Writing on photography

Nihilistic Photojournalism? Don McCullin at Tate Britain

I went to Don McCullin’s current retrospective at Tate Britain with some trepidation. Both in terms of the things I knew the exhibition would ask me to look at, but also in terms of the stance the exhibition would take on photojournalism itself.

On the first count of trepidation, my fears were met and even exceeded. This exhibition is a litany of the awful things that people do it other people, and to a lesser degree a catalogue of the reasons they do them, although it struggles more here for reasons I will return to shortly. I don’t have a particular issue with being exposed to the terrible side of human nature, seen in the right context this can be edifying as much as it is alienating. In this case however the horror of much of the subject matter is made more still uncomfortable and harder to bear by the handling of the work and the context it is being viewed in. It’s an old quandary, but what does it mean to view an image of someone blown apart by a land mine, presented as a work of art, and then to shortly afterwards to exit through the gift shop and buy a similar image on a postcard. The ethical ramifications of this are briefly acknowledged, but are reduced to a small, easily missed box of text in one room asserting that McCullin does not describe himself as an artist (because what you call a thing, that thing becomes, right?)

Part of the discomfort I felt also stemmed from a sense of the photographer’s unwilling complicity in some of what he shows us taking place, and the inevitable sense as a viewer of also being complicit, perhaps somewhat more willingly. This is most obvious when viewing horrors that seem to have been acted out for the camera. Photos from the Congo show prisoners tortured before execution, A rifle butt hangs in mid-air poised to strike (or perhaps just poised for the lens, there is conspicuously no motion blur), but it is the camera’s shutter here which seems to sting on long after this fighter presumably met his end. Even in those photographs that are not so clearly stage managed there is a sense that this media mechanism of which McCullin is the sharp tip has an uncomfortable relationship with the sharp tip of the war machines represented. Again of course this is not a new concern in photojournalism, if that indeed is what we now are viewing here.

This is an exhibition review, and so it seems worth remarking on the structure of the retrospective. Given the comparable creativity of the Diane Arbus retrospective just along the river at the Hayward Gallery, it seemed a shame that McCullin’s retrospective does not try to reimagine the meaning or presentation of hiswork more proactively than simply shunting it further across the Venn diagram of photojournalism and art. The structure of the exhibition is chronological, project based, and the photographs, while explained as sets, are individually quite shorn of context, causing their backstories to fade from view. With a small number of images longer texts contextualise what they depict but these are mostly direct quotes from McCullin which again tend to centralise his story at the expenses of the events and people depicted. As a viewer one gets the most insight when these stories in some way entwine with each other, but in the end it ismost often McCullin’s that wins out.

Photography is by definition unrivalled at showing things, but it is also terrible at explaining them. Presented so chronologically, these images tell you little about the bigger processes and histories that underlie them, or quite how interestingly linked the events shown sometimes are. But there are small clues for the attentive observer and how much more stimulating this exhibition might have been if it had itself been more attuned to them. A Biafran rebel carries a WWII German rifle, while American soldiers on the Berlin Wall look little changed from those who first occupied the city fifteen years before. What a show it might have been if it had tried to blend these experiences and events in some way that acknowledged the twentieth century as the unbroken flow of disaster it was, rather than making them an apparently unambiguous and straightforward chronology. The binding glue of it all instead is the life of a man who protests not to be interested in laurels while being curiously unable to resist them.

Of the two trepidations I felt, the worry about what I would see was the emotion I felt best able to manage. What I found harder to deal with was what the exhibition, and McCullin himself, has to say about photojournalism. McCullin is a giant of photojournalism, unquestionably brave, and unquestionably a skilled photographer. But it is worth raising questions about the way he seems to have become a one-man nihilism campaign against photojournalism. In every talk and interview I have heard him give he has rotated the same set of stock descriptions of photojournalism as ineffective, and many of these emerge again in this exhibition. It feels like a sort of sham criticality though, because it never gets beyond saying that photojournalism does not work, it never really attempts to explain why this might be the case, it simply says it is, and that’s also why I find his refrain deeply unconvincing, and wonder exactly why he does it.

Maybe it’s a canny recognition that the sort of globe-trotting photojournalism that McCullin built his career and name on is distinctly out of fashion now, and that by disavowing it himself he pre-empts criticism of it. Maybe it’s a foil to the art world to disavow the purpose that the work was originally made for so at it can all the more readily by taken up by institutions like Tate, and trade in this very different marketplace. Or maybe he actually believes it? In any case, this nihilistic refrain is also troubling because this exhibition is by all accounts one of the best attended photographic exhibitions that Tate Britain has had. What does it mean to all of these viewers to say these images, which clearly moved many people in the gallery that day, are basically meaningless?

I should also note as others have that the £18 entry fee (£16 for concessions) seems at odds with an exhibition by a photographer who grew up in the poverty of post-WWII London. One can’t help but wonder if there might today be young McCullins in London today who would have been inspired by this exhibition themselves. McCullin’s own nihilism about photojournalism is strange for many reasons, but not least because his own story is itself (and by his own admission) is a demonstration of the power of photography to create meaningful change. The Tulmudic instruction that whoever saves a life saves the world could be refigured for those critics of photojournalism who say it has no impact on things. To even change one life is, albeit in a modest way, to change the world.

Photograph: Suspected Lumumbist freedom fighters being tormented before execution, Stanleyville, 1964. Don McCullin / Courtesy The Tate

Update: It’s been pointed out that Tate do run a program of £5 tickets for 16-25 year olds, however this is not obvious when one is actually at Tate, and still excludes a significant number of people who can only qualify for £2 concession off the standard ticket rate.


