The horrors of the battlefield are never far away in Tate Britain’s retrospective of Don McCullin’s work: the dead Khmer Rouge soldiers in a crater in Cambodia, Congolese soldiers tormenting freedom fighters in Stanleyville, young Christians on a bombed-out Beirut street, posing like a boy band over the body of a dead Palestinian girl. But McCullin has said again and again that he doesn’t like to be called a war photographer; preferring, simply, “photographer”. He is as interested in the people fighting wars as the people caught in their rip tide. “Starving Twenty Four Year Old Mother With Child” taken in Biafra in 1968, shows a woman, so gaunt she appears elderly, trying to feed her baby, who is sucking on empty, wrinkled breasts. Another picture, taken in a psychiatric hospital in Beirut in 1982, shows a child curled up on a mattress, flies settled on his body. He is tied to the metal bedstead with string, to stop him wandering off amid the broken glass. There is no need to see or hear the bombs to understand their effect on the helpless, and the desperation of those who care for them.
I’ve known Don McCullin for many years. He’s soft-spoken, occasionally gruff, but funny, too. He was born into poverty in north London, 83 years ago. His first published photograph, “The Guvnors in their Sunday Suits” (1958), shows some young men he’d been at school with standing in a bombed-out building. When the men were caught up in a fight, during which a policeman was stabbed to death, McCullin sensed an opportunity to sell the photograph to the press. The Observer newspaper bought it and a few years later, after seeing the pictures he had taken of a freshly divided Berlin, would offer him a job. It was clear that he had a special eye – and more than that, an empathy that travelled down the lens to his subjects, and was reflected back to his audience.
Over the decades he has wandered the world, from one atrocity to the next, documenting humanity and inhumanity. In between he has turned his lens on Britain: on the poverty of Bradford and London’s East End; the humour of the country at play; the naked beauty of the landscape around his home in Somerset. This exhibition has them all. It’s enthralling, beautiful, emotionally exhausting. McCullin invites us into a world that, to most of us who see his work in newspapers, magazines and exhibitions, is totally alien. And then, in the stillness of his photographs, he gives us time to imagine what it is to be there.
“Protester, Cuban Missile Crisis, Whitehall, London” (1962)
There is a perfect balance between doggedness and quiet desperation in this picture of a lone protester, sitting quietly in the middle of the road, which is blocked by a phalanx of British bobbies. Half a world away, America and Russia are facing off in Cuba, taking the world to the brink of nuclear war. But in London, Big Ben is swathed in a soft mist, and the policemen wear polished shoes and self-important expressions. Looking at it now, at the protestor’s neatly combed hair and tightly cinched raincoat, it is clearly from another era. McCullin has often spoken about his neutrality as a photographer: here, both protester and police command our respect.
“Near Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin” (1961)
McCullin drained his savings (£42) to buy a ticket to Berlin, after the picture editor of the Observer said that the newspaper wasn’t interested in sending him there. The editors changed their mind when they saw the photographs he had taken there. They show people going about their everyday lives, unaware of the enormity of what would follow, while American and German troops form a menacing backdrop. In the foreground of this picture is an American soldier’s boot, dangling over what appears to be heavy ammunition. His friend is looking down the street, his hand relaxed, as a smartly dressed woman walks by. Behind her, a knot of women stop in a doorway to chat. The scene is both banal and full of foreboding.
“Grenade Thrower; Hue, Vietnam” (1968)
McCullin went to Vietnam 16 times between 1965 and 1975. His photographs of the Battle of Hue in 1968 are probably the best known of those he took there: a particularly famous one shows a shell-shocked American GI, his eyes glassy and empty. This picture, however, is full of action. A Vietnamese solider hurls a grenade across a wasteland of blasted buildings. In the caption beside the picture, McCullin writes: “He looked like an Olympic javelin thrower: Five minutes later this man’s throwing hand was like a stumpy cauliflower; completely deformed by the impact of a bullet.”
“Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London” (1970)
At first glance, this looks like a picture of a miner, who has just surfaced from the coalface. The story behind it is more desperate. McCullin spent lots of time in east London, around Aldgate and Whitechapel, long before the gentrifiers moved in. On the edge of the City of London’s gold-paved streets, he found people living in desperate poverty. Many had been ejected from psychiatric institutions and chosen – or been forced – to go it alone. “Capitalism works against the people underneath who can’t fight,” writes McCullin, “but at least while they were in mental institutions they were clean and warm and dry and fed regularly. Now they sleep on derelict land, under bridges, in doorways. I find that unacceptable.” You can see the sadness and quiet desperation in the eyes of this man as he stares at the camera, his hair matted, pale crusts of spittle on his dirt-blackened face.
“Northern Ireland, The Bogside, Londonderry” (1971)
During the Troubles, McCullin captured what it was like to live on either side of an arbitrary line, just as he had in Berlin. Here, a young Catholic man, dapper in a dark suit and tie, stands against a wall, as if he is about to jump out and shout boo at the British soldiers hidden behind riot shields around the corner. But his armoury consists only of a baton of wood and a heart full of righteous determination. This is the first in a trilogy of photographs. In the second picture, he raises his arm higher; in the third, he throws the baton, which seems to glance off the protective perspex. This was a war of unequals, McCullin’s lens seems to tell us.
“Woods near My House, Somerset” (c.1991)
In the late 1970s Don McCullin wrote: “I’m going to get away from that hatred and misery…if I don’t run away from it, it’s going to destroy me…I’m going to take pictures of England for the rest of my life.” This turned out to be easier said than done. He kept being pulled back to the battlegrounds and was in Syria as recently as 2017. When he hasn’t been travelling for work, he has retreated to rural Somerset, where he takes pictures of the landscape. This scene is quiet and peaceful, but you sense a certain melancholy hiding in the dark tones and in the amputated tree stumps. McCullin has said that, in his Somerset darkroom, where he develops and prints all his pictures, he revisits the horror, over and over. You leave the exhibition feeling similarly haunted.
Don McCullin Tate Britain until May 6th