McCullin

“Devastating black and white images of humanity’s most shameful moments… I didn’t shed a tear throughout 157 bombastic minutes of Les Misérables. Yet when the lights came up at the end of McCullin, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.” This is real cinema, writes JACKSON CAINES.

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Growing up in north London in the 1950s, the young Don McCullin seemed an unlikely candidate for fame and fortune. His working-class playmates in Finsbury Park were more concerned with beating up their Islington rivals than getting ahead in life. Misery, squalor, violence – McCullin came to know these themes from an early age. They were themes that would remain at the forefront of his photography throughout an unparalleled career of over five decades, documented in this exquisite film by David and Jacqui Morris.

McCullin is often referred to as a ‘war photographer’. He has come to detest the term, and his startling shots of London poverty are a reminder that he has covered more than just the battlefield. Nonetheless, he is a self-confessed ‘war junkie’, and made his name in the ‘60s and ‘70s risking life and limb to cover horrific conflicts in Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon and Ireland. McCullin’s hard-hitting photos for The Observer and The Sunday Times kept readers brutally up to date with foreign affairs, never shying away from graphic depictions of violence.

David and Jacqui Morris tell McCullin’s story through an immersive combination of new interviews and archive footage. And, of course, there are the photos: devastating black and white images of humanity’s most shameful moments. There is nothing McCullin has not seen; the words ‘madness’ and ‘insanity’ recur frequently as he tries to articulate the horror of what he has photographed. Perhaps most shocking is his coverage of the Biafra famine, which he recalls with chilling vividness. The image of a young mother trying in vain to feed her baby from shrivelled breasts will shock the most hardened viewer. It’s a miracle that McCullin is still sane, able to reflect with calmness and wisdom for our benefit.

For a university student this is humbling viewing. McCullin had little education, growing up ‘in total ignorance, poverty and bigotry’. Here is man who has learnt from the university of life, and gained a rare insight into the human condition as a result. But McCullin is more than the story of one man. What makes the film exceptional is its unerring eye for the bigger picture: McCullin’s career becomes an alternative history of the latter 20th century, not to mention a potted history of British journalism (with Rupert Murdoch cast decidedly as the villain). Importantly, it’s not a film aimed narrowly at photography enthusiasts: scant on technical details, it’s the human element which is the focus here.

I didn’t shed a tear throughout 157 bombastic minutes of Les Misérables. Yet when the lights came up at the end of McCullin, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. In the air was that special feeling that only comes when a small audience has shared something unique in the hallowed darkness of a movie theatre. Now 77, McCullin tells us that he wants to spend the rest of his days cleansing himself from the past by shooting his beloved English countryside. It’s a touching sentiment – but I wasn’t surprised when I read afterwards that he just returned from documenting the atrocities in Syria. There remains no shortage of conflict in today’s world, and you can still count on this veteran war junkie to be there so that we don’t have to.