McCullin – a study in integrity

Don McCullin with his trademark humility and honesty talks through his life and images. Having covered numerous conflicts including Biafra, Congo, Vietnam, Lebanon and Cyprus Don McCullin is more qualified than most to comment on conflicts and their appalling effects on all who are touched by them. 

His war photographs show a deep empathy with individuals caught up in circumstances. beyond their control. His anti-war message screams out of his shots of both combatants and civilian, perpetrators and victims.

Don McCullin now shoots stunning photographs of English landscapes, though even these betray a darkness which clearly smothers him. His landscapes are primarily winterscapes and are printed dark whilst still allowing the beauty of the subject to draw in the viewer.

His is a testimony which must be heard and taught.


A change in perspective

La Cruz (Cuba) v Almatbouli (Jordan) Light Heavyweight

I had the privilege on the 4th August of seeing 12 outstanding fights at the ExCel Olympic Stadium; flyweight, light welterweight and light heavyweight. There was a fabulous atmosphere in the stadium though unfortunately no British fighters in these bouts.
The British public certainly has a habit of getting behind underdogs. Perhaps we, as a nation, have been there ourselves and just have a natural empathy. The highlight for me was the light heavyweight bout between La Cruz and Almatbouli. The Cuban dominated throughout and it was easy to see how he was ranked World no. 1 .

Whilst I am used to photographing from canvas side (where the photographers in the shot above are), I was in the stands this time. Still I was close enough to use my fabulous Minolta 135mm f2.8 on a crop sensor Sony a77. This gave an equivalent focal range of 200mm. The lighting was quite good for a boxing venue so I could shoot at 1/400 at ISO 800 at f3.5 and really freeze the action. Also the burst rate of the a77 (12 fps) helped when flurries of shots were thrown and allowed me to catch some great shots. I also enjoyed the changed of angle, shooting from the crowd and above the ring.

A lot of photographers who were not working professionally had concerns that the Olympic staff would create difficulties for those wishing to use DSLRs. In fact the volunteers could not have been more helpful and I had no problems at all.



Unheard screams

A report was posted a few days ago on the BBC website ( ) regarding abuses suffered by the Rohingya people of Rakhine State in Burma. Following clashes between Budhists and the Muslim Rohingya, There have been numerous arrests of Rohingya and many are held without charge and have faced assaults in custody.

They are denied citizenship and many have fled as refugees and live now in squalid conditions In neighbouring Bangladesh.

I was drawn to the report not just because of the content but also because I had simpy never heard of the Rohingya people. A question I often consider is what makes one group of people newsworthy and another not?

It is a question too easily answered by a knee jerk answer. Many immediately shout ‘American interests’,some will claim that some conflicts deserve more attention as they have a wider effect on the World as a whole. There is always some moronic bigot who will refer to a Jewish lobby controlling the agenda.

If anything the BBC can hardly be described as pro USA, though no doubt networks such as Fox certainly are – of course Al Jazeera is hardly under the control of any supposed Jewish Lobby.

It seems to me that some conflicts somehow become trendy. A retaliatory strike by Israel against rocket attacks from Palestinian Gaza will bring protests in to the streets of London and see the students of LSE and SOAS calling for boycotts of Israeli academics.

How many of these students are calling for a cultural and academic boycott of Burma? Have Ken Livingstone, Baroness Tonge and George Galloway expressed their outrage that Aung San Suu Kyi and the Dalai Lama have remained silent over the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya? If not, why not

In Darfur, why did it take the courageous and tireless work of US Marine Photographer Ricki Stern (The Devil Came on Horseback) to chronicle the slaughter and displacement of hundreds of thousand of black Muslims at the hands of the state supported Janjiweed to make the mainstream media provide at least some coverage. But again – where were the protests? Where were the students? Where was Bob Crow and the Unions? Presumably too busy condemning Israel for daring to search someone wearing a bulky coat at a school bus stop in the July heat.

Why Mr Galloway, why Mr Crow, why students of LSE, why Archbishop Tutu, why Editors of the Guardian do you consider some conflicts more deserving of our attention than others? Why are the lives of some people worthy of your attention more than others?

Is it right that powerful news corporations have for so long controlled the agenda of what is news and what is not?

This just underlines the importance of sites such as WordPress and the wonderful Ted Talks lectures where stories can come out, from the ground up and not fit within a media agenda.

