The Stillness of Life

Thomas Bolger talks to Don McCullin about his landmark landscape exhibition

“And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?”

– William Blake

Somerset first acted as a sanctuary for Don McCullin when he was evacuated during the Blitz. After a lifetime of etching the historical traumas of the 20th century into black and white film – shell-shocked Vietnam marines, starving orphans in Biafra, grieving Palestinian mothers – the wildflower meadows and rolling hills of the South West are now his greatest salvation: “I dream of this when I’m in battle. I think of misty England…”

The River Alham that runs through my village in Somerset, Mid 1990s

Following McCullin’s incredible retrospective at Tate Britain last year, over 60 of his landscape photographs are now being presented at Hauser & Wirth Somerset, a beautiful arts centre converted from 18th century farm buildings that is a short stroll from his home. With landscaped gardens resplendent even in winter, it is the perfect site for the British photojournalist’s rumination on the splendour and psychogeography of the local area. “Although I grew up in London,” notes McCullin, “coming here as a child during the war stuck with me. I came back to Somerset because I feel that spiritually, this is where I was always meant to be. If you can find the place you believe you belong to, it doesn’t matter where you’re born. Somerset turned out to be the place I put down my roots.”

Photography Matilda Temperley

McCullin’s life has been branded by conflict and motion. Between 1966 and 1984, he gained worldwide notoriety as the Sunday Times Magazine’s overseas correspondent, covering catastrophes and upheaval in everywhere from Cyprus to Northern Ireland, Lebanon to the Belgian Congo. The man has cheated death on multiple occasions, having caught cerebral malaria, fallen off Salvadorian roofs, been imprisoned by Ugandan despots, shredded by mortar shrapnel and had bullets intended for him fortunately lodged in Nikon cameras. Few other photographers have expended as many of their nine lives, and despite his focus on the natural world, this trauma and darkness seeps into the work. Previously, he has noted that “you can see in my landscapes the dark Wagnerian clouds…the nakedness of the trees and the emptiness, which makes the earth look as if it had been scorched or pulverised by shells.” In recent years McCullin has been pushing his photography to its blackest extremities in the developing process, which he still does in his darkroom at home. Why this drive for darkness?When I develop I am looking for impact,” he replies, “I don’t want anybody to walk past one of my pictures without stopping and saying ‘what’s that all about? Why am I compelled to look here?’. I want people to see my pictures like a shout, a Munch scream, demanding you look at this image. I can only do that by intensifying the energy and darkness of the prints.”

The Somerset levels at dusk, 1998

Although the exhibition is titled The Stillness of Life, much of the landscapes are in a state of flux, their composition composed of churned mud, sun struggling through breaking clouds, tumultuous waves. I ask McCullin how he approaches the natural world as a subject? “One of the pictures was only taken four weeks before the exhibition opened – I stood on a farm gate for an hour in the early, freezing morning, and I did it more than once over that weekend. I’m like a bloody predator. I wait for the prey to come, the skies, the elements. I go out as a kind of hunter, like an Inuit who catches seals. I sit and wait with the most amazing patience. You need a lot of stamina, willpower and imagination.”

The Road to the Somme, France, 1999

Local rivers, dew ponds and vales are suspended in gelatin silver prints, shrouded in mist and snow, while skeletal trees and hill forts reach upwards. Is there a reason why winter is the dominant seasonal lens for the county? McCullin states that: “I don’t like photographing in the summer, when the trees are covered in leaves, as you don’t see their true character. I normally shoot in the late afternoon, around three o’ clock, because I’m always trying to obscure the sun with clouds. Strangely enough, the last picture I did for the show was taken in a small village near me called Evercreech. I did that picture in the morning for a change and that photo may well be the end of my landscaping. I’m coming to the end of the road in that respect and looking forward to taking more time now to sit, read and be in tempo with my physical output, what I can achieve. A lot of my landscape work was previously tied to the physical challenge of climbing up hills, standing there in bitterly cold winds. That kind of macho side of me has gone now, because I don’t want to catch pneumonia and die tomorrow.”

