The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2018 @ the National Portrait Gallery

Always look on the bleak side of life

Rule one is that, in modern photography, it is forbidden to smile. Photographing anyone smiling instantly leads to your cameras being confiscated. Photographing anyone laughing leads to instant banishment.

Grifton from the series Perfect Strangers by Nigel Clarke © Nigel ClarkeGrifton from the series Perfect Strangers by Nigel Clarke © Nigel Clarke

Grifton from the series Perfect Strangers by Nigel Clarke © Nigel Clarke

Photography is a serious business. Life is all about being isolated and alienated. A tragic affair. None of the sitters in the 57 photographic portraits on show in the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2018 is smiling, let alone laughing. Most have expressions of mute despair, sullen passivity, stare plaintively at the camera or mournfully off into the distance.

Portrait of Marta Weiss and her daughter Penelope from the series Artfully Dressed: Women in the Art World by Carla van de Puttelaar 2017 © Carla van de Puttelaar

Portrait of Marta Weiss and her daughter Penelope from the series Artfully Dressed: Women in the Art World by Carla van de Puttelaar 2017 © Carla van de Puttelaar

Remember that awful movie, Dumb and Dumber. This is a display of Serious and Seriouser.

Greta and Guenda by Guen Fiore © Guen Fiore

Greta and Guenda by Guen Fiore © Guen Fiore

Teenagers are good, because they come with built-in sulkiness (which, as the owner of two teenagers, I know only too well).

Eimear by Trisha Ward 2017 © Trisha Ward

Eimear by Trisha Ward 2017 © Trisha Ward

A number of the sitters are actually crying, this guy because he’s just been given a beating in a kids’ boxing competition. Yes, life is a tragic business.

Runner Up from the series Double Jab ABC Show by Sawm Wright 2017 © Sam Wright

Runner Up from the series ‘Double Jab ABC Show’ by Sam Wright 2017 © Sam Wright

I wonder if anyone submits photos of people smiling, laughing, joking or having fun, and the judges systematically weed them all out to produce this uniformly glum set of portraits. Or whether clued-up entrants know from their photography courses (by far the majority of snappers in the competition have degrees in photography) that happiness is not art.

Africa

It’s a shame the selection on display makes such a cumulatively negative and depressing impact because, taken individually, there are lots of absolutely brilliant photos here.

And the locations, ages and types of sitter are pretty varied and interesting. It’s true that, as last year, there is a heavy bias towards British photographers (over half) and Americans (about 10 out of 57). But they get around a lot – especially to Africa, which was the setting for a brilliant couple of photos by Joey Lawrence.

Portrait of 'Strong' Joe Smart from, the series Tombo's Wound by Joey Lawrence © Joey Lawrence

Portrait of ‘Strong’ Joe Smart from the series Tombo’s Wound by Joey Lawrence © Joey Lawrence

This portrait won third prize. Another image which drew me further in the more I looked, was of a teenager called Sarah in Uganda, photographed by Dan Nelken.

Sarah, aged 13, carries a five gallon jerrycan of water home three times a day from the series the Women of Rutal Uganda by Dan Nelken © Dan Nelken

Sarah, aged 13, carries a five gallon jerrycan of water home three times a day from the series The Women of Rural Uganda by Dan Nelken © Dan Nelken

In fact, the winning photo was one of a series by Alice Mann taken of drum majorettes in South Africa.

Keisha Ncube, Cape Town, South Africa 2017 from the series Drummies by Alice Mann © Alice Mann

Keisha Ncube, Cape Town, South Africa 2017 from the series Drummies by Alice Mann © Alice Mann

About 24 of the 64 or so sitters featured in the photos are black. Precisely 32, half the sitters, are white.

Stories

The three photos above, and the suggestive titles of the series which they’re from, raises the matter of the stories behind the photos.

Because the exhibition doesn’t just show 57 photos cold – each one comes with two wall labels, one telling us quite a bit of biography about each photographer (like the fact that most of them are British and most of them have studied photography at university or art college).

And another, often quite lengthy label, telling us about the sitter and the circumstances behind the photo. In some cases these stories are more interesting and thought-provoking than the photos themselves. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes a thousand words can say as much or more than a picture.

