I was ravaged and confused by this war as never before, and could not see not the smallest justification for it. Or for my presence here – unless it was to remind people, through my pictures, of the futility of all wars.
I always hated superlatives – how can you say that something is the best unless you tried all the possible alternatives in the world? – but even I find hard not to use them when referring to Don McCullin. He is, simply put, my favourite photographer.Ever.
Everyone has a mental image, a frame, of a particular event, usually shot by a professional photographer. This is particularly true for wars or for situations of distress, and in my case the vast majority of these – I found out – have been shot by a straightforward, no-nonsense bloke born in a blue-collar neighbourhood in London’s Finsbury Park, long before it became the stomping ground of hipsters and Islamist hate preachers. The reason for this is the uncanny ability that Don has to portray the intimate consequences of disaster – war, mainly – when it comes knocking on their door. Never obstrusive, never in-your-face, Don McCullin seems to be capable of stopping in the midst of the chaos, amongst the buzzing and cracking of bullets, to take painfully beautiful and intense pictures.
Take my two favourites, for example, that I’ve copied above hoping that he won’t mind: in the first one a young Turkish Cypriot girl, hunting rifle in her hands, sets off to avenge the death of her brother at the hands of her Greek neighbours now turned enemies. It would’ve been easy to walk by this scene, attracted by what a war can offer aplenty: gore, carnage, bloodshed, crying. But, yet, Don McCullin didn’t; he stopped, took a light reading and snapped a cruelly beautiful picture that said everything that had to be said about that conflict: that it was cruel; that it turned families against families, tearing villages and communities apart; that it was so intense to lead a person clearly not prepared for it, a young girl dressed as a schoolgirl, to grab a weapon and set off, looking for revenge.
Or take “The Mandolin Player”, as it’s now called. It was shot in Beirut, 1980s: a group of Christian Maronite guerrillas, weapons in hands, are grinning towards the camera (even though they were also issuing death threats to Don). One of them holds a mandolin and appears to be playing it.
The scene is quite unsettling as it is – I mean, can you imagine hearing a mandolin in a war-torn street, littered with charred remnants of houses, while facing unarmed a group of rifles-touting thugs? – but it’s only at this point that you realise that, meters away from the musician, there’s a body.
The body of a Palestinian, slaughtered near his house in one of Beirut’s poorest suburbs. It’s at that moment that the picture hits you and tells you how stupid this war was, how insane, how pointless and how utterly nonsensical it was. All with one clic of a shutter.
This is, in my opinion, Don McCullin’s power. Many have shown us how war and life look like in the eyes of the winners, but a few have given us the privilege of looking at the same through the eyes of those who are losing it.
In “Unreasonable Behaviour” Don, with the same dry frankness used in his pictures, tells the story of his life, from being evacuated out of London during the Blitz to his experiences on the frontlines of Jerusalem, Vietnam, Cambodia, Biafra and the Bogside. We learn of the role played by his father in developing his photographic sensibility in post-War London and how he began documenting life at the edges of the city, from hobos living rough in Spitalfields to the striking portrait of a local gang, the Guvnors, posing on the shell of a bombed-out building in the East End.
The book follows McCullin as he embarks in a series of hair-raising adventures: he’s with ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare in the Congo, with T’sahal in Jerusalem and with the Marines in the mud of Hue. He’s as matter-of-fact for his exploits and prizes as he’s unforgiving for his failures and for his absence from home. There’s one question that keeps on surfacing throughout the book, and it is why? Why going through all this pain, why volunteering to be exposed to such an amount of human suffering, physical or moral as it might be?
The answer that McCullin gives is simple and it’s beautifully portrayed in the chapters dedicated to Biafra, probably his hardest assignment: because people, especially those living in the comfort of a peaceful country, need to know that fellow humans are suffering and are in need of support, in need of a rousing “Stop it!” yelled from the public opinion, and it’s the job of the photographer, of the journalist, to bridge the gap between the sufferers and those who can make it stop.
The issue is, as Don soon discovered, that this doesn’t quite work.