Moving Image

Jacqui Morris and David Morris, McCullin, 2012, color, sound, 90 minutes.

“I DON’T JUST TAKE PHOTOGRAPHS. I think.” That’s Don McCullin, the great British photojournalist, doing a formidable show-and-tell in Jacqui Morris and David Morris’s documentary McCullin (2012). Throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and half of the ’80s, the London-based McCullin covered wars, civil and international, briefly for The Observer and then for the Sunday Times, filing from Cyprus, Congo, Biafra, Northern Ireland, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Lebanon. Those are the conflict zones depicted in the documentary; there were more, images of which are collected in over twenty books, among them Unreasonable Behavior: An Autobiography (1992) and Sleeping with Ghosts: A Life’s Work in Photography (1996). In Britain, McCullin’s stature is comparable to that of Robert Capa in the United States. Perhaps this documentary will bring him the international attention he deserves.

The photographs and McCullin talking about the circumstances in which they were taken make up almost the entirety of McCullin, and it’s reason enough for anyone who cares not only about photography but about bearing witness to many of the major horrors of the second half of the twentieth century to get to one of the screenings at MoMA (through November 5). This Saturday, at the 1:30 PM show, McCullin will introduce the movie and also sign copies of Don McCullin: The New Definitive Edition, published by Jonathan Cape with an introduction by Harold Evans and an essay by Susan Sontag, who dubbed him “the greatest British photographer of the twentieth century.” The book, a revised edition of the 2003 Don McCullin, was published in honor of his eightieth birthday and contains forty never-before-published images.

McCullin, who was nearly seventy-five when the documentary was shot, is an extraordinary narrator of his life and work, in part because of his honesty in trying to sort out why he felt compelled to take his camera into war zones, risking his life and to the detriment of his family. “You have a moral sense of purpose and duty. You want to take this picture and you want to stop it.” Unlike many war photographers, a term that, he says, is comparable to mercenaries, he tended to focus not on heroic actions but on the victims of war, who are always the poor. “They don’t have a Mercedes. They can’t get away. And I grew up with poor people.”

Evans, the editor who brought him to the Times and virtually the only commentator in the documentary, says that McCullin had “a passion to report,” and that governments wanted to suppress exactly what he brought out in his images. Soon after Rupert Murdoch bought the Times, Evans resigned. Murdoch wanted no part of McCullin and saw that he was kept off the boat to the Falklands “because there was no more room.”

Still McCullin didn’t stop. He went to Lebanon and later again to Africa. But it became much more difficult for him, partly because journalists were no longer allowed the freedom to go where they believed the story was. The military blamed the US loss in Vietnam on reporters like McCullin, who they claimed turned Americans against the war. Thus, he explains, no one has the freedom in Afghanistan that he had in Vietnam, which he describes as going mad and running around for weeks like a tormented animal. In recent years, McCullin has been photographing what he loves, the English landscape. But, he notes, when you love something there is always the sense that it is under threat. Which, indeed, it is.

I wish the documentary hadn’t been edited quite so chronologically. And I wish that the filmmakers hadn’t felt obliged to set up the various places where McCullin went with newsreel footage, which reeks of the very generalities and clichés that he rigorously avoided. “I’m trying to be honest,” he says of the images he took in Vietnam. “It had nothing to do with photography. It was about humanity.”

McCullin plays through November 5 at the Museum of Modern Art.