‘Shaped by War’ opens with a young Don McCullin in Beirut during the 1982 conflict. Towering above him are the words, ‘I had an almost magnetic emotional sense of direction pulling me to extraordinary places’. Needless to say, I knew I was going to see some truly hard-hitting photos of war and its impact. Don McCullin’s coverage of a wide range of conflicts and humanitarian disasters is a master class where time and time again, you are shown his bravery, ambition and at many points sheer insanity to ensure that the true picture of the conflict was shown.
A key characteristic of the exhibition is the lack of colour photos used by Don McCullin during his career. McCullin said himself, ‘I thought that black and white images in war were much more powerful,’ and his photos reinforce this statement. Two of the photojournalist’s most powerful images include the 1964 World Press Photo of the Year Award depiction of a Turkish Cypriot wife mourning the death of her husband and being held by emotional loved ones, and the shell-shocked US Marine at the Battle of Hue in 1968 depicted in stark black and white, bring an air of sorrow and shock that would not have been possible without a void of colour.
On its own, the exhibition is an exceptional showcase of a talented photojournalist who has ‘been there’. His talent is undeniable and his Commander of the British Empire was most justified, but the most striking part of the exhibition is Don McCullin himself.
Don McCullin was born in 1935 in Finsbury Park, and was evacuated during the war. He did his National Service with the Royal Air Force as a photographic assistant, which included a stint processing reconnaissance photographs in Suez and Cyprus during the mid 1950s. His first major break in photojournalism was in 1958 when his photos of the ‘Guv’nors’ gang of Seven Sisters Road (which co-incidentally included his school friends) were published in the Observer after a publicised policeman murder. Although he had become a part of the Observer team, his big break came in 1961 where after seeing the infamous Peter Leibing photo of the East German guard jumping the barbed wire that was the Berlin Wall in Paris, he went to Berlin where his photos drew international praise.
His work with the Sunday Times Magazine sent him to war conflicts and natural disasters which often led him to danger and in the case of Cambodia, actual physical damage. While Don McCullin’s work gave to him a purpose in life, the effects of what he was capturing have had a major effect on his life.
The exhibition includes an interview with Don McCullin by the Imperial War Museum, which drew me to the damaged man McCullin had become. The experience of the Nigerian-Biafran War in 1969 made McCullin shift his focus for the perpetrators of war to the victims as his once optimistic view on his work started to diminish. When recalling his initial steps into the photojournalism profession, McCullin said, ‘I suddenly thought to myself, for once in your life, you have a purpose. Use it. You could turn the minds of certain people and situations’. By 1971 in the Bangladesh Liberation War, witnessing the cholera outbreaks over the displaced refugees, McCullin said, ‘I knew I had an amazing picture, but what a terrible way of earning a living’.
What make this exhibition a must see is the profound mark McCullin’s story leaves on you. A once great photojournalist of wars and humanitarian disasters now focuses on landscapes and commissioned portraits. Why, you ask? To remove the guilt he had growing inside of him after witnessing death, human devastation and sacrifice for a living. The likes of McCullin have shaped our view on warfare by capturing the true nature of combat, but what takes the plaudits from this exhibition, is the ability to show that the likes of McCullin are shaped by war as much as the soldiers who fought the conflict themselves.
Don McCullin sums up his entire career in one sentence of self defeat. ‘I don’t think I ever changed anything….. because Rwanda still occurred….... I’m ashamed of humanity sometimes’. Walking out of the exhibition you get to understand the tragic genius of McCullin, a man on the frontline who has experienced war and believed he did nothing to change it, but in reality has brought life changing photos to generations. Only one thing is certain, he will not be forgotten.