“War is partly madness, mostly insanity, and the rest of it’s schizophrenia. You do ask yourself, ‘Why am I here? What is my purpose? What’s this got to do with photography?’ And it goes on and on, the questioning. You’re trying to stay alive, you’re trying to take pictures, you’re trying to justify your presence there. Then you think, ‘What good is this going to do anyway, these people have already been killed.’” – Don McCullin in McCullin
So begins Jacqui and David Morris’s searing documentary McCullin, about the life of renowned British photojournalist Don McCullin, which is screening at MoMA October 30–November 5. Jacqui Morris knew McCullin when she asked for exclusive rights to tell his life story:
In the film, candid interviews with McCullin are edited with a litany of his photographs from the field and illustrative news footage focused largely on his work of the 1960s–1980s, while he was working for The Observer and The Sunday Times, among other news journals, covering wars, poverty, hunger, and other events worldwide. His personal photo series, shot in the late 1950s, of a street gang called the Guv’nors, which McCullin knew from the working-class neighborhood of Finsbury Park, where he grew up, coincided with the news of a rival gang’s shooting of a policeman, and led The Observer to commission more images from McCullin’s insider perspective. These images were published in 1959, launching his career and his first working relationship with a British news journal.
“I took a conscious decision to mirror Don’s working methods in documenting his story. He is a private man who always worked alone. I didn’t want to overpower the situation by bringing a large crew, so I decided to pare it down to just myself, a cameraman and [a] sound recordist. And because Don’s photographs were taken on film, we decided against digital, in favor of 16mm and, like him, only use natural light. But what I hadn’t realized was that the interviews were the easy part; we had an embarrassment of riches to hone, discarding gems for the sake of the film’s focus and the clarity of its message. And, of course, researching and sourcing archives was an immense task. I knew there couldn’t be any short cuts. We had to get this right to do justice to Don’s story. Although we shot all the interviews with him and Harold Evans in a matter of days, we spent over a year sourcing archives, and editing. I scoured the Internet and junk shops for old copies of The Sunday Times and have found some extraordinary pictures that even Don hadn’t seen for decades.”
McCullin had an uncanny ability—perhaps based on his early years of poverty and dislocation, when he developed a strong street-wise sense—to find and follow newsworthy events. He loved being in the thick of what was happening. This was made clear when, while on his honeymoon in Paris, he made plans to go to Friedrichstrasse, in Berlin, to document the rise of the Berlin Wall. The resulting award-winning coverage brought about an invitation, in 1964, to document the civil war in Cyprus and the resulting conflict between Turkey and Greece. Taking the job as a challenge to cover new ground, he soon learned, counter-intuitively, that the subtle details in an image could reveal more about the story than more literal choices. He also discovered that the Turkish people accepted him taking photographs of their grief, which they expressed openly, resulting in one of his most enduring and painterly portraits (shown at top).Later in 1964, McCullin’s courageous coverage of the crisis in the Congo brought him more recognition, and he was soon invited to become a correspondent for The Sunday Times, where his tenure eventually coincided with that of the editor Sir Harold Evans. McCullin’s assignments for the Times ranged far and wide, from the Mississippi Delta to Israel, Biafra, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It was at the Battle of the Citadel of Hue, during the bloody Tet Offensive, that he took his famous photograph of a traumatized American soldier (at right).
The eloquent Evans, who is also interviewed extensively in the film, recognized McCullin for his strong “empathy,” his effective way of combining “news and compositional elements” and his “sensitivity towards other people’s suffering.” As Evans states on the value of journalism, “There’s nothing as powerful as reporting.”
Siblings Jacqui and David Morris have collaborated on several film projects. Mr. Right (2012), their first film, was made for television and screened at numerous gay and lesbian film festivals in New York, L.A., Berlin, and elsewhere. Their most recent film, Attacking the Devil: Harold Evans and the last Nazi War Crime (2014), received the Sheffield 2014 Special Jury Award and has been picked up by the Weinstein Company for U.S. release, and they also have a film on Rudolf Nureyev in production. McCullin, which was released in Britain and Canada in 2012, was nominated for two British Academy Film and Theater Awards in January 2013, and won the International FOCAL Award in 2014 for Best Use of Footage in a Cinema Release. MoMA’s presentation is the film’s U.S. theatrical debut.
Jacqui Davis and Don McCullin will be present prior to the 1:30 screening on October 31 for an introduction and book signing for the new editions of McCullin (Aperture, 2015) and Unreasonable Behaviour (Jonathon Cape, Vintage Publishing, 2015), copies of which will be available in the Museum’s bookstore.