TateShots

Don McCullin on the futility of war

Photographs are a 'silent protest against the futility of war'

Don McCullin sees his photographs as a 'silent protest against the futility of war'. In this TateShots he remembers the people and places of some of his most powerful work.

Don McCullin is one of the most important war photographers of the 20th Century. His devastating images of conflict zones and the casualties of war in Vietnam, Berlin and Northern Ireland are recognised for their haunting realism.

His work documents the tragedy and humanity remaining in the survivors and landscapes of war, in his own word he sees 'darkness as my voice'. it was exhibited at the Conflict, Time, Photography exhibition at Tate Modern in 2014.

transcription

Well, these photographs were taken in 1961. It was the actual beginning of the building of the Berlin Wall. I arrived at Tempelhof Airport and went straight to Friedrichstrasse, where the tension was at its most intense. So here I was in Berlin with one camera, basically looking at the hottest new story in the world.

And so I had to make that camera do everything. I tried every way of using that camera to get a different angle. The Russians and the Americans were facing each other with armoured vehicles and, you know, you look into these photographs, and we’re looking…a lot of them, you’re looking into East Berlin, and if you look at the uniforms of the East Berlin police and soldiers, they are very reminiscent of Nazi uniforms that you would have seen in the Second World War. I was using that kind of atmosphere to show tension, really, and division.

And this was a shell-shocked soldier from the Fifth Marine Battalion, and I just found him sitting on a wall. He’d got to a point in the battle that he couldn’t take any more of it. I just took five simple frames with my 35mm camera, and this man didn’t blink an eyelid. I suppose, in a way, that’s what I’m trying to express; a kind of silent protest about the futility of war, but I don’t know how people perceive it, because it has a slightly iconic value to it, which could be a slightly defeating part of the object of me taking it in the first place.

The big final photograph as you leave this exhibition is a simple landscape. I was sent to make a commemorative stamp of the First World War for the Post Office, but I happened to be having a lunch one day in a simple little bistro, and I finished my lunch and I drove down the road. There’d been a heavy rainstorm, and I suddenly, as I was driving, saw this road, this silver road going into infinity, and I stopped the car and I got out and I felt immediately that this road was a voice that was, you know, telling me something about history. It’s just a simple road, but it was the most dangerous road in the world to many soldiers who went down it. When I printed the picture I injected a lot of my own thoughts into that picture, you know. I see darkness as my voice, really. I sometimes almost believe, myself, that I’m speaking for the victims and the casualties of war.

And when I see an image which is related to war, I don’t give you a free ride.

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