About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is a lecturer in documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2019 he will be a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

6 comments

  • Last year I saw an exhibition of Abbie Trayler Smith in a very “art” gallery which was selling the photos of refugees, suicide bomb victims, war zones et al for a few thousand a pop, price tags over captions, think you would’ve loved it.

    Please keep banging your head against the wall, thanks.

  • Hi Lewis, I agree with everything you say about the missed opportunity to re-evaluate McCullin’s images. However, In this case I think it was absolutely appropriate for Tate Britain to give the work a ‘linear’ treatment. The Tate is a national institution charged with engaging the public in art. Notwithstanding McCullin’s rejection of the term ‘artist’ we still have to place photography somewhere. For too long photography has lived on the margins of public discourse here. McCullin is an old man who made each print for this exhibition – if this was the only context to show a body of work like this printed by the man who created this body of images then a recontextualisation of his work should come down the order of cultural priorities.

    I am meeting him in a couple of weeks to discuss his work on England for an article in a photographic magazine. He has become (rightly or wrongly) an article of the our cultural state and people want to know about him. His work is totemic and has become emeshed with his myth. I share many of your qualms but I think the only place for a show of his work is in the heart of the nation’s artistic establishment. He is unquestionably a part of that.

    Just a last thing, if you saw the Mike Nelson exhibition in the Duveen gallery – right next to the McCullin – then you will have seen one of the most important and moving exhibitions charting the decline of our nation. Not bad for £16, which I know is chosen as the the most perfect figure in order to get people to take out memberships! Clever bastards.

    All the best,

    Alex

  • I’m at a loss having not seen the exhibit, but I would have hoped that McCullin/Tate would have somehow managed to combine his work and most recent ethical considerations into an effective narrative that addressed current concerns regarding: photojournalism, third world exploitation and art world reappropriation.

    As for current museum admission pricing- Exploitation writ large any way ya look at it…

  • I haven’t seen the exhibit, it being rather on the other side of the world from me, and I’m not an expert on McCullin by any means. That said, there are some pictures everyone has seen, and I did spend some time boning up a bit.

    It appears that the man rejects more than the Artist label, he seems to reject all the labels. Perhaps he thinks of himself, or at any rate wishes to be thought of as “a bloke who takes pictures.” A position I empathize with, to be honest. All that other stuff just seems like crap.

    He’s taken a lot of non-war pictures, but does seem to have always had an affinity for people in dire straits. He has a whole line of patter about eye contact, which maybe I’ll come back to,

    Anyways. There seem to be three questions, to my eye:

    1. Should war photos exist at all? (or: should any picture of people in dire straits exist at all?)
    2. If yes, what kinds of conditions make this photo OK and that one not-OK? Not necessarily pre-conditions, just conditions.
    3. Do McCullin’s pictures meet those criteria?

    It sounds as if you’re uncomfortable with the pictures, but willing to allow them the right to be, but only if certain after-the-fact conditions are met — they should be displayed in…some way. Some way that makes it right. It’s not obvious to me that a different exhibition with more history, and/or a different ordering of the pictures, would “make them OK” although the right sort of thing might appease your politics, or mine, or someone else’s. One does not need a detailed history to “get” these kinds of pictures.

    While one can certainly say things like “the 20th century was a rolling trainwreck of western Imperialism” trying to make McCullin’s pictures into that statement sounds dubious to me. If you bend the pictures that far, you’ll provoke cheers from the people who already think that and groans from everyone else. An actual effective, persuasive, argument might be doable, and might include some of McCullin’s pictures, or even (stretching a bit) use McCullin’s career as a framing device, but it’s not going to look anything like a McCullin retrospective.

    As for the Congo pictures (and more generally, I suspect) McCullin’s jam seems to be eye contact, and that seems useful. See the fellow lower-right? He’s going to die soon, and the little span of life between now and then is going to be terrible. McCullin can’t help him. There is not one fucking thing McCullin can do for that dude, except this: He can see him. One can at least imagine that McCullin said to that man, silently, “Sorry. You’re going to die. But right now, I see you. You are a human being, you are a man, and I see you.”

    Simply seeing someone, seeing them as human, as a person and an individual, when they are in a bad situation can be a real kindness. I have no idea if McCullin *actually* did that, but it seems to be what he thought he was up to, and his pictures often kind of look consistent with that idea.

    So there’s that.

    Personally, I dunno. I despise pictures that appear to me cruel, but I’m loathe to say that any picture ought not to exist. The taking of any individual picture strikes me as more or less inconsequential, so, right or wrong hardly matters much.

    I believe that it is not the single picture, but the constant stream of them which inflects the ideas we have of the world. One picture or another doesn’t do much, doesn’t matter much. Ditto this photographer or that.

  • Dear Lewis, I’m arriving late at your space and just now connecting with your writing. It’s almost uncanny. Because I don’t want to use this space to talk about my own work, I’ll just say it’s been a rewarding experience going through your texts and an extremely sympathetic one as well (which I find rare in this area). Best to you, I’ll be following. Best, Sofia.

  • I have no idea who Lewis Bush is but having read this article one can only assume he in not a photographer and possibly hasn’t even been to the exhibition he feels fit to criticise.

    Having visited this week I can attest that, yes, these are a collection of some shocking images of the evil that men do but this is mixed with other images which demonstrate Don McCullins expert eye for a great photo whatever the situation.

    Most of this article is wrong and the author seems to have some particular axe to grind, jealousy perhaps?

    Go and see the exhibition before it’s too late. You won’t be disappointed.

Writing on photography