Take the first of the three black kids, above: we learn that the photo of ‘Strong’ Joe Smart was made in the remote village of Tombohuaun in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone where Joey Lawrence (Canadian b.1989, self taught) was working with the charity WaterAid. It interested me to learn that Joe had made this mask while playing with his mates, and in between shots mucked about and giggled. It says a lot for the aesthetic of modern photography that no photos were taken of these high spirits. Instead he is depicted like a Victorian angel staring sensitively and seriously into the philosophical distance.

The photo of Keisha Ncube, a nine-year-old drum majorette, is by Alice Mann (b.1991 South Africa, studied photography at the University of Cape Town). It’s one of a set of four on show here (from a much bigger series) all of which are composed beautifully and taken with pin-point digital clarity. The wall label explains how many of these girls come from very poor backgrounds but how saving up for, or making, the costumes, and taking part in the activities gives them a strong sense of dignity and self worth.

Similarly, the photo of Sarah, aged 13, carrying a five-gallon jerrycan of water on her head is a strong image to begin with but gains immeasurably from learning more about the village and her background. The photographer, Dan Nelkin, was born in 1949 in New York.

Unsmiling kids

I counted 64 people in the 57 photos, of whom 31 are children (plus two babies).

Kids give you instant pathos. Especially if you tell them to stop smiling, laughing and fooling around, stand still and look mournful. The wall label explains that Lo Pò (b.1979 studied photography at the London College of Communication) had spent a long frustrating day trying to photograph a racehorse in Sardinia, packed it in and went for a meal at a local pizzeria. Coming out he spotted this pale freckled girl playing with friends. He asked her parents if he could photograph her and placed her against the warm plaster wall which brings out the tones in her skin and hair. It’s an amazing and striking photograph. But it did make me laugh that the first thing the photographer did was stop her playing with her friends. Now, now, none of that laughing and smiling: this is art! Instead she is carefully posed in the soulful, intense, rather numb expression which is the visual style of our age.

Girl outside the pizzeria at night by Andy Lo Pò 2017 © Andy Lo Pò

Girl outside the pizzeria at night by Andy Lo Pò 2017 © Andy Lo Pò

Charlie Forgham-Bailey (b.1989, based London, studied French and Philosophy at uni) is represented by a set of four photos of boy footballers, who were taking part in the Danone World Cup four unsmiling, stern looking young dudes.

Ditto this photo of ‘Rishai’, snapped by Meredith Andrews, sitting sternly unsmiling on his bike. ‘Don’t smile kid – this is art!’

Rishai from the series After School by Meredith Andrews © Meredith Andrews

Rishai from the series After School by Meredith Andrews © Meredith Andrews

Two particular photos of kids take the art of seriousness to new levels; by Richard Ansett (b.1966), they are from two series, one titled After the Attack (The Manchester bombing) showing a teenager in her bedroom who witnessed the bombing and has had difficulty leaving her house, since; and one titled Children of Grenfell, whose subject matter you can probably guess.

Old people

But it isn’t just kids who can look grim and unsmiling. Images of old people, the more vulnerable the better, can always be relied on for instant pathos.

Nan, Hafen Dag Sheltered Scheme, Mid Glamorgan from the series Old Age Doesn't Come By Itself by Rhiannon Adam 2017 © Rhiannon Adam

Nan, Hafen Dag Sheltered Scheme, Mid Glamorgan from the series Old Age Doesn’t Come By Itself by Rhiannon Adam 2017 © Rhiannon Adam

Even famous old people. There’s a dazzling photo of Hollywood legend Christopher Walken (although can anyone name a movie he’s been in since the Deer Hunter?) Against a jet black background, his aged haunted face looms pale and haunted. It’s fascinating to learn that the session took only a few minutes, the photographer Anoush Abrar (b.1976 Tehran, masters degree in photography) setting up, just the two of them in the room, the photos taking just moments to take.

