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Don McCullin: “Sentencing myself to peace”

The “Don McCullin” exhibition at Tate Britain opened early this February and doesn’t close until 6 May so there is plenty of time to see it. The only drawback, based on my Sunday morning visit a week after opening, may be its popularity.


Portrait of the Photographer Don McCullin.
01.02.2019. Tate Britain


Sean Sheehan


The photographs on show, all newly printed for the exhibition by McCullin himself, are not especially large in size but the number of people wishing to see them is.

A weekday visit, early in the morning or 90 minutes before closing time, would be a good idea. There is also an excellent book/catalogue that accompanies Tate’s major retrospective.

The book comes in a manageable size – 29.4 by 24.2cm – and each print it reproduces has a page to itself.

The photographs are divided chronologically and thematically, from the one he first brought to the attention of The Observer newspaper in 1958 to a 2017 shot of Palmyra in Syria after the site was vandalized by Islamic State fighters.

Most of the themes amount to a litany of deadly war zones around the world – Cyprus, Vietnam, Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Beirut, Iran-Iraq – and places like Biafra that witnessed unbearable civilian suffering as a result of starvation in the course of a war.

Don McCullin was born in 1935 in Finsbury Park in North London, a neighbourhood that at that time was home to impoverished working-class families like his own. He knew material hardship from the inside, something indiscernible in the almost plummy voice that is heard when listening to him in the Channel Four documentary Looking for England.

Don McCullin 18

The book/catalogue is most valuable for the 164 prints that it reproduces and these include most of those that he has become most famous for.

There are images of West Berlin as the rolls of barbed wire that divided the city are replaced by a concrete wall; prisoners in the Congo being tormented before they are executed; women and children in Biafra on the verge of death by starvation; the haunted stare of a US Marine at the Battle of Hue in 1968…

There are also photographs that will come as a surprise to those who associate McCullin solely with war.

In 1965 he photographs a flock of sheep on London’s Caledonian Road and in the decade that followed he captures life on the street for homeless people in London’s East End.

More recently, he has photographed English landscapes, saying how he is burdened by the guilt of being able to walk away while someone “was dying of starvation or being murdered by another man with a gun”.

This is why he wants to photograph landscapes and flowers: “I am sentencing myself to peace”.

Tate’s book is prefaced with an astute introduction by its editor and two insightful essays by Shoair Mavlian and Simon Baker. Don McCullin’s photographs speak for themselves as they rage against human indifference to the suffering of others.

“Don McCullin”, edited by Aïcha Mehrez, is published by Tate.

(Images provided by Tate)

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