Liverpool, Slum clearance, 1970s

In addition to Somerset, the exhibition freely traverses time and territory, visiting rural scenes in Northumberland, Cambridgeshire and Scotland, the broken detritus of slum housing in Liverpool and towering industrial totems in County Durham in the 70s (“with urban landscapes, human beings sometimes try to obstruct you”), masterful still lives that resemble Dutch paintings (“knocked up in a dirty old ex-lavatory with a dirty old piece of plastic giving them a hundred-year light”), perfectly mirrored Arctic mountains (“they’re almost lunar… You feel as if even the fly couldn’t exist there, there’s such a drumming silence”), as well as spontaneous scenes of washing Indian elephants and Sudanese camel riders perched atop sand dunes.

Meroë, the east bank of the Nile, Sudan, 2012

Particularly striking are photos taken of UNESCO World Heritage Site Palmyra and its ancient Roman sites defiled by the terrorist organisation Daesh. Photographing much of Syria during its appalling civil war, McCullin saw the tragic before and after of the country first-hand. One picture is bluntly titled Looking forward to the valley of tombs which Isis have destroyed and I put it to him that as a photographer, he is also an archivist, documenting very specific, vital moments that eventually become that mysterious thing called history. Asking him to look back at this valley, how does it feel to record something that’s later lost forever? “Sometimes I am privileged enough to go back somewhere special like Palmyra, because you can’t get visas to Syria that easy. I’ve seen wars, revolutions, famines, earthquakes. I am, without boasting, an experienced traveller. Sometimes I can go back and have another go at things. To me, it’s like getting hold of a lemon, cutting it in half and squeezing the last possible bit of juice out of it. That’s what I do. Sometimes I get a chance to go back and have another squeeze. But the truth is, sometimes you don’t have anything other than a moment to press that button and you are recording one of those extremely valuable moments in a human being’s life. Or you may be recording something bad, but it is undeniably part of history. You have moments where you have no time and some where you have all the time in the world to make that shot.”  

Looking forward to the valley of the tombs which Isis have destroyed, 2016

For someone who has lived many lifetimes and continues to work tirelessly, McCullin will celebrate his 85th birthday this year. He reflects that he feels “like the mouse in the wheel now. I’ve done everything, touched everything, been everywhere. I was in Eritrea last week and swam in the red sea, so came back quite rejuvenated. But 85, your body is saying no, no, no! The wheel is slowing and I’m thinking, what else am I trying to prove now?” Of late, he has been planting trees in his fields, destined to stand tall in another timeline for his children: “I see the tree on the skyline as the etching, the hallmark of the English countryside. It’s sad when you hear a chainsaw in the distance, another tree felled and you’re worrying whether it’s being replaced. I want to give birth to new scenery.”

Batcombe Vale, 1992-93

With this exhibition, the second photographer to become a Knight of the Realm conjures a mythical vision of England, gorgeous and haunted in stark, spectral black and white, ancient yet strangely new. The woods are lovely, dark and deep, a quiet repose after a career of bearing witness to the extreme cruelty humans are capable of. Few photographers understand so deeply how we alter our internal and external landscapes, how we shape our historical fables. In 1967, McCullin photographed the fall of Jerusalem during the bloody Six-Day-War. Now, he need only look out his window to glimpse it.

Don McCullin At Tate Britain

Jacob Charles Wilson reflects on the photojournalist’s landmark show, a harrowing snapshot of truth, tragedy and symbol

Several of the small, stark, black and white photographic prints at the Don McCullin show at Tate Britain appear almost to mirror the gallery visitors stood before them.

In one picture a crowd has gathered and is staring intently at something just out of the picture – just over our shoulder. People of all ages wear winter coats and expressions of concern across their faces. A pair of women link arms, one covers her mouth while the other gestures towards the scene out of sight. Others are walking away, they’ve seen enough. Several in the crowd are peering through binoculars to get a better look, while one young man carries a camera in his hands. The caption tells the story, it’s 1961 and these people are, as of today, West Berliners seeing, witnessing and capturing the division of a city and of a continent.