Christopher Walken by Anoush Abrar 2018 © Anoush Abrar

Christopher Walken by Anoush Abrar 2018 © Anoush Abrar

Katherine Hamnett is featured. Who? The fashion designer who hit the headlines way back in 1984 when she was invited to meet the Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, and wore a white t-shirt of her down design emblazoned with the words ‘58% don’t want Pershing’ referring to Ronald Reagan’s siting of cruise missiles at Greenham Common. Ah, I remember it well. So I was a little surprised to see that she’s still alive, not so surprised to learn that she’s spent a lot of the intervening 34 years making more t-shirts with ‘political’ slogans on them, and not in the slightest bit surprised that the latest one is anti-Brexit photo by Pedro Alvarez (b.1972 took a degree in photography at Blackpool Uni).

Katharine Hamnett by Pedro Alvarez 2018 © Pedro Alvarez

Katharine Hamnett by Pedro Alvarez 2018 © Pedro Alvarez

Ordinary adults

But most people aren’t babies, kids, teenagers or pensioners. Most people belong to the age range 18 to 65. But this age group, what you might call ordinary everyday people, the kind you go into a work environment and see, or see on the Tube at rush hour.

In contrast to serious children, sensitive artists and sad old people I liked some of the photos of blokes. Here’s a geezer, Conor, with his dog Levi, snapped by Tom Cockram (b.1986, BS Hons in photography from Manchester Metropolitan University).

Conor and Levi from the series British Boxing by Tom Cockram 2018 © Tom Cockram

Conor and Levi from the series British Boxing by Tom Cockram 2018 © Tom Cockram

The more I looked at this, the more I liked it, though it took a while to figure out why. First, the subject does not fill the frame (compare and contrast with all the images, above). He is set in a landscape, which just makes it visually more interesting. And the landscape itself is intriguing, the way the heavy mist obscures the trees on the horizon, and teases you to try and decipher the types of buildings behind them – hotel, council estate, I think that’s a petrol station on the right. And then there’s the visual relation between one man and his dog, the way the sloped back of the politely sitting dog makes a line which, if you extended it, would touch the man’s head, in other words together they form a triangle, hidden, concealed in the photo, but which, I think, subtly gives it a unity of composition.

Also featuring a bit more background than usual, and an intriguing one at that, is this photo of a ‘guest at a graduation party’ by Adam Hinton (b.1965).

Guest at a graduation party by Adam Hinton 2018 © Adam Hinton

Guest at a graduation party by Adam Hinton 2018 © Adam Hinton

The wall label tells us that Hinton had travelled to Plovdiv in Bulgaria to document the largest Roma community in Europe and came across a party celebrating the graduation of several young women from the local university.

I liked this photo because it is not of a serious-looking child, nor of a frail and vulnerable old lady, nor of a high-minded liberal fashionista. It captures the spirit and culture of the huge number of people across Europe, who aren’t educated, don’t read new novels, go to the opera or art galleries, who just make a living trading horses, dealing in scrap metal, working as seasonal labourers, fixing up cars, running second hand TV shops, men who try to do the best for their wives and kids, and on special occasions dress up in bling and greased hair.

It reminded me of some of the photos I’ve seen at the Calvert 22 Foundation, which focuses on art and photography from East European countries, or the absolutely brilliant photos of men and landscapes around the Black Sea taken by Vanessa Winship and featured in a recent exhibition at the Barbican.

I liked all these because they are unusual.

By contrast when I read that one of the photographers on display here had set off on a 1,000 mile roadtrip round America on a Harley Davidson bike, photographing the weird and eccentric people she met, my heart sank. If I never see another black and white photo of weird and kooky, provincial, backwoods, redneck characters from America, it will be soon.

Rinko Kawauchi

There is absolutely no requirement for the exhibition as a whole to be representative of everything. I just like counting, noting data sets, trends, numbers. My day job is a data analyst for a government agency.

Thus I couldn’t help noticing the complete absence of images from India or China which, between them, have 2.7 billion people, 38% of the world’s population. Also because I’m still savouring the exhibition of works by Vasantha Yogananthan at the Photographers’ Gallery. It’s a big country, India. Lots of people. Very colourful. Not here at all (there is one photo of a British Sikh).

I wonder why. Don’t Indians apply? Do Westerners not go looking for colourful subjects in India any more (as they obviously still do in Africa, from the evidence here)?

A country which was specifically represented was Japan, in the form of a special feature – a wall of eleven works by Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi. Kawauchi’s work came to prominence with the simultaneous publication of three books: Hanako (a documentary of a young girl of the same name), Hanabi (which translates as ‘fireworks’) and Utatane (a Japanese word that describes the state between wakefulness and sleep. In 2002 Kawauchi was awarded the Kimura-Ihei-Prize, Japan’s most important emerging talent photography prize, following the publication of her first photobooks.

