Don McCullin

With my final assignment of the Art of Photography course focusing on social documentary photography I have looked further into the genre and style of photography and especially at a few photographers credited to it. Amongst them Don McCullin was a stand out name both in regards to his success with awards and notoriety but also his body of work that contains some of the most striking and amazing images of the Vietnam War and Northern Ireland Troubles.

He grew up in Finsbury Park, North London but was evacuated to a farm in Somerset during the blitz. Showing signs at a young age of a talent in drawing he was awarded a scholarship to the Hammersmith School of Arts and Crafts although leaving at the age of 15 with no qualifications due to his fathers death. After a short time working on the railways he was called up for national services with the Royal Air Force. It was during this time with the RAF that he first worked in photography. Working as a photographers assistant during the Suez Canal Crisis he spent the vast majority of his service in the darkroom. He bought his first camera during the period, a Rolleicord.

His first foray into being a photographer was in 1959 when he was published in The Observer for a photograph taken of a London gang. He then continued his photography work as an overseas corresponded for the Sunday Times Magazine for 18 years from 1966. It was during this time that he covered ecological and man made catastrophes. One of his first high profile images were taken during the African AIDS Crisis. This work led him onto the Vietnam War where his work was iconically hard hitting and poignant images that epitomised a treacherous war. The portrait ‘A Shell Shocked Soldier’ is especially hard hitting and emotive, the anonymous nature of the image allows the viewer to realise it could be anyone of the soldiers out there, war doesn’t discriminate  and anyone can be a target. This coupled with the tight pose McCullin had captured him in gives an impression of a closed off individual. The tones captured here further the atmosphere for the photograph, the dirt and light in the image really gives the subject form and an imposing shadow from the helmet not only gives the anonymous element of the photograph but also an air of sadness and loneliness.

56366-largeHis work in Northern Ireland covering the Troubles there was on parr with his earlier work in Vietnam. The images, in my opinion show a far more contextual understanding of the conflict, the public it effected and the towns it was fought in. The image below showing an Irish Republican and British forces balanced brilliantly on the corner of the building hold many semiotics that give the viewer an understanding of the war. On one side a single civilian dressed in a suit and tie brandishing what looks to be a wood or metal pole, while on the other side is four or five soldiers in riot gear armed with batons and possible pistols or rifles. The wonderfully attractive element of the photograph is the not knowing, are either of the sides aware of the others presence, it leaves the viewer asking questions of what happened next, perhaps knowing with the evidence in the photograph what was likely it still leaves you asking more questions.


Don McCullins work has inspired me greatly, his ability to frame and observe in the harshest of environments and faced with untold horror is a testament to his professionalism and ability to produce the finest of photographs that not only give the public at home an idea of what war is, but also enables them to question what is happening throughout the world with a hope to learn from it. His images are powerful, some of the most powerful I have seen and further to their effect on me and I can imagine anyone seeing them.

I have looked at McCullins work in connection with my fifth assignment, although I have not photographed war torn community the emphasise he shows on the people within their environment was an inspiration for the work I have produced, the importance of being able to connect the two, people and environment, gives the viewer a deeper insight into the subject.


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