Don McCullin at Tate Modern

17th February 2019

This is an exhibition that is hard to swallow, showing the worst of humanity over the last 60 years – but that is the point of the work of the war photographer Don McCullin.

Born in 1935 in North London, and now a resident of Somerset, McCullin is with little doubt the most celebrated war photographer in Britain and his work specialises in depicting the downtrodden, impoverished and often under-dog civilians.  

The new retrospective of McCullin’s work unfolds over 23 chronological sections in an absolutely huge retrospective, which spans some of the photographer’s most famous images; from the troubles in Northern Ireland to dying Cambodian peasants and starving Biafran children. 

Grenade thrower, Hue, Vietnam 1968 by Don McCullin. Photograph: Copyright: Don McCullin / courtesy The Tate

Walking around the exhibition is a harrowing onslaught. Each of McCullin’s works is equal parts shock and compassion – so much so that they almost expel the need for a wall text – these are images that speak for themselves. Many of his works, which were undertaken as was reportage for The Sunday Times, among others, are particularly ingrained in our consciousness as images that provide an alternative, real vision of war – albeit often in black and white, which arguably makes them all the more powerful. The thousand-yard-stare of shell-shocked Vietnam vets, Congolese Freedom Fighters being tortured before a firing squad, or Greeks and Cypriots gathered around a shepherd’s corpse. 

McCullin’s photos, despite being shot in the most fast paced and hazardous condition imaginable, have a sense of the still to them – faces are often layered thick with solemnity and the subjects seem frozen in time, and turmoil. These figures, who are often dying in front of McCullin as he twists his lense into focus – why, you find yourself thinking, was he not offering food, water, first aid, any kind of help, instead?

Northern Ireland, The Bogside, Londonderry, 1971 by Don McCullin Photograph: Copyright: Don McCullin / courtesy The Tate

But that is his task – these are photographs as historical documents, and McCullin has made it his mission to put you on a knife-edge. These pictures highlight what you, the viewer, are allowing to happen inn our world. That which goes unreported, and unseen. 

A homeless Irishman in Spitalfields, 1970, by Don McCullin Photograph: Copyright: Don McCullin / courtesy The Tate

This is made all the more poignant with a Nikon camera, housed inside a glass display case, that is ripped through with a bullet from an AK47. McCullin says he keeps it as a reminder that he is lucky to be alive after six decades of running towards the most treacherous situations he can find. 

McCullin’s prints are known also for their physical darkness, as he works towards stark contrasts inside his dark room – something that has become a signature of his work. The faces of a homeless Irishman in Spitalfields in the 1970s seem as harrowing as those of the soldiers in the thick of battle in foreign lands. McCullin’s aesthetic, which feels full of trauma, seems to flavour black over white – a telling disposition that the suffering, while often insurmountable, mustn’t be ignored and every horror must be told. 

Words by Toby Mellors

Don McCullin at Tate Modern, London, until 6 May 2019

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