Her photos are about delicacy. She shoots in a way which lets in so much light that the photos are almost over-exposed, have a milky misty quality. And her subject appears to be the everyday life of her family – ‘small events glimpsed in passing’ – including a couple of striking images of adults holding a tiny, tiny baby.

Untitled by Rinko Kawauchi

Untitled by Rinko Kawauchi


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Unreasonable Behaviour by Don McCullin (2015)

‘I needed to be at home. I needed the peace of my own country, England. Yet when I go home and sleep in my own bed, I soon become restless. I am not shaped for a house. I grew up in harsh surroundings. I have slept under tables in battles for days on end. There is something about this that unfits you for sleeping in beds for the rest of your life. My wars, the way I’ve lived, is like an uncurable disease. It is like the promise of a tremendous high and the certainty of a bad dream. It is something I both fear and love, but it’s something I can’t do without.’ (p.226)

Don McCullin is one of the most famous war photographers of the 20th century. He first published his autobiography (co-written with Lewis Chester) in 1990. This is the new, updated edition, published in 2015, as McCullin turned 80.

Having just read Dispatches, the stoned, stream-of-consciousness prose poetry of Michael Herr’s classic account of his time covering Vietnam War, the detached, lucid prose of this book initially seemed a bit flat. But it perfectly suits the laconic, understated attitude McCullin brings to the varied and intense subject matter – whether it’s massacres in Africa or meeting the Beatles or the unlikely friendship he once struck up with Earl Montgomery.

Trips to war zones are covered in a few pages, insights dealt with in one or two pithy sentences. The battle of Khe Sanh in Vietnam takes up 60 pages of Herr’s book but gets just two paragraphs here – but it feels enough. There’s little fat, very little to come between you and the many highlights of McCullin’s extraordinarily long and colourful life. Which makes this a hugely enjoyable and absorbing book.

(By his own account McCullin suffers from severe dyslexia – as a result he didn’t passed any exams, has never liked reading and so, presumably, a great deal of credit for shaping this consistently spare, flat but very focused prose must go to the book’s co-author, Lewis Chester.)

Here’s an example, almost at random, of the book’s clipped, spare prose which is, nonetheless, gripping because it focuses so precisely on the relevant information and detail of the extreme events it describes. It’s January 1968 and McCullin is in Vietnam covering the Tet Offensive.

Under a heavy overcast sky, I joined the convoy of the Fifth Marine Commando as it started rolling up to Hue. It ploughed through heavy mud and rain, past houses collapsed and pitted by artillery, and columns of fleeing refugees. It was very cold. (p.116)

The narrative moves fast from one carefully selected high point to the next, focusing in on moments of insight and awareness. Cameos of war. Snapshots in time. Photos in prose.

Beginnings

Born into a working class household in Finsbury Park, North London, McCullin left school at 15 without any qualifications before doing his National Service, which included postings to: Suez, Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, and Cyprus during the Enosis conflict. It was, as he puts it, ‘an extended Cook’s tour of the end of Empire.’ (p.45) His dad was ill, his mother struggled to manage three small kids, they lived in real squalor and poverty, and he grew up with a rough bunch of post-war lads, lots of fights outside north London dancehalls in the Teddy Boy 1950s.

But, as he explains, it was photographs of the local gang – the Guv’nors – at the time a local murder had hit the deadlines, that first got him noticed, that got him introduced to Fleet Street picture editors and – voom! – his career took off. Within a few pages he has begun to be given photo assignments, and then starts winning photography prizes, which bring better assignments, more pay, more freedom.

Wars

He makes it clear that he did plenty of other jobs – photo reportage at a nudists camp, countryside gigs, snapping the Beatles and so on – but it was the conflict zones which really attracted him.

