Don McCullin – Shell Shocked Soldier
Lecture 2 of a Short History of Photography at the Lewis Glucksman Gallery was about Photography & Conflict, presented by Matt Packer, Glucksman curator of exhibitions and projects. Some of the photographs that he presented we had seen in week 1 with Fiona Kearney. She had talked about the history of photography, and the art that the eye of the photographer brought to these documents. What stood out to me during Matts’s lecture was the idea of the ethics of photography in situations of conflict.
Matt began the lecture by talking about the history of photography, and how technology changed the ways in which the war was brought home. In the early days, guys like Fenton and Brady needed horse drawn wagons to develop plates on the spot, and this largely prevented them from photographing the actual battle scenes – they general made pictures of the aftermath. As the technology progressed, particularly with the emergence of the Leice and 35mm film in 1925, photographers were able to become embedded with the soldiers, and photograph events as they happened. Robert Capa’s photographs of the Spanish Civil War, and later WW2, pioneered this type of photography in conflict. Not that Capa was immune to possibly fictionalising events either, as the controversary following his photograph “Death of a Loyalist Soldier, 1936” was to prove.
This photograph by Capa was controversial when it was first published, as it was the first time such an image had been made in the heat of battle. It proved controversial ever after too – was it fake?
Capa coined the famous phrase, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”. During the D-Day landings, Capa was certainly close enough.
This photograph is technically very flawed – shaky, too contrasty, over exposed. And yet it is a shocking masterpiece – a document showing exactly what was happening on the beach that day. Hardly surprising that Capa’s hand shook when he was that close – right in the middle of it. This was to become the working method of photographers ever after – being there in the thick of the conflict with the soldiers, dodging bullets, on the run, documenting what was happening.
But what of the ethics of witnessing these atrocities?
George Rodger in 1945 went into the Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp tasked with making pictures of what was there. And despite the horror of what he witnessed, he needed to document the scene, to compose correctly, make a good photograph. In an interview later he said, “It wasn’t even a matter of what I was photographing, as what had happened to me in the process. When I discovered that I could look at the horror of Belsen – 4000 dead and starving lying around – and think only of a nice photographic composition, I knew something had happened to me and I had to stop. I felt I was like the people running the camp – it didn’t mean a thing”
Matt told us a story about how he had met Don McCullin, and spoke with him about the very famous photograph from the Sept 11th attacks in New York – “The Falling Man”. McCullin commented that the photograph should never have been printed. Matt didn’t understand this. Why would you not print and publish a photograph as important as this? McCullin argued that the photograph should have been taken but never printed. It was important for the photographer to bear witness. But it is an entirely different set of ethics to use the image, to publish it, and to receive royalties.
Today photographers are like antennae on the scene, and images are being sent instantly to picture desks. Is the photographer still ethically responsible for what is used, what is published? Or has that responsibility been taken from him?
Choosing the photography of James Nachtwey as a case study, Matt shows that Nachtwey chooses his projects, and makes excellent, very emotive pictures. But what are the links between the projects? What research has been done? Looking at his website we see that he has been to all the modern war zones and places of conflict, disease, famine, pollution – Bosnia, Romania, Rwanda, etc. But where is the broader sense of context? There seems to be a homogenity of approach no matter what stricken region he is in. Are the photographs about what he has seen, or about him? The sense of ethical responsibility is evident on Nachtweys website however – the home page contains the quote, “I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated.”
Matt also discussed the idea of photojournalism in crisis. With modern technology, pictures are reaching the media from the general public using camera phones and so on. Has the value of the photo journalist been eroded by this? Robert Pledge argued that “… Certain individualists will doubtlessly continue the tradition of photojournalism. But books and exhibitions will be their media. They will produce long term stories, often grant supported, that will give us an understanding of the world different from the one we see on TV”
Which brings us to Photojournalism & Contemporary Art. As an example, Simon Norfolk uses a large format camera when photographing scenes such as this in Afghanistan. This format gives lots of detail, picture space, improves spatial relationships. It’s not taken on the battlefront – it’s the aftermath or periphery. It is primarily produced with a view to exhibition and a book. You get a sense of pathos with a photograph such as this. The photographer is engaging with people, not scambling about in the bushes avoiding bullets. Depicting the human farming activity in front of the ruins of the building, it attempts to display the human offort to build hope despite the evidence of destruction.
I have left out a lot more of what Matt discussed – it was a rather long lecture! But he concluded with a video, “Journalists Under Fire: Vietnam and Iraq”, featuring Don McCullin, Catherine Leroy, David Leeson, Mike Cerre and Jonathon Schell, discussing the ethics of photojournalism, what they witnessed, and how it affected them. I checked you tube, and here’s the 58 minute version –
After that heady evening, I’m looking forward to Week 3 – “The Commercial Image”