Shaped by War: A remarkable Don McCullin retrospective at Imperial War Museum

By Nick Owen | 06 October 2011
Portrait of Don McCullin, IWM, 2009
Portrait of Don McCullin (2009)© Imperial War Museum
Exhibition: Shaped by War: Photographs by Don McCullin, Imperial War Museum, London, October 7 2011 - April 15 2012

Hidden away in a corner of the Imperial War Museum’s latest exhibition hangs an image that keeps beckoning this reviewer back to it time and again.

It is a photograph of a starving Biafran orphan, an albino, harassed and discriminated against by his own people for the colour of his skin.

He is hunched over, supporting himself against a wall; in one hand he clutches an empty corned beef tin. The other struggles to hold on to his emaciated thigh.

"I will never in a million years forget those eyes," says McCullin in the book which accompanies his latest exhibition, Shaped by War.

He goes on to describe the distress he feels from his encounter with the boy, his helplessness as the other orphans attempt to steal a sweet he gave him while the child's gaze remains fixed on McCullin.

"I haven't printed the picture of him for many years. When I'm in the darkroom and that image is coming up, it’s as if he's saying to you, 'Hello! Hello, I'm back!'

"I think it's one of the worst pictures I've ever taken."

Having spent more than 50 years photographing conflict zones across the world, McCullin is certainly a man shaped by war.

This exhibition, his largest ever retrospective, charts McCullin's photographic career, from his first outings in London to his current landscape works.

The chronology begins with his forceful group portrait of The Guv'nors of Seven Sisters Road, a North London gang dressed in their Sunday best, amid the skeleton of a burnt-down building.

A Palestinian boy poses with a portrait of Yessr Arafat
A young Palestinian boy poses with a portrait of Yasser Arafat (1982)© Don McCullin
The photo earned McCullin his first commission from The Observer after one of the group, a friend of his, was hanged for killing a policeman.

It then moves on to his coverage of the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, where he would cut his teeth in the world of photojournalism, and then to his reportage from the Cyprus civil war in 1964, which would earn him his World Press Photo Award.

The award was duly earned. In one shot a Turkish Cypriot sprints from a cinema door, dressed in a raglan coat and flat cap with a Sten gun in his hands.

The image could be a shot from a lost Dillinger biopic. McCullin admits "the scene looks just like a movie still".

To help remind us that these shots were taken in the real world, the photos in the exhibition are accompanied by contact sheets, personal memorabilia and objects of McCullin's, such as his Nikon F camera which, when just inches from his face, took a bullet from an AK-47.

Comprising the majority of the 250 images displayed are his seminal works for the Sunday Times Magazine, taken between 1967 and 1982.

It was during his time at the magazine that McCullin covered the conflicts of South East Asia and Palestine, the famine of West Bengal and the brutal civil wars in Biafra and El Salvador where, after falling from a roof under crossfire, he shattered his arm and lay for 13 hours before being rescued.

Here are some of the photographs McCullin is best known for, such as his portrait of the shell-shocked US marine in Vietnam, too shaken to notice the photographer in front of him.

It was also during this period, specifically during his time in Biafra, that McCullin made the decision to turn the focus of his photography to scenes which should be unacceptable in this world.

At the centre of the exhibition are two floor to ceiling portraits - one of a woeful Vietnamese refugee, the other of a Bangladeshi baby screaming from hunger while her mother looks on, beyond the ability to comfort.

After walking between the two portraits you eventually come to McCullin's later works, which include his starkly beautiful landscapes of his beloved Somerset Levels.

In an interview with Frank Hovrat, McCullin said that he turned to landscapes because he was "tired of guilt."

"I'm tired of saying to myself: 'I didn't kill that man on that photograph, I didn't starve that child'...I am sentencing myself to peace," he claimed.

Eventually, however, I am drawn back to his portrait of the Biafran orphan.

Unfortunately for McCullin his portraiture of suffering is his greatest gift to the world, and the Imperial War Museum's fitting testament to him recognises this.

More photos and objects from the exhibition:

American soldiers in Berlin, 1961
American soldiers on high alert monitor East German forces in Berlin, Germany (1961)© Don McCullin
A Turkish Cypriot woman mourns the death of her husband, 1964
A Turkish Cypriot woman mourns the death of her husband at Ghaziveram, Cyprus (1964)© Don McCullin
McCullins Nikon F camera
Don McCullin's Nikon F Camera, showing the damage caused by a Khmer Rouge AK-bullet in Cambodia (1970)© Imperial War Museum
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