it deserves the widest possible consideration, for it strikes me as the most powerful antiwar film ever made by or about a single photographer. Its release coincides with that of a new book about McCullin, the eighteenth I believe, published in conjunction with a McCullin exhibition at Reggio Emelia in Italy last summer. Subtitled The Impossible Peace, it is edited by Robert Pledge and Sandro Parmiggiani.
The power of both book and film come as much from McCullin's words as from his photographs. Don expresses his utter disgust, not only with war but with his having to cover it, as a "war junkie." The film is unforgiving of mankind, most of all of McCullin himself. He loathes the idea of being called a War Photographer -- for interesting reasons. Even though he admires the great war photographers of the past --Robert Capa, Eugene Smith, Larry Burrows-- Don deplores the trap they all fell into, himself included. Knowing and loving the soldiers they accompanied in battle, their pictures could not help but glorify heroism --heroism, the very fuel of war through the centuries. He blasts the church for blessing war, and businesses for profiting from it. Some of McCullin's most compassionate words concern his enemies --he respects them as fellow human beings.
In the 90-minute film McCullin unsparingly tells the story of his "lifelong love affair" with photography. Growing up in the slums of North London, son of a locomotive driver who died when Don was 15, McCullin first made print in The Observer in 1958 with pictures of his Finsbury Park gang, The Guvnors. They had been accused of a murder they didn't commit.
In 1961, he asked The Observer to send him to cover the construction of the Berlin Wall, when it became the front line of the Cold War. The Observer refused, but Don gambled all his money by going anyway. His Berlin pictures were not only published but they convinced the editors that he truly had talent. Following assignments in the U.K, he was sent in 1964 to cover the civil war in Cyprus --"my baptism of war." He alternately joined with Turks, Greek Cypriots and British peacekeepers to cover the conflict. "I was on the side of humanity."
McCullin's second war, even more brutal, was the 1964 anti-colonial war in the Congo. There, heads were blown off right in front of him. The following year, managing to get a lift in a CIA plane, Don reported on the mercenaries who had been hired in Rhodesia to support the Congolese colonial government. He came close to being shot for espionage.
McCullin's most intensive war experience came in 1968 when he was working for London's Sunday Times Magazine. In Saigon the Viet Cong's Tet offensive was dramatic but short-lived, but in Hue, the historic capital of Indochina, the VC held out against U.S. Marines for an additional two weeks. Casualty rates ran up to fifty percent in some infantry companies.
Don describes it as "total madness." He observed two U.S. Marines gingerly approaching a Viet Cong corpse. Fearing it was booby trapped, they scattered the man's personal possessions. Don neatly reassembled them for a photo to honor his fallen enemy. It was one of seven published on a rare picture page in The New York Times.
Within weeks McCullin was photographing an even more savage war. The region of Biafra attempted to break away from Nigeria, leaving hundreds of children starving. Don photographed a nine-year-old boy, an albino, clutching an empty corned beef tin, and a sixteen-year-old girl named Patience who was "inches away from death." She posed for him with the dignity of a model. Had it not been for Don's pictures in London's Sunday Times, republished in The New York Times, the world would not have known.
More McCullin wars were soon to come. In 1970, as the Vietnam war dragged to its conclusion, Don himself was wounded while covering the American-sponsored Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. He managed to photograph the dying Cambodian paratrooper who was killed by the same mortar shell that wounded Don. The Sunday Times ran the story under the headline "The Moment McCullin Was Hit."
The war in Cambodia dragged on endlessly, reaching its dramatic conclusion with the 1975 takeover of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge. One day early that year I called on my old friend Michael Rand, art director of the Sunday Times Magazine, in their office on Grays Inn Road in London. I was privileged to engage in a fascinating conversation. Don himself had come to discuss with Michael the idea of returning to Cambodia, to see the story, which had almost cost him his life, to its conclusion. He returned to Phnom Penh, but was ordered out just before the Khmer Rouge takeover of April, 2005.
McCullin later eyewitnessed some of the most revolting scenes of his entire career. His last assignment for the Sunday Times was in Beirut in 1982, where he covered the massacre of Palestinians by Christian Falangists, in a burst of "religious madness." "It was murder from the word go." Israeli forces contributed to the mayhem by bombing a psychiatric hospital. McCullin saw children chained to their beds, lying in their own filth.
No wonder, upon returning to England, that McCullin wanted to photograph nothing but the Somerset landscape --"my idea of heaven." The Sunday Times had changed hands, and Rupert Murdoch's newly appointed Editor announced, "No more wars."
With Don McCullin, the Morrises (no relation) have produced a maddening film.
Which is just what Don intended.
JOHN G. MORRIS is the much honoured former picture editor of Life, The Washington Post, The New York Times and Ladies' Home Journal; and the author of Getting the Picture: A Personal History of Photojournalism (University of Chicago Press, 1998). He was also Executive Editor of Magnum Photos, and European correspondent for National Geographic. He has lived and worked in Paris for the last thirty years. For the trailer to David and Jacqui Morris's documentary film, McCullin, see www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjCfP-F58MY.