  • Berlin 1961 as the Wall was going up – East German soldiers looking back, West Berlin, Germany, August 1961
  • Cyprus 1964 – photographs of a Turkish village where Greek terrorists had murdered inhabitants. He makes the interesting point that Mediterranean people want a public display of grief and so encouraged him to take photos.
  • Congo 1964 – a Boy’s Own account of how he smuggled himself into a team of mercenaries who flew into the chaos after the assassination of Patrick Lumumba, encountering CIA agents and then accompanying the mercenaries on a ‘mission’ to rescue 50 or so nuns and missionaries who had been kidnapped by brutal black militias, known as the Simbas, who raped and dismembered some of the nuns. He sees a lot of young black men being lined up alongside the river to be beaten, tortured and executed by the local warlord.
  • Vietnam 1965 – There was something specially glamorous about Vietnam and it attracted a huge number of correspondents and photographers: he namechecks Larry Burrows and Sean Flynn, the latter a big presence in Michael Herr’s classic account Dispatches, both of whom were eventually reported missing presumed dead. Vietnam was ‘black humour and farce’ and ‘waste on a mega scale’ (p.95)
  • Bihar, India during the famine of 1965 – he contrasts the monstrous amount of food and all other resources being wasted by the Yanks in Vietnam, with the absolute poverty and starvation in India.
  • Israel in the Six Day War – where he accompanied the first platoon into Arab Jerusalem, soldiers being potted by snipers to the right and left, before the city was captured and he snapped singing soldiers kissing the Wailing Wall.
  • Vietnam – the Battle for Hue, 1968. He was there for eleven days and it comes over as one of the most intense experiences from a life full of intense experiences. He is appalled at the waste. Hue, produced two of his most famous images –
  • Biafra – McCullin went back three years in a row and was initially supportive of the Biafrans, who had seceded from Nigeria because they were scared of their increasing bad treatment by the Nigerian state. But the Nigerian government (secretly supported by the British government) fought to defeat the Biafran army and reincorporate the province into the country. (It’s interesting to compare McCullin’s account with the long chapter about the same war in Frederick Forsyth’s autobiography, The Outsider.)
  • Cambodia 1970, where McCullin was wounded by mortar shrapnel from the Khmer Rouge.
  • Jordan 1970 where fighting broke out in the capital Amman between Jordanian troops and Palestinians.
  • With legendary travel writer Norman Lewis in Brazil, McCullin absorbed Lewis’s dislike of American Christian missionaries who appeared to use highly coercive tactics to round up native tribes and force them into their re-education compounds.
  • East Pakistan 1971 for the immense suffering caused by the breakaway of East Pakistan, eventually to be reborn as Bangladesh.
  • Belfast 1971 where he is blinded by CS gas and finds it uncomfortable being caught between the three sides, Catholic, Protestant and Army, and how he missed Bloody Sunday (30 January 1972).
  • Uganda – where he is imprisoned along with other journos in Idi Amin’s notorious Makindye prison and really thinks, for a bad few hours, that he’s going to be tortured and executed.
  • Vietnam summer 1972 – By this time, with its government negotiating for American withdrawal, the wider public had lost a lot of interest in the war. The number of Americans in country had hugely decreased since 1968, and the peace negotiations were well under way and yet – McCullin discovered that he fighting was more intense and destructive than ever.
  • Cambodia summer 1972 – fear of falling into the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
  • Israel 1973 the Yom Kippur War in which Sunday Times reporter and friend Nick Tomalin is killed.
  • The new editor of the Sunday Times magazine, Hunter Davies, is more interested in domestic stories. Among 18 months of domestic features, Don does one on Hadrian’s Wall. And a piece about racist hoodlums in Marseilles with Bruce Chatwin.
  • He hooks up again with the older travel writer Norman Lewis, who is a kind of father figure to him, to report on the plight of native tribes in South America being rounded and up and forcibly converted by American missionaries.
  • Spring 1975 – back to Cambodia for the final weeks before the Khmer Rouge take Phnom Penh. It is in transit in Saigon that McCullin learns his name is on a government blacklist and he is prevented from entering Vietnam and locked up by police in the airport until he can blag a seat on the flight organised by Daily Mail editor David English taking Vietnamese war orphans to England.
  • Beirut 1975 – McCullin had visited Beirut in the 1960s when it was a safe playground for the international rich, but in 1975 long-simmering resentments burst into a complex, violent and bitter civil war. At great risk McCullin photographs a massacre carried out by the right-wing Christian Falange militia.
  • 1975 – among the Palestinian Liberation organisation, McCullin meets Yasser Arafat and other leaders, and gives his take on the Arab-Israeli struggle, bringing out the terrorist tactics of the Jewish side – the well-known Irgun and Stern gang – and Jewish massacres of Palestinians back in the founding year of 1948.
  • 1977 – West Germany, to report on old Nazis, Hitler’s bodyguard, unrepentant SS killers.
  • Iran autumn 1978 to cover a huge earthquake.
  • Iran 1979 after the Islamic Revolution.
  • Spring 1980 with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan.
  • Spring 1982 – El Salvador. Covering a firefight in a remote town between soldiers and left-wing guerrillas he falls off a roof, breaking his arm in five places. He makes it to a hospital, is looked after by colleagues and flown back to England, but the long-term injury interferes with his ability to hold a camera. Worse, it crystallises the strains in his marriage. In a few dispassionate pages he describes leaving his wife of twenty years and children, and moving in with the new love of his life, Laraine Ashton, founder of the model agency IMG.
  • 1982 the Lebanon – to cover the Israeli invasion.
  • 1983 Equatorial Guinea ‘the nastiest place on earth’.
  • 1980s A lengthy trip to see Indonesia’s most primitive tribes, in places like Irian Jiwa and the Mentawai Islands, with photographer Mark Shand (who wrote it up in a book titled Skulduggery).

