David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Depoliticizing War
by David Bacon

SLEEPING WITH GHOSTS, A Life's Work in Photography
Photographs by Don McCullin

May, 1996
183 black-and-white photographs, hardback, $45

Every documentary photographer would have each image stand alone, with no explanation or context necessary. An image which can't grab the viewer, make its message plain, and stir a profound reaction, has no power.

By that token, the war photographs of Don McCullin, in his retrospective "Sleeping With Ghosts," certainly have power. But they also show the limitations, the narrowness of the vision, imposed by focusing in to generate a reaction.

McCullin is a consummate war photographer. He covered the major conflicts of the 1960s and 70s, starting with Cyprus and going on through the Congo, Vietnam, Biafra, Bangladesh, Lebanon and Kurdistan. He shot for the London Observer, and later the London Times; his photographs helped to define the photojournalism of war and crisis in the mainstream media.

He was a working-class kid who made good - photography was his road out of the British slums of his childhood. His early images of the mining and factory cities of the British midlands have the power obviously drawn from those roots. Unemployed miners scramble over a pile of mine tailings looking for scrap coal, against an empty and barren landscape. A man is silhouetted walking away from the camera, past a tumble-down fence, into a world of factories and smokestacks.

Already, his technical mastery is evident, using natural light to produce a beautiful spectrum of tones. He doesn't get very close, as he did later in his war photographs, or when he returns years after to photograph British homeless and unemployed workers. These first images use the context around the figures to give them drama - the desperation of the miners on the slag heap, against the surrounding emptiness. The menacing smoke and darkness of the factory town. His images start out dark and get darker, a style of printing which was his hallmark.

His first shots of gang life caught the attention of the photo editor at the Observer, and landed him his first assignments. But documenting working-class life was not what made him famous. The newspapers sent him to war. His close-up images of conflict, pain and suffering became mainstream media icons for wars and famines for the next twenty years.

His success came from an impeccable sense of timing, from closing in on his subjects, so that the viewer can't escape involvement in the drama of each photograph. He started with Turkish gunmen in the streets of Cyprus, and the grieving families of assassinated victims of street fighting. He went on to the Congo, shooting the torture and summary execution of supporters of Patrice Lumumba by Congolese troops who eventually fell under the command of Zaire's current dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

And then, Vietnam.

McCullin is one of the photographers who brought the war into the living rooms of Britain, the U.S. and the developed world. The shock of his images deserves credit for making the horror of the war real.

He shot U.S. soldiers in the battle for Hue during the Tet offensive in 1968 - the photographer's photographer. Looking at the images, the viewer inevitably thinks about how close he was to the fighting. He shoots wounded soldiers being dragged out of the crossfire. A GI heaves a grenade just before being shot down. McCullin stands in front of soldiers firing machine guns at the enemy, looking into their faces as they fight.

You can't get much closer than this. McCullin's bravery and technical skill are unchallengeable. And it works - the intensity and drama of the fighting overpower the viewer.

You can't look away.

But the message of the photographs, for all their power, is incomplete. In part, it's a function of being so close. He can't show everything. After all, the power of the images comes from their closeness itself. But the camera is always pointed at the U.S. troops he travels with.

It's the Vietnamese who are missing in the Vietnam War seen through the eyes of the war photographer. The tiger cages for political prisoners in the south. The Bhuddist monk setting fire to himself in Saigon. The napalmed child on a dirt road. General Loan shooting a suspected NLF combatant. The wholesale slaughter of the village at My Lai. The carpet-bombing and defoliation of vast areas of the countryside. The bombing of the dikes to flood the villages of North Vietnam. The construction of underground factories and tunnels for soldiers, not only in the north, but at the very gates of Saigon. The political organization of the Vietnamese people themselves.

These parts of the big picture help explain why the war was fought, and what made the Vietnamese so determined to fight it. Who, after all, is the enemy against whom the GI's in McCullin's photographs are fighting? How did they successfully resist the most powerful military machine on earth?

These are not questions which the Times and the mainstream media in the U.S., or western governments during the Cold War, wanted to ask. And they are the people who created the assignment which McCullin fulfilled so brilliantly - the frontline photographer, focusing in so tightly that the larger questions go unasked and unanswered.

He shows the viewer the murder and torture of Lumumba supporters in the Congo, but it's treated as a conflict between equally brutal black African combatants, which he refers to as "tribal rivalry." The truth was that Lumumba was assassinated by the CIA, and his movement defeated by Belgian mercenaries.

In McCullin's images, European colonialism, which the Lumumbaists died to oppose, is nowhere to be seen. He shoots heartbreaking images of starvation during the Biafran war in Nigeria. But again, British colonialism, which shaped the politics that produced the war, is absent. Not so ironically, one of his first photographs shows a British bomber being loaded on an airfield in Kenya, during the colonial war against Kenyan independence fighters, taken while McCullin was still in the British Army. The fighters themselves, and what they fought for, are absent.

McCullin's photographs are images taken through the eyes of the occupying army. It's in the nature of the job. McCullin, like war photographers in general, is sent on assignment by his paper, in this case the Times, the most powerful journal in Britain. He connects with the side of the conflict taken by his newspaper, and by the British government. In Cyprus, he travels with the Turks, who invaded and split the island. In the Congo, with the forces who brought down Lumumba. In Vietnam, with the U.S. military. In Lebanon, with the rightwing Falangists. In Iraq, with the Kurds fighting Saddam Hussain just after the Gulf War.

McCullin doesn't shoot propaganda photos; in fact, his purpose is to show the horror of the conflict. But the nature of the job determines the side he shoots from. He is there for the duration of the assignment, and then goes on to the next one. He photographs some of the most political moments in history, but the nature of the job requires disconnecting the conflicts, and the images of them, from the politics which produce them.

War, conflict and famine become abstracted, things in-and-of themselves. His commentary eventually reflects this. There are no good reasons for these conflicts, he says, and he finds their cause in the maneuvering of inept politicians.

It's a cynical view, and in a way, understandable. How can a human being see so much horror, death and pain so close-up, with no political framework for it, without distancing himself?

And the final part of the book is McCullin's reaction. It starts with "Escape to India," a photographic project begun in 1966. McCullin returns every year, and produces haunting photographs of religious festivals next to the Ganges and the Gandak Rivers. The diffuse quality of the light is totally different from the war photos. He steps a long way back, producing almost landscape-like vistas of small figures and beautifully-textured group portraits.

He can't avoid the dark tone characterizing all his previous work, which lends even these images a brooding, almost threatening quality. But it's all very detached, as though McCullin is deliberately seeking distance from the pain of the subjects of his other assignments. And his book ends with even greater detachment - a series of still life photographs taken in his garden shed in Somerset, and pastoral country scenes.

McCullin can't find reasons for the conflicts which he has photographed with such intensity, and at such close range, for almost three decades. His vocation has forced him to depoliticize them. At the end of this work, he reestablishes order and sanity by changing the subject.

"Sleeping with Ghosts" is a good title for the book. These ghosts won't easily be put to rest, nor should they be. The unease which these photographs produce should inspire human effort to end the war and suffering they depict. McCullin's harrowing images contribute to that effort.

But a tight focus on action and suffering is not enough. That human effort requires an understanding of politics, and identification with the movements of people struggling for social justice.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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