For years, Don McCullin the photographer and Don McCullin the man have fascinated me. He is often described as a war photographer but he much prefers to be known simply as a photographer. Of course, he has been present at many conflicts and has recorded some horrific images but he has also taken beautiful photographs of nature – from the great stages of war to the green pastures of peace, one might say.
When it comes to the arts of painting and photography, I have been a skimmer, not as patient as I should have been to stand, stare, study and absorb the work I looked at.
For this collection of poems, I slowed down and spent long periods of time immersing myself in Don McCullin’s work, not as an impatient civilian but as a would-be poet trying to understand each photograph and in turn trying to think about the photographer at work.
This collection is influenced by Don McCullin’s work and the work of other war photographers. It is not intended to be a biographically accurate reflection of any one individual’s life.
The McCullin Bridge
I see a bridge in my mind. Don McCullin is at one end observing pain and tragedy. I am at the other end safe in peace and relative normality. He is doing the dirty work and I wait for him to cross over to give me the news in photographs. He does all the crossings back and forth while I stand by. For that reason the bridge is called The McCullin Bridge.
We build more walls than bridges, choosing obstacles over clear paths, blocking
as much of the road ahead as we can because we can because we have freedom
to do and say whatever we want to do and say, to goad, to rattle, to shake fists,
to covet, to steal, to kill. A bridge has sides but does not take sides. It offers
neutral middle ground, a place to stand to scan as far as the horizon’s border
for any clue that justifies memorials, statues and fields of small white crosses,
any clue that explains fallen heroes, fallen villains, fallen innocents, marked
and unmarked graves, graves that may never be found. We have seekers
of the sensational out for a fast buck and, mercifully, seekers of injustice and suffering.
We are born into a specific part of society, born a colour, born
a class, born to parents who want us or don’t want us, who care
or couldn’t care less, who can cope or are hopeless. At first, a stamp
appears on our baby-bald heads and from a moment just after conception,
we are what we are and for the formative years of our existence
there is not a damned thing we can do about our helplessness.
We are there to be shaped either as pure examples of the human spirit,
unblemished by ignorance or bigotry, blessed by good health and fortune
or poisoned by the seductive sweet elixir of cretinous malevolence.
There is guilt at all points of the compass, guilt that eases into childhood
and damages perfection, our own template nibbled at the edges by life.
The toddler’s temptation to raid the biscuit tin or the sweetie jar, natural
as the first woman stealing the first apple. Enter swaggering sin, with attitude.
Most of us watch news films or skim photos of poverty, pain, death and fear
with little regard for the camera crews and photographers inches from faces,
from bodies, from bloody remains, from the stink of desperation and torture.
Those who record moving and still pictures from the great stages of war,
bring back their news from hell, their concerned photography, photography
of conscience to inform us, yes, but also to arouse our anger at the horror.
Witnesses, impassioned, tenacious witnesses, finding dark strength to whirr
and click their way through killing fields and hospital wards and rubbled streets,
printing images not including the ones they will carry as grim memories forever.
From the great stages of war to the green pastures of peace, journeys, return
journeys if lucky, single journeys maybe, at the mercy of bullets, missiles,
shrapnel and luck. “Just get the picture” is the brief, an unforgettable shot,
magazine cover of the year, of a corpse with eyes open, eyes that always burn.
Open wounds, deliberately prevented from healing, seeping like live jewellery,
glinting in the light, unavoidable near-scars, moist, real, badges of the rugged
correspondents who have gone to wars, been there, done that, got the flak jacket.
Images and incidents drawn into a hungry lens and fed over the wires and wi-fi,
back to the production office – “Oh, that’s awful”, “It must be hell over there”,
“Poor people”, “All that blood” – and the choosing of the front page money shot.
Printed, televised, that’s that. No rest, more hunger, on to the next assignment.
Open wounds prevented from healing, not physical holes peppering bodies
but invisible everlasting wounds filed and buried in heads, hearts and souls.
The photographer feels the reasons to go to war zones but can’t explain them,
pictures people not wordsmiths, a Rolleicord IV not a ballpoint pen, compelled
to frame message-moments that at a glance present the ugly point, showing
the repugnance of dead people, damaged people, terrified people, the mayhem.
People die in front of you, behind you, beside you. Are they dying for you?
The ultimate poseurs offering you their last breaths and the seconds after,
a chance for fame without fortune, a golden photo-opportunity gifted to you
by lives taken, sacrificed, the bloody meat of your job, the quest for graphic honesty
in the still faces, contorted bodies, scattered belongings, soldiers, civilians, men,
women, children and dogs, your cast of motionless characters in this grim fairy tale.
For you are the storyteller - once upon a time - but there is nothing vague about
the precise second of once, the moment branded inside your skull. You got the photos.
You have time to edit. Lucky you. Still breathing.
We will remember them, we will never forget, this must never happen again,
yeah, yeah, but then it does because that’s who we are, what we’ve become,
perhaps what we’ve always been, savages, plunderers, murderers disguised
as decent human beings washing cars and cutting grass, inwardly insane.
It is not about looking, it is about feeling, finding the feeling in what you see
and carefully carrying that feeling to anyone who bothers to look at the pictures.
If something is joyful, show and celebrate the joy. If something is joyless, show
that you witnessed joylessness. Take the viewer deeper and deeper into reality,
the truth of what is there before the cropping, the tidying up, the airbrushing.
Show what must be shown for the sake of honesty, the good, the bad, the ugly,
especially the things we’d rather not see. We must see it all otherwise we live
an edited life, a life of skimming books and galleries. Truth is the best picture,
the best propaganda, the shock that wakes us up to the sight of what happens.
I was only doing my job. I was able to walk away from a man dying of hunger.
I was able to walk away from a girl being beaten to death by a screaming mob.
I was able to walk away from a skeletal child, naked and lost in an orphanage.
I was able to walk away to consider my lifetime’s work. I was only doing my job.