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Saturday, 8 May 2010

Exhibition - Shaped By War - photos by Don McCullin - Imperial War Museum North

Star rating – 8/10

This powerful and moving exhibition of the 50 years of photo journalism of Don McCullin is a trip through all the significant world conflicts since the 1960s. And he had a very interesting start in life, from his early memories of World War Two, to falling in with notorious London gangsters in his native Finsbury Park. One early memorable photo is of the Guv’nors of the Seven Sisters Road captured posing in a bombed building, which is almost reminiscent of an album cover.

Most of his images are captured in black and white – always so clear and somehow less distracting than colour. Among his early memorable pieces are a lone war protestor sitting in Whitehall towered over by a line of police during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis; and the CND Aldermaston march of 1963. McCullin’s aim was to use his images to change minds. His 1964 image of a Turkish Cypriot woman mourning the death of her husband is typical of his ability to capture the anguish of the moment.

Scenes from Vietnam are particularly harrowing, and McCullin captures both soldiers and civilians with equal force and empathy. His picture of a baby burned by napalm being treated by nurses in a Saigon hospital is particularly harrowing. But just as powerful is his two metre high photo of a US marine suffering sever shellshock during the Vietnamese conflict in 1968.

He worked for the groundbreaking Sunday Times magazine under Harold Evans. And he was always in the thick of the action undertaking dangerous assignments. Some of his pictures do seem too invasive, like the one of the dead Vietnamese soldier whose personal effects McCullin arranges around his corpse for his photo shoot (the only time he did such a thing). But also he wanted to bring the horrors he was experiencing to the attention of the world, such as the truly shocking images of the starving people of Biafra, too weak to even feed their children.

McCullin himself said that he sometimes felt his craft was ‘a terrible way to earn a living’. And the negative impact that all this horror and suffering had on his mental health is hardly surprising. From the wars in Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Lebanon, El Salvador or the Falklands, he was there to capture the images that he felt the world needed to see. Later on his powerful photos helped to expose the horrors of the AIDS epidemic in Africa – a tragedy that he wanted to highlight, and to trigger action to stop.

This is a very impressive body of work that shows the pain, suffering and horror of war. McCullin is obviously a very special sort of man, but one who paid a high personal price for his dedication to exposing the horrors of war.

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