Personal life

At this point in the early 1980s a lot of things went wrong for McCullin. His marriage broke down. His injuries took nearly two years to properly heal. The British authorities prevented him going with the Task Force to the Falklands War, which could have been the climax of his war career and obviously still rankles 35 years later.

And then Andrew Neil, the new editor of the Sunday Times, itself recently bought by the brash media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, turned its back on the gritty reportage of the 1960s and 70s to concentrate more on style and celebrity. As a friend summed it up to McCullin – ‘No more starving Third World babies; more successful businessmen around their weekend barbecues.’ (p.275) The book describes the meeting with Neil in which he was manoeuvred into resigning.

He was still not recovered from his injuries and now he had no job and no future.

And then came the bombshell that his first wife, the woman he left for Laraine, was dying of a brain tumour. Like everything else, this is described pithily and swiftly, but there’s no mistaking the pain it caused. The year or more it took his first wife to die of a brain tumour was traumatic and the emotional reaction and the tortured guilt he felt at having abandoned her, put a tremendous strain on his new relationship with Laraine. In the end he broke up with Laraine: she returned to her London base.

Thus, distraught at the death of Christine, McCullin found himself alone in the big house in Somerset which he’d been doing up with Laraine, with no regular job and isolated from his journo buddies. It’s out of this intense period of unhappiness and introspection that come his numerous bleak and beautiful photographs of the Somerset countryside. These were eventually gathered into a book and John Fowles, in the introduction, notes how ominously they reflect the scars of war. Maybe, McCullin muses but – now he has shared this autobiographical background – we readers are now able to see all kinds of emotions in them. Certainly he preferred winter when the trees are skeletons and the ruts and lanes are full of icy water – all under threatening black clouds.

As he turned fifty McCullin’s life concentrated more and more on mooching about in the countryside. He takes up with a model, Loretta Scott and describes their mild adventures for precisely one page (p.298). Then has a fling with Marilyn Bridges, a Bunny Girl turned impressive nature photographer. McCullin is awarded the CBE in 1993. He married Marilyn and they travel to Botswana, Bali, India and Cambodia but could never agree whether to base themselves in Somerset or in her home town of New York. There were fierce arguments and a lot of plate smashing. By 2000 he was divorced and single again.

India is his favourite country to photograph. He assembled his shots of it into a book titled India.

He had been supporting himself since he was kicked off the Sunday Times with jobs from other newspapers but mainly by doing adverts, commercial work. Lucrative but soulless. On the one hand he prided himself on being a completely reformed war junkie, on the other his soul secretly, deep down, hankered for conflict and disaster.

  • 2001 So it was a boon when he was invited to travel to Zambia, Botswana and South Africa to chronicle the devastating blight of AIDS on already impoverished people.
  • 2003 back to the same countries to check progress.
  • 2004 Ethiopia with his new wife, Catherine Fairweather (married 7 December 2002).

