ISCI is a cross-disciplinary research centre working to further our understanding of state crime: organisational deviance violating human rights

The Photography of Don McCullin

McCullin (2013)

Don McCullin (now 77 years old) is the UK’s most celebrated war photographer. The Bafta-nominated documentary, McCullin (2013), is a reflection on his work. The journalistic culture in which McCullin cut his teeth is presented in the film as one of fiercely committed, editorially self-governing reporters, among whom McCullin grew to be a keenly humane example. The respected editor, Harold Evans, appears in the film regularly to provide commentary on McCullin’s relationship with The Sunday Times. The memories of a (male) journalistic arcadia appear mythological in places, but this is the only element of the film that is in any way inaccurate or indulged.

During his career McCullin documented a substantial number of conflicts and atrocities: he worked in the wake of Stanleyville massacre in the Congo in 1964 and the US Tet Offensive in Vietnam, recorded starvation in Biafra and civilian murder in Lebanon, and worked in Uganda under Idi Amin and in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.

His photographs from these periods are mainly black and white, their monochrome achieving a daguerreotype austerity that leaves the viewer reeling.

At a time when a communications revolution had ensured the mass-public dissemination of war footage via CNN satellite, McCullin’s work documented war-sundered human suffering in statis. It was the pause and poise of McCullin’s photographs, physically embedded within zones of conflict, that set his work apart from other forms of documentary evidence.

Advocacy and justice movements within states that have undergone serious conflict have always relied heavily on reportage as a primary source of evidence. Journalists, photographers and film makers are important purveyors of empirical information in this context, and often serve to circumvent state censorship.

The recent phenomenon of “embedded” reportage has only exacerbated the known risks of war reporting and documentation. In particular the deaths of ITN reporter Terry Lloyd (shot by US forces during the 2003 US invasion of Iraq) and Marie Colvin (targeted by Syrian attack troops in Homs in 2012) have intensified these concerns [1]. Article 79 of Geneva Protocol I states:

Journalists engaged in dangerous professional missions in areas of armed conflict shall be considered as civilians … provided that they take no action adversely affecting their status as civilians [2].

This “civilian status” is a rather vague protection and does not imply a war crime for attacks specifically against those within the fact-recording cohort of journalists, film makers, photographers, and human rights monitors.

However McCullin is less concerned with the humanitarian legal strictures around aggressive war than it is with the experiential force of McCullin’s work. Much of the debate the film has about the trauma and affect of conflict turns on McCullin’s own attempts to come to terms with what he has seen. It would be easy to walk away from the film with an image of McCullin as fully seized by guilt – by his own apparent exploitation of victims and voyeuristic thirst for human degradation.

Yet what he articulates most strongly – and most convincingly – is a sense of dissonance between types of duty of care owed to his subjects.

In the film he talks about his own sense of accountability. If he had put himself in the immediate proximity of human suffering, he had done so in order to document, record, preserve, truth-tell, and thereby indirectly safeguard lives. Judgements about specific situations made him decide against taking certain photographs. But at the same time McCullin faced another duty of care: to help those people in front of his eyes, by whatever means his physical person could achieve. Although McCullin speaks of several occasions when he helped people directly, the film does not pause on these efforts. Rather, the film poses McCullin’s sense of quiescent complicity against his sense of duty as a photographic witness. The result is itself deeply humane, affective, and sad.

In the face of mental disorders exhibited by veterans of the Vietnam war, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was formally recognised by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 1980 and added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) [3]. The spectre of PTSD holds close to McCullin but is not discussed. In the film McCullin speaks of the Goyaesque contortions of bodies in death and his bitter revulsion at such scenes, of which there were many. Finally, however, the viewer is left to imagine the effects of so many conflict situations on McCullin’s psychology.

The film ends with McCullin in England, walking the hills in the snow in winter with a heavy camera around his neck. For all the pathology of his commitment to documenting conflict, McCullin’s achievement is to leave the viewer en rapport with the individual subjects of his photographs. It is a way of knowing atrocity, and knowing it to be wrong.



[1] See Geoffery Robertson and Andrew Nicol, Media Law, 5th edition, London, 2008, pp.675-78.


[3] See American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th rev edn Washington, 2000.