Don McCullin · war photographer
In the cosy niches of a relatively democratic and balanced Europe, I look at the horror of war photography which seems so far removed from the sometimes bland and tame modern art photography that one sees all over nowadays. It appears to be of another league.
McCullin talks of being ‘quite damaged’ (McCullin, in his subdued tone, notable when one listens to him you do get the sense of someone who has seen too much horror and injustice. Then the question arises, what has been the value of McCullin and other war photographers great efforts? In general it appears that McCullin genuinely believed that his work would bring about change, which no doubt sit at the back of the mind of any war photographer. But has it? Listening to others who have been through similar careers, one often gets the same sense of resignation and quiet desperation that somehow the work that they have so willingly volunteered to do has not yielded the desired results except in some cases.
However, as pointed out by Sontag the very act of depicting these images of war can provoke the opposite effect. Maybe this is because people feel powerless in the face of the calamities that they are observing and therefore cannot take the time to absorb the information. Best reject it. I’ve often wondered if the context of exhibition is not everything, with images. As we see later in this section of the course, the well respected James Natchway holds an exhibition of some heavy grotesque scenes of war to a middle class affluent audience that sips champagne and east delicacies talking about the terrible plight of these poor people. Not only do I find this kind of situation somewhat hypocritical but in another sense it seems to detract completely from the work that the photographer has attempted to do, given that all of that effort and risk has gone towards finally exhibiting the images. Sontag I believe is right to point out that attempts to make aesthetically beautiful, horror is morally questionable in itself.
McCullin in another video says: ‘The way you stand when you take a photo is important’. (McCullin, 2019.) This refers to a sense of ethical engagement with the subject of photography as McCullin goes on to say: ‘The way that you represent yourself is equally important…’. This statement by McCullin chimes with en ethical sensitivity to the subject and perhaps a deeper understanding than many of us have, that we are in a sense taking something, when we shoot a photo that is not just an image.
McCullin, D. A master at work (online, Youtube) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LALtLUjSeJs&feature=emb_rel_pause [accessed, April 2020]