I’m leaving, on a jet plane—specifically, on a Beech 1900D, powered by two Pratt & Whitney PT-6A turboprops. You can decide whether that’s a “jet plane,” or not. Anyway, the point is, here are a couple of quick links to sustain you.
Random web surfing (which I think should be called “surfage,” pronounced in the French manner, as it sounds more classy) brought me to this old 2005 interview with Don McCullin at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.
And the New York Times has a piece on Tim Page and his ongoing search for the remains of his friend, Sean Flynn.
The Boston Globe’s Big Picture blog is one I keep an eye on. Last week, to recognize the 35th anniversary of the Vietnam War, they put up a gallery that’s well worth a look.
Vietnam has a special significance in war photography, not simply because of it’s status as a Baby Boom touchstone, but because it marked a shift in how photographers covered war, the reverberations of which are still being felt today.
The photography of WWII was primarily cheerleading an Allied victory in what might be called “the last good war.” In Korea, riding the wave of righteousness that followed, and of anti-Communist sentiment, photographers were happy to show that war is hell, without questioning its necessity, our moral authority to conduct it, or the actions of our own troops. David Douglas Duncan, who took pains to show American soldiers in a positive light, is the avatar of Korean War photography.
All that changed in Vietnam. Growing anti-war sentiment was reflected in, and amplified by, anti-war photography. In part, this may be the influence of photographers from non-combatant nations; it can’t be a coincidence that two of the leading anti-war photographers of the Vietnam era, Don McCullin and Philip Jones Griffiths, were British. And for the first time, war photography ceased to be the preserve of travelling correspondents from Western countries. Vietnamese photographers made a significant contribution.
This gallery is missing most of the usual suspects: we get nothing from McCullin, Philip Jones Griffiths, or the brilliant Larry Burrows. There are a lot of uncredited AP photos and DoD photos. But it also highlights the significant work of two Vietnamese photographers, Nick Ut and Henri Huet.
Henri Huet, the son of a French father and a Vietnamese mother, is little remembered these days, probably because his career ended in the same helicopter crash that killed Larry Burrows. But his photography stands out in this gallery—and these photos are not even his best-known work (although one appeared as a Tim O’Brien cover).
Check out the gallery.
… there is still something disturbing in my landscapes, because there’s something quite dark in me. It would be stupid to think you could get away with 30 or 40 years of photographing wars and death and that once you finish all the bad dreams will be done and dusted. There may not be humans in my images but there is still danger in these fields. My pictures reflect something about me. And I print them dark because my thoughts are dark.
There’s a battleground inside all of us I think. I have seen a lot of human suffering but that doesn’t mean I am a terrible miserable old man. I think I’m just surrounded by ghosts.
That’s one of several comments from Don McCullin, quoted at Ciara Leeming’s blog.
McCullin is fascinating because, unlike James Nachtwey, he doesn’t seem to have any real answers to the ethical dilemmas of his work as a war photographer. He suggests, quite candidly, that his war photography was futile, that it served no purpose, and that it wasn’t worth the risk and sacrifice. He inhabits a landscape of regret, which one is tempted to see in his dark and brooding winter landscapes. But despite this, he never did destroy his negatives, and he’s been energetically promoting his new book, Shaped by War, and his show at the Imperial War Museum North.
If I can be permitted to stroke my goatee and indulge in the kind of amateur psychoanalysis that I normally deride, perhaps his reaction is partly motivated by his own frank admission that wars, for him, were a thrill. It’s hard to maintain a stance of humanitarian concern when you admit to being an adrenalin junkie. That’s a neat explanation, but a facile one. McCullin has also said, repeatedly, that his negatives call up ghosts; it’s unlikely that anyone could photograph war, as he did, for any period of time without being troubled by it.
McCullin may just be more honest in discussing his feelings than others.
The Guardian has an audio interview with Don McCullin:
“One of the things I loathe is being thought of as a war photographer. Of course I went to many wars, but this doesn’t mean I have to have this terrible name.”
The interview covers McCullin’s early career, his reaction to being “a war photographer,” his Biafran epiphany, and the peace he now finds in landscape photography. It’s familiar territory, if you follow McCullin, but still worth a listen.
Don McCullin is one of the most interesting of war photographers, for the thinking behind (and beyond) his photography. Unlike James Nachtwey, for example, who seems to have found a way to see his work as humane and necessary, McCullin never seems to be at ease with his own legacy.
McCullin himself offers thoughts on the subject in a BBC audio slideshow, which is worth checking out. Should he feel guilty towards his subjects? Is his work merely exploitation?
McCullin says that he doesn’t even like his own work, that he feels guilt over it … yet also that “I like the idea of showing damage, because war is not a creative situation; it is about damaging other people’s lives.” Even as he sets out to show this to us, he is aware that his photography, also, can damage people’s lives.
Nachtwey discussed his feelings on similar questions in Christian Frei’s film, War Photographer, and particularly in this excerpt:
At times, Nachtwey’s commitment, his insistence that his work can have value, seems almost too pat — although, of course, this involves assumptions that are unfair to Nachtwey. But McCullin’s view of his work and ethics is so candid, and so conflicted, that he remains endlessly fascinating.
It’s almost as if, as the torrent of images from Haiti begins to abate, Time announces “James Nachtwey is here,” and the crowd parts, a hush falls, and all the other photographs fall away.
I exaggerate, of course, but Nachtwey has attained almost this stature. The man, and the photographs, are always at risk of overshadowing the events they document.
There is a reason: look at the photographs in question. Nachtwey’s attention to composition is remarkable. His photos are strong graphic designs as much as anything else; he is able to find a stark simplicity in the scenes he photographs, even when the frame is cluttered. He also has an extraordinary ability to shoot for the symbol, as in his shot of the WTC collapse, for example, or a Kosovar farmer carrying scythes. Nachtwey is, perhaps, the leading example or the photojournalist/artist working today.
This leads directly to the critiques of Nachtwey: that his work is cold, exploitative, unsympathetic. The skill of his photography is offensive; some feel that it is inappropriate, somehow, for photos depicting such suffering to look so good. His sincerity is called into question. You won’t have to look too far to find the critical questions expressed as personal attacks.
Some, perhaps most, of this criticism is a case of good old tall poppy syndrome, but a valid question remains: do Nachtwey’s subjects lose their essential humanity as they become the subjects of his art?