Books on photography


A few personal favourites:

Robert Capa, Slightly Out of Focus – Basically the Frank Sinatra of photography. He oozed cool while managing to get himself into all sorts of scrapes. Capa was a founder of Magnum Photos and coined the famous photographic dictum “if your photos aren’t good enough you are not close enough”. His autobiographical account sees him on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War where he took famous and controversial ‘Death of a Republican Soldier’, going in with the first wave on D Day and finding time in between to meet glamorous women in the Dorchester. I found his biography to be amusing, touching and thought provoking.

Don McCullin, Unreasonable Behaviour – Born in the East End of London, McCullin showed from an early age, an ability to get the shots others could not; from images of East End gangsters he developed into one of the greatest war photographers of all time. Covering numerous conflicts from the Middle East to Africa, he found himself detained by the US Army in Vietnam, shot by the Viet Cong (the bullet lodging in his Nikon), facing a likely death sentence in Uganda, the Phalangists threatened to kill him in Lebanon and the British Army refused to let him cover the Falklands.

McCullin not only covered war from the view of the soldiers but from those innocents affected by war. His coverage of famine in war torn Biafra is heart-breaking and the slap in the face we so often need. What impressed me most was his ethics and instinctive humanity, personified by his willingness to ditch his camera in order to help a fellow human being.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers – The Father of the candid shot. Cartier-Bresson was a co-founder of Magnum Photos and the master of the decisive moment. He had an innate ability to catch an instant and in that capture to portray so much, as he puts it  “To take photographs means to recognise  simultaneously and within a fraction of a second both the fact itself and the rigorous organisation of visually perceived forms that give it meaning.”

The Mind’s Eye is much like a journal containing Cartier-Bressons collected wisdom, insight and views.


I would be grateful to hear any views on these books, their authors or any other inspirational books on photography or photographers.



Can a photograph capture a soul?

This is quite a tricky question to answer and raises a number of ethical points for a photographer.

The sceptic will deny it is tricky to answer and simply say “no”. They may of course be quite correct. We may not have a soul. If so it may be that it simply cannot be captured.

Certainly a sceptic may be more acceptable to the idea that if there is such a thing as a soul, it may be reflected in a photograph. If not a soul, then certainly the character.

Now of course, much of this depends on whether we have a soul. Certainly we are sentient beings, capable of contemplating our own existence and certainly we all are capable of considering whether we have a soul or not. Each of us will agree that we have a personality and have feelings.

Considering many of the iconic images with which we will be familiar; the famous portrait of an Afghan Girl taken by Steve McCurry for National Geographic, the portrait of the battle weary GI in Vietnam with the ‘thousand yard stare’ as captured by Don McCullin or the candid photographs of those masters of the decisive moment; Henry Cartier Bresson and Robert Capa, that the deepest feelings, hopes and fears of person can be immortalised. That instant, irrecoverable thereafter can be captured. If this is not the soul, what is?

It is correct that some tribes in South America, Native American Indians and in Africa have expressed a belief that a soul can be captured in a photograph. There will be many reasons for this and nost will be largely alient to a Westerner with an entirely different system of beliefs and practices. For this reason alone, we should avoid the tempation to scorn that which we don’t understand.

Some cultures, for example in parts of Africa or the Carribean practice religions encompassing ‘sympathetic magic’ which is based on the assumption that a person can be supernaturally affected through its name or through the medium of an object representing them. Thus in practicing Voodoo, to use a voodoo doll, something from the person represented by the doll must be used, for example, hair.

Thus amongst those holding such beliefs, the idea that their image in a photograph could give another some power over them is a genuine belief and one not to be mocked. There certainly appears to be a greater rational for such a belief that for many Western superstitions which are commonly practiced, though which few can understand why, for example not crossing on stairs or walking under a ladder.

Susan Sontag in her famous essay, ‘On Photography’ famously said “To collect photographs is to collect the World”. Yet this is perhaps our Western arrogance where we have afforded ourselves the right to shoot all we see, irrespective of and ignorant to the wishes of our subjects. In parts of the World where photography is viewed with suspicion, many tourists will simply aleviate any ethical concerns by tossing their intended subjects a couple of coins to pose and look ‘authentic’.

Is the alternative to shoot a candid shot and capture a true, unposed essence? This will ignore the wishes of the subject and give no sympathy to their fears.

There is another option. Don’t take the photo. Not everything in this World belongs to us and indiginous cultures are not necessarily there for our amusement. They need not be ‘collected’.