The Africa trips resulted in another book, Don McCullin in Africa. He tells us that in total he has authored 26 books of photography – quite an output.

  • In 2003 his old friend Charles Glass invited McCullin to accompany him back to Iraq, via their familiar contacts among the Kurds. In fact they accompany the party of Ahmad Chalabi, the smooth-talking exile who had persuaded the Americans that Saddam was running programmes to make Weapons of Mass Destruction. But both journalist and photographer are kept completely isolated among the Chalabi entourage, flown to an isolated airport miles away from any action. McCullin reflects sadly that the American military had learned the lessons of Vietnam and now kept the Press completely under control and authorised. No room for cowboys winging it and roaming the battlefields at will as per Tim Page or Michael Herr in their heyday.

Another book, In England, brought together work from assignments around the country between 1958 and 2007, generally reflecting McCullin’s sympathy with the underdog, the poor, the derelict, and he is happy that it – along with the books on Africa, India and the Somerset landscape, have come to outsell the war books. He wants to be remembered as a photographer not a ‘war photographer’. In fact the final pages describe the assignment which gave him more pleasure than anything in his life, a three-year-labour of love to visit ancient Roman sites around the Mediterranean, titled Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across The Roman Empire.

He has a stroke, from which he recovers with the help of a quadruple heart bypass – but then – aged 77 – he is persuaded to go off for one last war adventure, travelling with his friend Richard Beeston, Foreign Editor for The Times, and under the guidance of Anthony Lloyd, the paper’s Chief Foreign Correspondent,  to Aleppo, in Syria, to cover the collapse of the so-called Arab Spring into a very unpleasant civil war, to experience for one last time ‘that amazing sustained burst of adrenalin at the beginning, followed later by the tremendous whoosh of relief that comes with the completion of any dangerous undertaking’ (p.334).


Photography

Equipment is fun to play with but it’s the eye that counts. (p.340)

There’s some mention of his early cameras at the start, and a vivid description of the difficulties of getting a light reading, let alone changing film, under fire in Vietnam – but on the whole very little about the art of framing and composing a photo. The book is much more about people, stories and anecdotes. And considering the photos are the rationale for his fame and achievement, there are comparatively few examples in the book – I counted 47. And they’re printed on the same matt paper as the text i.e. not gloss reproductions on special paper.

All suggesting it’s probably best to buy the photos separately in large format, coffee-table editions.

Learnings

War is exciting and glamorous. Compelling. McCullin candidly states that many people found the Vietnam war ‘addictive’ (p.92), echoing the fairly obvious analyses of Michael Herr and Tim Page.

And he briefly remarks the need to find out whether he ‘measures up’ – like so many men, he obviously sees it as a test of his manhood: how will he react when the shooting starts? Although he reports himself as feeling panic and fear quite regularly, the evidence suggests that he was phenomenally brave to go the places he went, and to stay there through tremendous danger.

The point or purpose

The psychological cost of being a war photographer But the clear-eyed and clipped accounts of each conflict refer fairly often to the psychological cost of seeing so much trauma so close up. He reflects on the damage it must do but, that said, the text doesn’t really reflect any lasting damage. From his appallingly deprived childhood onwards, there’s always been the understated implication of his strength and bullishness. Quite regularly he refers to troubles with police, scuffles with passport officers, answering back to armed militias, standing up to bullies and generally not backing away from a fight. He’s tough and doesn’t really open up about his feelings. He is most overt about being upset to the point of despair, not about anything he witnessed but about the cruel death of his first wife to cancer, which leaves him utterly bereft for a long period.

The morality of war photography Apart from the personal cost, though, there’s also the nagging doubt that he is profiting, quite literally, from other people’s unspeakable suffering and pain. Is he a parasite, exploiting their misery? He and other war photographers justified their activities as bringing the ‘reality’ of war to the attention of a) a complacent public ignorantly preparing to tuck into their Sunday lunch b) those in authority who had the power to change it, to end it, to stop the killing.

In this vein he writes of the famine victims in Bihar:

No heroics are possible when you are photographing people who are starving. All I could do was to try and give the people caught up in this terrible disaster as much dignity as possible. There is a problem inside yourself, a sense of your own powerlessness, but it doesn’t do to let it take hold, when your job is to stir the conscience of others who can help. (p.95)

And he also gets very fired up about the plight of AIDS victims in Africa.

