A shell shocked soldier during the Vietnam War (Don McCullin)

A shell shocked U.S. marine during the Vietnam War, 1968 (Don McCullin)

While you may not know his name, Don McCullin’s iconic photographs will be familiar to many. McCullin, produced and directed by siblings Jacqui Morris and David Morris, documents the career of the internationally known, and notoriously private, British photojournalist. With unprecedented access, Jacqui, his former camera assistant, captures Don reflecting on a career that spans more than five decades covering war and humanitarian disasters across the world, as well as the impoverished in the United Kingdom.

During the 80 year old’s career, he has documented the construction of the Berlin Wall, lost his mind embedded with the U.S. marines in Vietnam, been blinded by teargas in Northern Ireland, and survived a sniper’s bullet that hit his camera in Cambodia. McCullin is the last of a breed of artists who captured history as it was made, unencumbered by contemporary government restrictions, commercial media interests, and the threat of capture as collateral.

The film, shot on 16mm with available light, mirrors McCullin’s working methods, and is told chronologically, structured around a series of intimate, extended interviews, in which McCullin reflects on his powerful stills and recounts the stories behind them. Rare archive footage is intercut with his potent photographs to contextualize the conflicts and crisis that he has covered.

Born in 1935 to a poor working-class family, McCullin grew up in the tenement slums of Finsbury Park, London. Although a promising painter, he was forced to give up his art school scholarship and work after his father’s death before his conscription into the Air Force. Severely dyslexic, McCullin failed the exam to become a photographer and was instead confined to darkroom duties as an assistant. After his service, McCullin returned to London, bought his first camera and photographed the bomb-scarred city and its youth. He got his break in 1959 when the Sunday newspaper The Observer bought his pictures of a street gang implicated in the murder of a policeman. With an instinct for a raw news story, McCullin’s rise was meteoric. In 1961, as a freelancer, he documented the construction of the Berlin Wall and won a British Press award for his noncommissioned series that landed him a contract with The Observer. In 1964, he won him a World Press award for his coverage of the civil war in Cyprus, the first of many conflicts that haunt him.

Only two other interviewees contribute to the film. The first is Sir Harold Evans, former editor at The Sunday Times, who established it as a leading investigative newspaper. Evans, for whom McCullin worked at the newspaper from the late 1960s to the early ’80s, provides an insight into McCullin’s character, dubbing him “a conscience with a camera.” Evans’s tenure as editor ended shortly after the paper was bought by Rupert Murdoch in the early ’80s. Evans provides a fascinating insight into the shifting ethics and commercial imperatives that have changed the face of journalism.

McCullin made the first of 15 visits to Vietnam in 1965, and the second (off camera) interviewee is Captain Myron Harrington, an American officer with U.S. Marine Delta Force, with whom McCullin was embedded in the 1968 Tet offensive. Harrington recalls how McCullin “became one of us,” rescuing wounded soldiers “at great risk to himself.” Speaking of McCullin’s famous photograph of the shell-shocked marine (above), Harrington reveals that sadly, despite regular reunions and attempts to find him, that marine has never been located.

In contemporary interviews, McCullin candidly reflects on his moral confusion. In television appearances from the 1970s, he reveals his initial eagerness to cover two conflicts a year. It wasn’t until he witnessed the deaths from starvation of hundreds of children while covering the Biafran war in 1969 that it occurred to him he “should have been making people think the images I was making were of things that should be unacceptable in our world.” He continued, “That turned me away from the Hollywood gung-ho image of the war photographer. It converted me into another person.”

McCullin succeeded in conveying the unacceptable. His work is haunting: beautifully composed and bathed in brooding natural light. Their content is heartbreaking, candidly capturing ordinary people in conflict zones who are often engaged directly with his lens, and thus convey the cost of war and call the viewer to action. (McCullin makes the distinction that he considers himself a photographer, not a poet or artist.)

The film allows the images to speak for themselves, unembellished with emotive music. McCullin’s recollections about his photographs are often shocking, and his regrets for the price paid by his family are sincere. Perhaps the only flaw is the limited number of interviewees.

While not always an easy watch, McCullin is an essential one. It is an alarming reminder of the forgotten scale of conflicts in the 20th century and beyond. It gives a fascinating insight into the man and provides a testament to the power of photography, while revealing a less cynical, pre-digital age.

Don McCullin laments the loss of quality reporters and doubts that his works has made any difference, but I sincerely hope he is proved wrong. Certainly the ground swell of citizen action in Europe following the recent publication of photographs of the bodies of children drowned while fleeing Syria provides hope.

Produced and Directed by Jacqui Morris and David Morris
UK. 91 min. Not rated