‘McCullin has wasted fifty years of his life taking photographs that changed nothing.’
If you or I had said this, it would be laughed at. If a newspaper printed it, they would be lambasted for their lack of respect for arguably the greatest name in conflict photography. The problem is that Don McCullin said words to this effect (you can watch the interview here).
Forming an opinion on this bombshell is not easy; after all, its a huge and complicated topic and there can be few people alive today with a better understanding of the use and impact of conflict images during the last half century. It would seem arrogant and presumptuous to argue that McCullin is wrong, but is it just possible that he isn’t entirely right either?
Living with fifty years worth of horrors would stretch even the strongest mind to its limits, even without the hope that these trials would bring about an improvement in the world. The United States’ longest ever ‘war’ – the Afghanistan conflict – is not yet over. The Syrian civil war is showing no sign of imminent resolution and there are numerous regions that feel like tinderboxes ready to burst into flames. War is just as prevalent now as it was in the past, or so it seems.
If war photography has not stopped war, what has it done? I’m comfortable with the answer ‘something’ rather than nothing. Public support for continued military operations in Afghanistan is limited. The British Parliament voted against military action in Syria (with a palpable public sigh of relief) and the US followed suit. I would argue that tolerance to ‘wars of choice’ has diminished in recent years and that imagery has played an important role.
I have no doubt that a vast and haunting collage of photographs is present in the minds of every person alive today when they consider the consequences of war. These images will stretch from the American Civil War to today’s ‘War on Terror’ and perhaps this illustrates an important point: changing uniforms and scenery do little to distract us from the unchanging essence of these images: potentially avoidable human misery.
A common criticism of war photography today is that there are now so many images that they blur into one and so more photographs just aren’t needed. It’s true that the digital age has caused an explosion in the number of images and the speed with which we see them. Perhaps it’s just me, but this blizzard has an impact of its own. My senses become overwhelmed and quite frequently I just don’t want to ‘let them in’ any more. This instant sense of discomfort (perhaps ‘emotional rejection’ is a better phrase) comes not so much from the power of the single moment, but an appreciation of just how many awful moments human civilisation is able to generate. What’s more, we know that we are just scratching the surface.
I doubt McCullin knew what a toll it would take when he began his remarkable career, but he has certainly paid a considerable personal price and we have been educated by it. We do not need to see the horror first hand, or suffer its fullest consequences, to feel better able to understand the terrible nature of war at a very personal level. For me, when the blur of images slows down and my brain is able to conjure up an image of its own… an image, which to me really epitomises the terrible human consequences of war, it will probably be one of his. Our society’s growing rejection of ‘wars of choice’ and the total destruction of the concept of ‘glorious war’ is synonymous with the name ‘Don McCullin’.
In his final comments, Don says that he would like to be remembered for his British landscapes, many of which are shot near to his Somerset home. It felt like a request to me, rather than a statement. It’s not hard to understand why, at 78, he would like to shift the dialogue towards a topic that will allow fifty years of misery to finally take a back seat. Don is not just experiencing new wars as they unfold; he admits that the old ones are still very much with him.
Having thought and written to this point, I can understand his disappointment, but his is not mine. I see gradual change and, slow as it may be, we cannot any more readily deny that glaciers helped shape our planet’s surface. Sometimes gradual change is the most lasting.
Now that I am living in London and closer to the many museums and galleries, I very much hope to meet Don McCullin and look forward to discussing his British Landscapes. His fingerprint shows through so clearly in these images – perhaps even more so than his photographs from India and Africa – which perhaps says something of the peace he is beginning to find.