This is a dangerous post. One that runs danger of becoming a sermon. Or a virtual soapbox rant. Or a glorification. Hence I have been mulling over it for more than a week, trying to get my emotions sorted, and am only posting now. I had not anticipated that at all when I booked tickets for the event that I was allowed to be present at the weekend before last. A month or two ago a friend of mine spotted the announcement of an event in the deepest, darkest sticks of Ireland which featured a talk by photographer Don McCullin. Ever since watching the documentary “McCullin” in the cinema last February, I have been an admirer of McCullin and his work. He impressed me as an honest, honorable, humble man, who reflected back on his life as a photographer in warzones with self-criticism and integrity. He also made some of the most stunning imagery during his 55 years as a photographer – both in war and in peace. I did not have to think twice when I heard he was speaking at the “Borris House Festival of Writing and Ideas” – I booked the tickets straight away, and also convinced my fiends A___ and C___ that we should also attend the other event the same day that featured McCullin in conversation with fellow photographer Giles Duley and film maker Ben Anderson. Booked – and nearly forgotten. No, that is not quite true – I had not forgotten it at all. I was hugely looking forward to seeing McCullin in the flesh, hearing him speak, and soaking up his wisdom. Even the prospect of sitting inside on a day of glorious sunshine did not deter me. I knew, this was going to be great. But nothing prepared me for the impact the talks were going to have on me.
The big day came, and A___ and myself made our way out to the village of Borris, Co. Carlow, 140 kilometres away from Dublin. To my shame I have to admit that I had not bothered to prepare for the two talks at all. All I knew was that Don McCullin was going to speak twice, and we were going to be there. Where “there” was, I did not care, neither did I look into the two other panelists that McCullin was going to appear with. Nor the venue for the event, which turned out to be an 18th century gem of a mock-Tudor country pile, the ballroom and chapel of which were the stage for the talks.
We arrived pretty much right on time for the McCullin talk. He was being interviewed very thoughtfully and efficiently by Colm O’Gorman, and proved to be every bit as honest and of integrity as he had come across in the documentary film. McCullin spoke about his growing up and his path into photography. How his humble beginnings in an underprivileged part of London proved to be both a preparation as well as a motivation for his later career as a documentary photographer in war zones. McCullin’s modesty proved to be a decisive obstacle for O’Gorman to get at his motivations for putting his own life at risk in order to make the pictures that would shock and inform the public. Yes, he did want to bring the stories of the unfortunate victims of war back to the public, but what kept him doing his work was a selfish desire to better himself, an addiction to the adrenaline-fuelled life in a warzone and the pleasures of being served complimentary drinks on a flight back home. There was nothing noble about what he did, he claimed. And looking back on his years covering conflict, he saw little worth-while in it. Nothing had changed. Wars still affect the poorest and the defenseless the most. And his pictures did not have any power to change that, he resignedly claimed. – There was an atmosphere of negativity around him, despite his obvious good-spirited humour. No rose-tinted glasses for McCullin. Wars still destroy lives, and it is an awful shame that mankind cannot employ their brains for peaceful conflict-solution. His work as a documentary photographer has taken its toll, and clearly,McCullin does not feel that his efforts have made any difference.
For a man with a conscience, it seems impossible to put the years spent documenting wars at rest. There is the air of a haunted man around him – all to easy to understand and to forgive, considering what the man must have seen – and *has* seen. We know the evidence. He documented it with his imagery that has become iconic over the years. The grieving wife in Cyprus (1963), the shell-shocked soldier in Vietnam (1968), the starving Albino child in Biafra (1969)… there are too many to mention. Having seen all that, and knowing first hand that these people died or suffered (innocently) must leave scars on your soul.
McCullin is extraordinarily hard on himself. Has he really not made any difference? I do not think so. No man can single-handedly stop a war. Noone can change mankind’s belligerent nature. And even if McCullin was unable to help those whose suffering he documented, he *has* made a difference. He has spread the knowledge about the individual conflicts he was covering. He brought awareness of the impact of war on its participants and victims to the world. And even if he could not get governments to stop their support of war, his work will not have been in vain if just *one single person* has felt affected by his images. Hearing him talk about the story of the Biafra child made me cry twice – in the documentary and again at the interview in Borris. Undoubtedly *thousands* have felt affected by his images. And it is difficult not to feel affected by the man himself – his uncompromising honesty and his humility are to his credit.
Having been asked at the end of the talk whether it was worth it, he answered clearly “no”. While I cannot speak for the price he has paid as an individual, I otherwise dispute that. It was worth it. And I thank him for his effort.