Exhibition review: Shaped By War. Photographs by Don McCullin

Shaped By War is the largest exhibition ever of the life and work of Don McCullin, arguably one of the greatest photojournalists of the post-war era.


Born in North London in 1935, McCullin’s first memories were of The Blitz and evacuation. For his National Service in the mid-50s he travelled to Suez, Kenya and Cyprus, working as a Photographic Assistant. Soon after his return home, his photographs of a local gang were snapped up by The Observer and assignments to Berlin and the civil war in Cyprus followed.


While McCullin would go on to work in war-torn hotspots such as Biafra, Northern Ireland, Cambodia and Lebanon, it is Vietnam that he will always be associated with. By now working for the Sunday Times Magazine, McCullin made his first trip there in 1965, and would return on fourteen more assignments. Along with daredevils like Tim Page and Larry Burrows, McCullin, working almost exclusively in black and white, took many of the photos that have come to define the conflict.


The exhibition’s centrepiece is his work from the thirteen days he spent with US marines in the ancient city of Hue in 1968 during the surprise Tet Offensive. These photographs are “the most powerful film I’ve ever taken in my life”, says McCullin in the exhibition’s 30-minute film. He goes on to explain how the “total nightmare madness” of the often hand-to-hand fighting left him “slightly insane.” The photographs reflect this grim reality – from his famous portrait of a shell-shocked American soldier to his shot of a wounded Marine being helped by two colleagues, which reminded McCullin of Jesus Christ being taken down from the cross.


Throughout the exhibition there is an awkward contradiction at play. On the one hand McCullin says he wants “to become the voices of the people in these pictures”. His work certainly displays a clear interest in the civilian victims of warfare. This is a noble mission of course, but a display of the American military kit McCullin wore in Vietnam hints at a more problematic reality – that of his defacto embedding with US forces. In terms of his personal safety this is understandable and perhaps the only way he could access the battlefield. However, it also means most of his photos from Vietnam are of – and taken from the perspective of – US soldiers. The viewer’s sympathy, concern and attention is therefore more likely to rest with the American side, rather than with the Vietnamese resisting them. This is especially problematic when one understands the overall mortality count for the war: 58,000 American military deaths compared to between two and four million Vietnamese, military and civilian, dead.


In later life, McCullin’s fame began to impede his ability to get close to the action, his attempts to document the Afghan War and the Falklands War ending in failure. After the leaving the Sunday Times magazine and fighting depression, war fatigue and a turbulent personal life, in the 90s he turned to landscape and portrait photography. “My landscapes have become a form of meditation. They’ve actually healed a lot of my pain, my guilt, from the things I’ve seen”, he says in the accompanying text.


In telling the story of such an extraordinary life intimately involved in many of the conflicts of the late twentieth century, Shaped By War proves itself to be a fascinating and important exhibition. Visitors of all political persuasions will likely leave with a huge amount of respect for McCullin and other war photojournalists who risk their lives to record the horrors of modern warfare. The elderly World War One veteran Harry Patch, who McCullin photographed just before he died, had his own, well-informed take on the issue: “War is organised murder, and nothing else”.


Shaped By War runs until 15 April 2012. Admission is £7 for adults, £6 for concessions. www.iwm.org.uk.


*Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK. [email protected] and http://twitter.com/#!/IanJSinclair

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