The Impossible Peace: Photographer Don McCullin’s last war at Visa Pour l’Image


posted Friday, September 27, 2013 at 4:03 PM EDT


Last year, British photojournalist Don McCullin went to Syria to visually document yet another war -- Syria's bloody civil war. But at age 77, his body didn't fare as well as his intentions. Shortly after arriving, McCullin and his team came under fire, and he fell and injured himself. He had to be pulled out of the situation by his companions. It was his last war -- and the beginning of his search for what he calls "the impossible peace."

"I knew a very famous photographer once. His name was Eugene Smith, and he had a plate in his head because he got very badly injured at Iwo Jima. He was a very human person and I always described him to others as a man who I thought had his nerve ends hanging out of his fingertips." -- Don McCullin

McCullin has probably covered every war that took place during his 50 years as a photographer. He's covered wars large and small, from Cyprus to Northern Ireland to Vietnam. He never would be embedded with any army. For him, there were no sides, no good war or bad war, just the victims. He photographed the soldiers and civilians, the living and the dead. To him, those embroiled in war are residents of hell, where death is swift and often pointless, and from which hope -- much less salvation -- had long since disappeared.


Photo by Don McCullin / Contact Press Images

At this year's Visa Pour l'Image -- the largest gathering of photojournalists, would-be photojournalists, photo agencies and publications in the world -- held just a few weeks ago, McCullin was the event's Invitée d'Honneur, which is fitting for a man whose work makes him the spiritual father of the war and combat photography Visa is built upon. Along with several dozen other photojournalists, his work "La Paix Impossible" was on display from Aug. 31 to Sept.15th in the southern French city of Perpignan.

The two weeks of Visa were filled with exhibitions workshops, talks by established photographers and presentations by well known publications. Photo agencies from all over the world offered open houses and conducted portfolio viewings, searching for new talent -- hoping perhaps to find the next Don McCullin.


Photo by Don McCullin / Contact Press Images

A decade ago I had an exhibition of images during Visa Pour l'Image, although my show was part of "Festival Off," the city's response to the days of endless images of human misery. Two weeks of viewing large prints of starving children, bloody soldiers, weary rebels and sobbing women can, after all, be overwhelming morbid, certainly not anything a Chamber of Commerce wants to put in its tourist brochures. Festival Off was created as a respite for the weary tourist, a chance to enjoy some theater, music and another kind of photography. I was among a group of photographers whose images were of nature, social commentary (mine) and landscape photography. The town fathers didn't see us as competing with Visa, but rather as complementing it.  


Photo by Don McCullin / Contact Press Images

And there was an irony in this year's Visa that seems to echo the local shopkeeper's concerns. Visa Pour l'Image -- in what seems an own effort to soften its ‘blood and more blood' image -- strongly promoted an exhibition of (what I thought were) rather unremarkable images from last year's Burning Man Festival taken by photographer Eric Bouvet. In the special Visa Pour l'Image issue of the French magazine PHOTO, the Burning Man images filled 10 full pages. In the same issue, Don McCullin's "La Paix Impossible" exhibit is covered in just one page. To drive the irony home, the Burning Man photos appeared under the title "Peace and Love is Back."

I doubt whether Don McCullin would agree with this in any way.


Photo by Don McCullin / Contact Press Images

In "La Paix Impossible," McCullin seems to be acknowledging that his images, like all photojournalism, is as Robert Pledge, director of Contact Press Images, put it, "tragically powerless and unable to stop it (war). This is the ultimate despair of the photographer."

McCullin has spoken bluntly about his despair and his weariness in recent interviews. Feeling that his work served no purpose, he began to search for peace in the countryside in landscape photography. But even in these images, Pledge says, "he could not escape madness: wars and landscapes clash to the point of merging; clouds become mirrors reflecting tragedies; the damp skies and sodden earth conjure up images of muddy mass graves."


Photo by Don McCullin / Contact Press Images

McCullin's Visa exhibition covered the last years of the 20th century and the beginnings of the 21st. From post-War England, where he grew up in profound poverty, to the building of the Berlin wall, and the plague of AIDS in Africa, his images stand witness to our times. Through all the violence and the horror, he is relentless. From images of his first conflict, the civil war in Cypress, to the striking photos of the killing fields in Cambodia, he never let his vision falter.

"In this great tradition of photojournalism, sometimes labeled 'concerned photography' or 'the photography of conscience,' no one has surpassed -- in breadth, in directness, in intimacy, in unforgettability -- the gut-wrenching work produced by Don McCullin." -- Susan Sontag