But well before the end of the book, he also expresses doubts whether any photo he took made any difference to any of the conflicts he covered. Re. the AIDS in Africa work, he comments:

I had a notion that this was an area in which my photographs might have a positively beneficial effect, by raising consciousness and awareness. This was not something that could be said about my war pictures, which demonstrably had not impaired the popularity of warfare. (p.304)

The latter clause reminding me of the poet W.H. Auden, who wrote a lot of socially conscious poetry throughout the 1930s, but ended up in the 1950s candidly admitting that, as he put it, no poem or play or essay he wrote ever saved a single Jew. There are limits to what even the most powerful art can achieve.

When he went to Africa in the early 2000s to chronicle the impact of AIDS McCullin really wanted these horrific pictures to have an impact, ‘to be an assault on people’s consciences’ (p.308). But I’ve been seeing photos and reports of starving Africans all my adult life. I’m afraid that, in a roundabout way, McCullin, by contributing to the tidal wave of imagery we are all now permanently surrounded with, may have contributed to creating precisely the indifference and apathy he claims to be trying to puncture.

Is war photography art? McCullin was given a retrospective exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1980s (he has subsequently had numerous exhibitions, at Tate, the Imperial War Museum, all the top galleries). He describes his pride at the time in being chosen by the V&A, and it is an accolade indeed – but does rather confirm the sense that, precisely insofar as the photos are changed and transmuted into ‘works of art’, hung on walls and discussed by slick connoisseurs, so they lose their power to upset and disturb, the purpose he ostensibly created them for, and enter the strangely frozen world of art discourse.

I had drafted this thought before I came upon McCullin’s own reflection on photography-as-art on the penultimate page of this long and fascinating book.

One of the things that does disturb me is that some documentary photography is now being presented as art. Although I am hugely honoured to have been one of the first photographers to have their work bought and exhibited by the Tate Gallery, I feel ambiguous about my photographs being treated as art. I really can’t talk of the people in my war photographs as art. They are real. They are not arranging themselves for the purposes of display. They are people whose suffering I have inhaled and that I’ve felt bound to record. But it’s the record of the witness that’s important, not the artistic impression. I have been greatly influenced by art, it’s true, but I don’t see this kind of photograph itself as being art. (p.341)

From the horse’s mouth, a definitive statement of the problem and his (very authoritative) opinion about it.

Photography in the age of digital cameras and the internet Then again, maybe the photographer doesn’t have any say over how his or her art is, ultimately, consumed and defined.

Superficially, yes, the first few McCullin photos you see are shocking, vivid and raw depictions of terror, grief and shock – but the cumulative effect of looking at hundreds of them is rather to dull the senses – exactly as thousands of newspaper, radio, TV and internet reports, photos and videos have worked to dull and numb all of us from the atrocity which is always taking place somewhere in the world (war in Syria, famine in Somalia). It’s hard not to end up putting aside the ’emotional’ content and evaluating them purely in formal terms of composition and lighting, colour and shade, the ‘drama’ or emotional content of the pose.

History If the photos didn’t really change the course of any of the wars he reported on, and nowadays are covered in the reassuring patina of ‘art’, to be savoured via expensive coffee table books and in classy art galleries – there is one claim which remains solid. His work will remain tremendously important as history.

Taken together, McCullin’s photographs amount to a documentary history of most of the significant conflicts of the last 40 years of the twentieth century. And this autobiography plays an important role in creating a continuous narrative and context to underpin them, providing short but very useful, focused background explanations to most of the conflicts which the photographs depict.

Early on in his story, McCullin remarks that his National Service was a kind of Cook’s Tour of the end of the British Empire. In a way the rest of his career has been a continuation of that initial itinerary, as he ended up visiting some 120 countries to record for posterity how peoples all around the world lived, fought and died during his and our troubled times.

‘I was, what I always hoped to be, an independent witness.’ (p.116)


Credit

Unreasonable Behaviour (revised edition) by Don McCullin was published by Jonathan Cape in 2015. All references and quotes are to the 2015 hardback edition.

Related links

Reviews of photography exhibitions

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