There’s a human desire to witness events – even horrific ones. But in the course of events it can often be difficult to determine what exactly is happening. Disasters do not always look like disasters when they appear directly in front of you – a personal tragedy, perhaps, but of world-historical significance? Don McCullin’s work, as a photojournalist, is to do precisely this, to invert vision and turn the personal tragedy into the political symbol and to condense and translate the complexities of history into scenes of personal tragedy. Since 1958 his photographs have illustrated newspapers and magazines across the world. His images have come to define the conflicts in Cambodia, Nigeria, Congo, and Vietnam. It is his image of the shell-shocked US Marine that has come to stand in for the hell of war itself.

Don McCullin, West Berliners Looking East, 1961

Despite this, McCullin disdains the epithets  ‘artist’ and ‘war photographer’. But I find it difficult to describe him otherwise, the photographs taken throughout his career are artful, they display craft, sensitivity, and skill in use of the camera. One of the earliest photographs in the exhibition shows a portrait of a young gang-member in a Finsbury Park cafe. It was these early photographs of local gang-members, implicated in the murder of a policeman, that got McCullin his first job at The Observer. McCullin captures him in a shallow focus, the pure white of his face against the black depths of the cafe, his cigarette glows and a whisp of smoke wanders into the dark.

Later, when McCullin visited battlefields and refugee camps, he would show the same concern for dramatic, emotive composition and sharp tonal contrast. In portraits his style emphasises the texture of protruding veins and ribs and the sheen of polished steel and leather. In scenes of action the same techniques capture the chaotic frenzy of the wounded being rushed to field hospitals and men hurling grenades. In his macabre still lives it becomes difficult to distinguish mud from mulched flesh.

Don McCullin, Grenade Thrower, Hue, Vietnam, 1968

I hesitate, knowing that these scenes are of famine and conflict, to call them beautiful. McCullin also refrains from judging according to beauty. For him a good image is a truthful image, respect lies in presenting the truth, and truth in lack of interference on his behalf. He remarks, with some regret and some pride, that he has only taken a single contrived photograph on a battlefield, when he rearranged the looted possessions of a Việt Cộng soldier.

Don McCullin, Near Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, 1961

Here I don’t know if I can agree. The great myth of photography is of its direct access to truth. All photographs are contrived, they are all selective scenes of events, especially so once they’ve been developed, cropped, and selected by editors and curators for print and exhibition. At the same time cameras can tell better stories than people, they can slow down events and capture the details missed in the moment. Photographs and memories aren’t easily separated. And given almost no-one visiting the exhibition will have direct experience of these events, we all make do with what we have – a photographer’s vision of the 20th century.

Don McCullin, Cyprus, 1964

Perhaps this doubt is why the exhibition includes some of McCullin’s possessions from his time in Vietnam; a number of passports from his 16 trips there, a watch, a compass. But the most intriguing items are his military helmet, covered in scrawled nicknames and slogans, and his Nikon camera, shot through, leaving an inch sized bullet hole right by the viewfinder. McCullin has been ambushed, and only later realised how close he had come to being killed. He keeps the camera as a reminder of his 30 years of miraculous luck on the battlefield.

Don McCullin, At a Café in Finsbury Park, London, 1958

The bullet hole is a physical reminder that every object and image in the exhibition cannot be separated from the wider story McCullin tells of hardship and horror. It would be wrong, disrespectful even to do so. The breadth of McCullin’s work shows the scale of devastation in the 20th century, while specific places he visited speak of the atrocities of European colonialism and the US imperial strategy of communist ‘containment’. By the end, the flow of the photographs has induced such a profound sense of hopelessness as tragedy builds on tragedy, all I can think of are the images made in my own time. When will I look back and recognise what was always already apparent?

Why Take Photographs?

