Best of Hot Docs 2012: McCullin tells the haunting tale of a war photographer’s career
The world of Don McCullin, as depicted in the film named after the renowned war photographer, appears to be a haunted one. Screening Saturday at the Vancity Theatre (June 23), this moving documentary ties the photojournalist’s recollection of decades spent in conflict zones to a series of dramatic and often heart-wrenching pictures of famine, war and humanitarian crisis.
Images—like that of the face of a shell-shocked soldier in Vietnam staring, unblinking, into the camera, or a paper-thin albino boy starving in a refugee camp in Biafra—aren’t just unforgettable to the viewer, but to the photographer, who describes the lasting impact of a career spent documenting war.
“Sometimes people used to say to me, do you have nightmares? And I would say no, only in the daytime, when my eyes are open, and I’m awake, and my memory is on full alert,” he recalls in an interview. “When I say I love photography, I love being in my darkroom—but even my darkroom is a haunted place.”
McCullin’s shocking pictures of war and humanitarian disasters in places like Cypress, Biafra and Vietnam don't pull any punches. But as the photographer tells the stories behind the now iconic images, a reoccurring theme emerges—that, for McCullin, the work wasn’t simply about the photographs, but “about humanity”.
“He had a very sensitive… feel for other people’s suffering,” recalls Harold Evans, McCullin's former editor at the UK's Sunday Times Magazine. “Which also gave him the impetus to feel: 'I can make people wake up to what’s really going on here.'”
As part of the film’s look at the ethics of photojournalism in conflict situations, McCullin describes the fine line between being a photographer documenting the event and an observer concerned about the well-being of the subjects. He recounts one memory of capturing the evacuation of a village in Cypress. As he watched an elderly woman with two walking sticks being hurried along by a soldier, he opted to put down his camera, pick her up, and run her to safety.
“Over and above photography, the very best qualifications you can have when you’re in this situation and you’re exercising this duty as a photographer or… reporter, is that it’s much better to be on the side of humanity,” he says.
A changing photojournalism climate is also depicted in the film. After Rupert Murdoch and a new editor took over The Sunday Times, McCullin recalls a sense that the images of war were no longer a fit for the colour pages of a magazine that was “trying to sell you cars and luxury”.
The days of war photography are now behind McCullin. But one gets the sense as he reflects on the decades of difficult memories that he will never be able to forget the faces he documented throughout his career. Even to the viewer, the photos and stories depicted in the film are haunting, and often difficult to watch. But they nonetheless offer a powerful observation on the role of photojournalism in the coverage of conflict and its consequences.
McCullin screens at the Best of Hot Docs at the Vancity Theatre, on Saturday (June 23)
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