Don McCullin is probably the most famous living British photographer and his career spanning retrospective in Tate Britain which runs till May 6th looks set to be one of the most popular exhibitions of the year. Andy Stowe joined the queue and reckons it’s worth the wait.
McCullin was born in 1935 and his professional prime in the 1960s, 70s and 80 coincided with wars in Vietnam, Lebanon, Biafra and Bangladesh. It’s his photos from those four conflicts that are the heart the exhibition. They are often not easy viewing. There’s a content warning before you enter advising you that you’ll be seeing dead bodies and people a few hours away from death by starvation.
The notes accompanying the photos are without political comment. However, it’s impossible to look at them and not form political judgements. The Israeli army cooped up the Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites in the camps at Sabra and Shatila in 1982 so that they could be massacred by a far-right militia. Even though he was embedded with American troops in Vietnam McCullin hints at the brutality of which they were frequently capable. You can’t look at those images without appreciating that the death and the inhumanity were caused by aggressive imperialism and you know which side you are on. McCullin doesn’t say what side he’s on. You have to draw your own conclusions about that.
Less remembered conflicts offer some of the most distressing images. The 1967-70 war in Biafra resulted in a famine created by the Nigerian government in which up to two million people starved to death. McCullin’s camera doesn’t flinch when showing the effects of extreme starvation on the human body and it’s unlikely that many of the people he photographed survived more than a day or so after. The British government and the Soviet Union supported the Nigerian government. France and Israel sold weapons to both sides.
In an era when virtually the only path into a media career is internships and financial insecurity favouring people with rich parents, McCullin is real oddity. He was born into a working class family in London’s Finsbury Park and his father died when he was he was still a child. Maybe this is what gives his work such powerful empathy for working class people. A strand running through his career is the documentation of the deep poverty in England. London’s Brick Lane and Spitalfields now have become tourist destinations but the drug addicts and the rough sleepers McCullin photographed over three decades are still there. His pictures of almost unimaginable squalor in Bradford were an indictment of the British class system and the Sunday Times paid him to make them.
A recent BBC documentary Don McCullin: Looking for England shows him to be a gentle, compassionate man who doesn’t quite manage to conceal how his career photographing the barbarism of the world has affected him. It’s an incredibly powerful exhibition which forensically shows how capitalism degrades people. As if to prove the point, some genius in Tate Britain’s marketing branch decided that the one thing that would enhance the experience of seeing photographs of children dying of cholera in a ditch would be a wine tasting and dinner. I’m afraid it’s already sold out.