Photographer Giles Duley – who himself was photographed minutes after he lost both legs and his left arm in 2011 as a result of stepping on an explosive device – asks how photography can be justified when documenting the horrific injuries of war

Abdulah in Erbil, by Giles Duley

I’ve covered few stories that have affected me as much as documenting injured civilians in Mosul. The time I spent there, earlier this year, left me questioning the validity of my work and bereft of hope. For a month after returning home I hid from the world. When faced with such darkness and violence, what value can a photograph have? Does it become voyeuristic to capture and share those moments? Against such horror a camera seems impotent, its use almost perverse…

I believe photography comes with great responsibility and as soon as I lift my camera to record somebody’s story, I have to ask myself: Why am I doing this? Nothing in photography goes more against human nature than the process of pointing your camera at somebody injured, afraid or in real peril. So, why do it? Does it, can it, make a difference?

In February I was based in a hospital run by EMERGENCY in Erbil. Every day they were receiving dozens of badly injured civilians from the fighting for Mosul. Even after over a decade of photographing the effects of conflict, the scenes I witnessed there were amongst the worst I’d ever seen. Babies with amputated limbs, a young child paralysed by a sniper’s bullet, whole families lost. It was beyond words.

In the past, I have referred to how I try and find a positive in such situations, a moment of humour, or to show the love between loved ones, families. But what I witnessed from Mosul left me beyond that: there are times when you can find no such image, no positive. I think back to Raghad, a man I met in the hospital: For four days, I watch him sit silently by his injured son’s bed. He nods when I walk by, nothing more. Then one day he comes over and grabs my arm.

“It was not my fault,” he pleads through dead eyes, a hollow expression I have rarely seen. “I did what I thought was right.”

He tells me his story: His family sheltered beneath a table in their home as bombs landed around them. The house opposite was hit, then the house next door, and at that moment his nerve gave; he told his family that they must run. As they left the front door, a third bomb dropped. Raghad’s wife, three daughters and two sons were all killed instantly. A son, Abdulah, survived, left blind in one eye.

There is nothing you can say to such a story. You cannot say ‘things will get better’, because they never will. There is no hope, no positive angle. This is the real face of war and its sinking, sucking horror.

I photograph his son against a white wall, a patch still on his left eye. Skin pitted by shrapnel, his expression as hollow as his father’s.

I could only see the darkness and terror of what was happening. I was shooting angry, disregarding my normal practice of not showing the blood and gore. I wanted the world to see what was happening and reel away as I had.

As the days passed, I knew this was wrong. It should not be about me, but about those I was photographing, and to do their stories justice I had to work in a balanced way. I don’t like the phrase ‘to give people a voice’, they have voices already – my job is to make sure those voices are heard.

But there’s still that question: Why do it? What difference will a photograph make anyway? Only recently I’d heard my inspiration, the war photographer Don McCullin, say there was no point to his decades of work because wars still go on. So, if my photograph makes no difference, why point my camera at a child who’s just been injured? It’s an intrusive act.

On the last day, I sit with Dawood Salim, a 12-year-old boy who has lost both of his legs and most of his right hand. For the past week, I’ve been visiting him and his mother: He always smiles and jokes. For the first time, I feel ready to take his photograph.

I ask his mother, “Do you mind if I photograph your son?”

She looks at me with a defiant yet resigned stare: “When a child is injured like this, the whole world should see.”

Does this answer my doubts? Does that make it all ok? Of course not. But it reminds me of my simplest role: to act as witness, to tell their story. What Dawood’s mother has said has not given me permission, but has challenged me to do what she has asked. There is no point in taking a photograph if I do not then do all I can to make sure the whole world sees it.

That is where my duty lies.

This is an excerpt from issue 21 of Port, out now. To buy or subscribe click here.

Duley’s exhibition, I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See was shown from Wednesday 4th through Sunday 15th October, The Old Truman Brewery, 89 Brick Lane, London, E1 6QL.

In this article, he reflects on the exhibition and presents a video collaboration of the event directed by Phoebe Arnstein.