We live in an era in which we see more images than ever before in human history. When we see these images, in newspapers or magazines for instance, it is easy to immediately consign these images to the historical moment that they depict. In this way it is difficult to learn from history, as the relevance of what is being documented immediately becomes something that happened in the past. In the current Don McCullin retrospective at Tate Britain, we see why this approach to images can have a negative effect on how we operate as a society. In seeing images of human atrocities over the last 60 years, we can find similarities in causation and suffering, and sadly see that lessons often go unlearned.

Don McCullin is one of the most famous war photographers of the 20th century, and the scale of this exhibition demonstrates the vastness of human cruelty in that era. McCullin’s photographs show us the devastation of the aftermath of war and puts individual faces to human suffering, from starving Congolese and Biafran mothers and children, to the shell shocked US soldier of the Vietnam war which is perhaps McCullin’s most known image. More recently we see total destruction in Syria, and in Beirut, where the wreckage of a Holiday Inn shows how quickly a space of recreation can turn into a battle scene. 

Such images immediately raise the question of the effect on McCullin’s psyche, and the exhibition is peppered with quotes from McCullin on the difficulty of trying to stay neutral in such situations. He speaks of the affect of the trauma of war on him, and how rather than choosing photography, photography chose him.  

Some of McCullin’s most poignant images of war zones however, show everyday life happening at the centre of conflict. In Northern Ireland during The Troubles we see a man in a suit presumably on his way home from an office job, looking nervously at a soldier stretched out on the floor gripping a firearm, ready to shoot. During the construction of the Berlin Wall in the early 1960s we see families taking home groceries from nearby markets in the background of history being quite literally made.  

Don McCullin – Northern Ireland, The Bogside, Londonderry 1971

We also learn from the exhibition that McCullin’s fame as a war photographer overshadows his work as a social documentarian, of which he is an exemplary one. Between the rooms dedicated to his photography of war zones, there is a huge amount of images taken of the homeless of East London over the decades, not to mention his work depicting the working class communities in Bradford and County Durham, which stands as document to post-industrial decline as relevant to its day as the work of Orwell to the social history of the 1930s. There is also the delight of seeing his first photos, taken in his youth in Finsbury Park, of the working class gangs and characters of North London in the late 1950s. Finally, we are also shown his late era work, where McCullin attempts to retire to take photos of landscape in rural Somerset, but perhaps due to decades spent developing work to highlight devestation, even these come out as dark, Turneresque visions. 

Don McCullin – Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London 1970 Tate
Don McCullin – Local Boys in Bradford 1972

But of this work in particular it is the photography of the homeless around Spitalfields and Whitechapel from the 1960s-80s that is most striking. Framed alongside the war photography for which McCullin is most famous, it is very easy to find the similarities between their causation, which McCullin also states in one of the accompanying quotes. These are the cruelties which humans inflict upon one another, these are the ways in which capital, land and money define and degrade social status, and the human consequence of this. 

This is not by any means an easy exhibition to see, but perhaps more necessary to visit than any other exhibition currently on in London. 

Words by Robert Greer. 

The Don McCullin exhibition runs at Tate Britain from 5 February – 6 May 2019. Advanced booking recommended. For more information, visit Tate Britain.

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