The film starts off briefly discussing McCullin’s roots and his escape from the mean streets of East London. Fittingly, his first assignment for the Observer was shooting the increasingly violent street gangs with whom he had himself been closely associated with not long prior. The majority of his work however, and the key focus of this documentary, is his astonishing array of war photography.
McCullin covered conflicts in areas ranging from the Congo, Vietnam, Biafra, Belfast, Cambodia (where he was badly wounded for the first time), Lebanon and Cyprus. Archive footage of each war is used deftly and the candid interviews with both McCullin himself and former Sunday Times editor Harry Evans also provide valuable insight and context for each conflict. What stands out most of all however, and what will remain seared into your memory once the movie is over, are McCullin’s stunning black and white still photographs. It really is a haunting collection of images and the often chilling backstory McCullin provides for each one only adds to their power.
McCullin was, by his own admission, a war-junkie who couldn’t resist the lure of another adventure. He would spend months at a time away from his wife and family and grew restless when he took on less dangerous assignments. Eventually his addiction cost him his marriage, a fact which clearly still affects him to this day. It’s also made clear that McCullin struggles deeply with feelings of guilt over the nature of his work. In part this guilt is caused by the issue of his profiting from the despair of others, a moral dilemma he never truly reconciled in his own mind. However, perhaps an even greater cause of guilt was simply his inability to help.
McCullin was a true humanitarian by nature, though permanently scarred by what he has seen and irrevocably shocked at man’s cruelty to man, he did demonstrably assistant those in need where he could. We hear of how he carried a disabled elderly woman away from a bombing target and carried badly wounded Vietnamese soldiers to an aid tent to try and save their lives. He did what he could, where he could. However, often, as in the case of his visit to Biafra, a region experiencing extreme suffering and wracked by starvation, he was simply powerless to help.
All of McCullin’s photographs are striking and memorable in their own way, yet the pictures he took in the Biafra region and the stories he tells of walking into a camp and being greeted by hundreds of children starving to death, are perhaps the most powerful of all. When he describes what he saw in that camp and you see the images he took, it really hits home not only how disturbing this must be for him personally, but also just how vital his work is. These conflicts and horrors are things we may sometimes wish we could ignore but it’s people like McCullin who put themselves through such experiences to ensure that we are forced to face the realities of war.
When McCullin recalls his experiences in Lebanon he talks of how he entered a badly bomb damaged hospital which housed a children’s psychiatric ward on its top floor that had been abandoned by all but one nurse. The pictures he took are shocking to witness, but the distressing story also emphasises just how difficult it must be for McCullin to detach himself from what is around him even for that brief moment where he picks up his camera and clicks. There is a telling moment during this hospital sequence where McCullin captures both his and the viewer’s thought process perfectly when he simply states that at that moment he felt “ashamed of humanity”.
McCullin is a sobering refection of 20th Century conflict and a timely look back at the incredible career of a vital photojournalist whose moral dilemmas still plague him even today. It’s an often harrowing and difficult film to watch but it is nevertheless an informative and thought-provoking documentary which deserves to be seen.