Difficult and necessary viewing, this retrospective of more than 130 works by legendary British photojournalist Don McCullin has opened at the Winnipeg Art Gallery just in time for Remembrance Day. McCullin spent more than four decades in conflict zones, including Cyprus, the Congo, Vietnam, Biafra, Northern Ireland and Lebanon. With compassion, integrity and an unflinching eye, he has given indelible form to unimaginable suffering.  

McCullin was born into poverty in North London in 1935. His work has consistently documented the overlooked and the dispossessed, from homeless men and women in London’s East End to AIDS orphans in Zambia. He has a rare knack for being able to get up-close without being exploitative.

McCullin doesn’t call himself an artist. His best works stand as social documents and historical records, from a close-up of a shell-shocked American soldier in Vietnam, his eyes fixed in a thousand-yard stare, to a small boy reaching out to comfort his grieving mother after an attack on Limassol, Cyprus.

Homeless Irishman

(Don McCullin)

A frontline photographer who has been injured, imprisoned and narrowly escaped death a few times in his career, McCullin often seems to be right in the middle of dangerous chaos. One photograph taken during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam shows a thrown grenade hanging in mid-air. But McCullin also brings a rigorous formal control to his work. His black-and-white images are often carefully composed, with dramatic light and inky tonality.    

Since the 1980s, emotionally exhausted by decades in which he has seen the worst that human beings can do to one other, McCullin has increasingly retreated to the British countryside, producing a series of photographic landscapes. Silent and sombre, these works suggest some sense of solace. But there is also evidence that McCullin, as he has written, still sleeps with ghosts. Even his pastoral Somerset fields have shadows on them.

Recent theorists have suggested that photographs of atrocity simply don’t work, that all they can offer is a partial truth. But even if McCullin’s images can’t hold all the horror of the 20th century—and they couldn’t possibly—they can still affect us with an immediacy and directness that make it hard to look away from our history. McCullin’s long career is a testament to photography’s moral imperative to bear witness to human suffering.

Looking back on his achievements in 2010, McCullin said: “I met an Englishwoman in Africa. She said she became a doctor because she saw one of my pictures. That’s all I want—just one doctor in Africa.”

That would be enough. McCullin has accomplished much more.

Don McCullin: A Retrospective runs at the Winnipeg Art Gallery until January 12, 2014. The WAG will be open on Remembrance Day from 1:00-5:00 p.m.