Recently, the BBC aired McCullin, a documentary film dedicated to British photographer Don McCullin. I wrote about him last year, after discovering a book about his day out with The Beatles in 1968. (You can read that here.) This documentary focused on McCullin’s photojournalism from war zones, though – the arenas in which he made his name and cemented his place among the UK’s greatest photographers.
I love Don McCullin. I first discovered his work at an exhibition in London in which his war photography was on display, and I was instantly gripped. I soaked up every single image. McCullin’s defining qualities are his honesty and his fearlessness, omitting no detail and placing his audience uncomfortably at the centre of the action. And it’s a wonderful thing that I used the present tense in that last sentence, because – at the age of 77 – he’s still doing this work. In late 2012, he was interviewed by The Observer ahead of a trip to cover the conflict in Syria. After a career spanning six decades, it’s marvellous that he still has the appetite for his work, despite his advancing years and declining health. Visiting Aleppo with arthritis after a stroke and a series of heart problems says everything about the man. And asked about his motive, his explanation was delicious:
“[Photojournalism] has had it… Celebrity, looks, fashion. If I see another picture of Gwyneth Paltrow, I think I’ll put my head down the lavatory… I can’t take any more of it. That’s why I’m going to Syria.”
The film, directed by David and Jacqui Morris, explores McCullin’s career through a selection of his iconic war images and a series of extremely frank and revealing interviews. It also touches on his upbringing, and the way he had to toughen up from an early age amid constant fighting in his Finsbury Park neighbourhood. Clearly, this background informs his photography, from conflicts across the globe to his gritty portraits of the impoverished within the UK. McCullin has always sought grit and drama above anything else in his work.
The film is a must for photojournalism enthusiasts, and is currently available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer. Don’t miss it.