Donald McCullin is one of the most highly-regarded photojournalists in the world. Born in Finsbury Park in London in 1935, he began by taking pictures of his own particular poverty-stricken strand of London before getting a job at The Observer and then going to The Sunday Times in 1966 for the most acclaimed part of his career. It was here he became known for his war photojournalism, and he covered a huge amount of conflicts throughout the world during the 60s, 70s and 80s.
This documentary is simple in purpose. It is about McCullin and his work. Mostly we listen to the man speak and we see his photographs. McCullin is a fascinating subject in and of himself. He is a man who has very clearly seen the worst of humanity and has come out the other end. He does not say that much but he is always to-the-point, his voice clean and clear but with trenches of experiences quivering lightly behind it.
He is a man who constantly questions himself and his reasoning for being in a warzone. He frequently talks of being “addicted to war”, yet he is keenly aware of the potential for voyeurism in his photography. He speaks often of trying as hard as he can to simply photograph the human suffering that war entails and of trying to bring the stories of that suffering to the people back home. This way they too can understand what is going on, for if we are ignorant of something we have no hope of doing something about it. He speaks at one point of being invited to an execution, an invite which he completely refused on the grounds that such an act would justify the violence of the perpetrators.
Throughout the interviews, McCullin frequently returns to the contradictions inherent in his being, and he frequently questions himself. Is he a voyeur and a man with a death-wish? Is he helping to justify the violence? What will his photos say when he publishes them? These questions he constantly returns to. It shows a man with a keenly humanist eye, someone whose reason for being is to take photographs, but someone who understands the power of a photograph in telling a story, even if, as he states himself, he believes his photos have not done much to change minds. He is clearly a highly intelligent and thoughtful man, and this makes the documentary all the better.
The film does little more than focus on interviews with McCullin. This is fine as he is a more than interesting enough speaker to sustain a film for 90 minutes. The only other voice we hear at any length is that of Sir Harold Evans, McCullin’s editor at The Sunday Times. There is only very little mention of McCullin’s home or personal life. This is indeed a film that is only concerned with his work. This is fine too. Stretching the scope of the documentary to his home life would have probably meant a loss of focus, and would have a resulted in a more traditional documentary that is simply about a man, rather than a photojournalist and his photos.
The film’s directors, David and Jacqui Morris, have created a very interesting documentary here. However, there are two flaws within the film that restrain it from being truly excellent. The first is that the film does not quite go too deeply into questioning McCullin himself. Instead, the film merely fixes his gaze on him and allows him to talk and in turn question himself. The film itself never feels like it is questioning McCullin on its own. This is an exceedingly minor, nitpicky point. Really it is arguably the result of two directors who are intelligent enough to realise that the only response to McCullin’s stories is sometimes silence. This is a man whose words have a certain weight to them that mine or yours most likely do not.
This need for silence is exactly what troubled me about the only section of the film I found grossly distasteful. At one point, after telling of us perhaps the most harrowing, horrific experience in his life in Biafra (and this is a truly difficult section of the film to watch, in a film that is not a very easy watch already), the film attempts to at least bring up the tone slightly. This is a natural response. After the film’s most darkest point mood-wise, it makes sense to at least bring some light to proceedings and shift the tone slightly, and this is done by a montage of front cover photos that McCullin had published in the 1970s. Unfortunately, this is accompanied by Lynryd Skynyrd’s Freebird. Now, I myself like a bit of good ol’ fashioned Southern Rock. However, transitioning from a truly harrowing moment in the film to Freebird is a grossly misjudged moment of bad taste, and remains truly the only sole moment of the film that frustrated me.
Regardless of this sole lapse in tone, McCullin remains a very solid, interesting documentary about a very interesting man. It is not easy to watch. The images McCullin has taken throughout his career are not images which are easy to comprehend or process. But they are necessary. They are stories we need to hear. The stories of men like McCullin, and the stories they have heard through their lives, they are stories we need to know about, because these stories keep happening and we have not come any closer to stopping them from occurring.