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I went to stay with my parents in Birmingham this weekend, and on the Saturday evening I took my Mum out to their local art-house cinema to see this. It's a documentary about Don McCullin, a photojournalist who specialised in particular in war photography. After growing up in considerable poverty in London, he broke into the world of professional photography with a striking series of portraits of an east end gang who were basically his mates. He then went on to work for The Observer and The Sunday Times from the early '60s to the mid-'80s, covering events such as the construction of the Berlin Wall, the Vietnam War, the Congo Crisis of the 1960s, the troubles in Northern Ireland, the attempted secession of Biafra from Nigeria, struggles over the control of Cyprus and the Lebanese Civil War, but also more slowly-unfolding human dramas such as poverty in New Orleans, homelessness in London and the sheer eccentricities of the British at leisure.

Unusually for a documentary like this, McCullin is still very much alive, and the piece was largely structured around a series of interviews with him in his home, looking back over his career and talking through his collection of his own photographs. He came across as a very thoughtful and sensitive man, who had been driven above all by the urge to show people the reality of what was happening around the world, and particularly to bring home the consequences of their actions to the politicians who make the decision to enter into armed conflicts. For these reasons, his images focused above all on the victims of conflict - dead and injured soldiers, starving civilians and all kinds of abandoned or displaced women and children. In some ways, his work had the desired effect, contributing to a strong change in public opinion about the war in Vietname, for example. But in others, of course, it did not, since we are still at it with no apparent change.

The real stars of the film are the photographs themselves, many of which were very harrowing but all of which were strikingly composed and very obviously the result of close involvement with the brutal reality of extreme human circumstances. Arguably, of course, they could be better engaged with via prints in a gallery or perhaps a large-format coffee table book. But the film could put them in the context of contemporary news-reels, as well as framing them with the very intimate and absorbing interviews with McCullin himself. The primary director, Jacqui Morris, apparently used to work with him as a photographic assistant, which probably helps to explain the relaxed, open, self-scrutinising manner in which he is willing to talk about his career in front of the camera, and this definitely adds considerable value which the photographs alone could not quite deliver.

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Comments

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ms_siobhan
Feb. 19th, 2013 05:55 pm (UTC)
I am very envious sweetie - this was the film we were en route to see when we got 'snow locked'. The Media Museum has quite a bit of his work though it's not always on show :-(
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