Don McCullin – Unreasonable Behaviour

Sir Donald McCullin CBE HonFRPS is probably Britain’s greatest living documentary photographer. Known mainly as a war photographer, he has also covered poverty in Britain and abroad and the famines in Biafra (man-made) and Ethiopia (natural). In recent decades, he has reinvented himself as a landscape photographer, but that postdates this autobiography, first published in 1992. I read the 2002 edition, unchanged apart from a single-page preface.

The writing style is very direct and unflinching in its detail. This is not the work of a man showing off his education and erudition (McCullin is dyslexic and left school aged 15, on the death of his father) but one who has seen the worst that mankind can dish out and is trying to make sense of it for the general reader.

The early chapters cover his childhood in Finsbury Park, one of the poorer and rougher areas of London at the time, as a war child and occasional evacuee. He speaks first-hand of poverty and street gangs. He buys a camera during National Service, and afterward photographs Finsbury Park life and the street gangs. In 1959 a member of one of the gangs was arrested for killing a policeman and the Observer used one of McCullin’s photographs of the gang. An illustrious  career is started, with commissions to record poverty and street life elsewhere in Britain.

The main part of the book, however, deals with McCullin’s documentary work in pretty much every international trouble spot from the raising of the Berlin Wall, up to but not including the Falklands (McCullin is bitter about being excluded – too independent to toe the official propaganda line), in the Middle East, Vietnam, Africa and South America. He spent time in Idi Amin’s jail and has been wounded and caught malaria, in the course of pursuing his  stories.

In the context of this course (Context and Narrative) it is interesting to see how McCullin builds up his philosophy of what photojournalism and documentary mean to him. He pursues an individual course, even when on a commission, independently and honestly showing us what he sees. He deals with the question of voyeurism by concentrating on the ‘ordinary people’, civilians caught up in the horror, ‘other ranks’ soldiers etc. and bringing their story to the fore, and to the attention of readers (starvation in Biafra, for instance)

In the latter part of the book, it is clear that the work is taking its toll, and McCullin also charts the changing attitudes of newspaper owners and editors, looking for softer ‘lifestyle’ stories rather than the uncomfortable dramas he is used to recording. In the final chapters, he is obviously at a low ebb with rejection from the Falklands and the death of his first wife. The book was originally written as a form of therapy and ends on a low note. The 2002 preface tells us of a general upturn and his taking up landscape work.

I see that there has been a 2015 update, written to celebrate McCullin’s 80th birthday. It is on my Amazon wish-list.

Reference

McCullin, D. (2002) Unreasonable Behaviour London: Random House

 

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Exercise • Citizen Journalism

A Google-trawl, search term ‘citizen journalism’ brings up multiple examples and multiple definitions of the phenomenon. I would broadly classify them under two headings – ‘citizen news-gathering’ and ‘citizen news-broadcasting’. There is a also a pedantic quibble about whether a stateless person could properly be described as a citizen-anything.

Citizen news-gathering is the concept illustrated by the CNN billboard above. People caught up in a news story, and equipped with a camera, mobile telephone or smartphone, can contact the ‘established media’ and report breaking news before the network media have time to mobilise. The early example quoted in several sources is Abraham Zapruder, whose 26.5 seconds of 8mm cine film of President Kennedy’s assassination have been the source of news stories, books, films and conspiracy theories since November 1963. Slightly later, we have John Filo’s images of the Kent State shooting (although, as Filo is described as a student and part-time news photographer, this might not strictly be citizen journalism) and coming right up to date, every terrorist attack sees our newspapers full of smartphone images by victims and passers-by.

Citizen news-broadcasting seeks to break away from the ‘established media’. Jay Rosen (2008) described it thus:

When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, that’s citizen journalism.

News, gathered by ‘citizens’ or established media sources is distributed by an anarchic network of websites, blogs and social media. Images and film, such as the death of an innocent bystander shot during an anti-government protest in Iran, can ‘go viral’ and be around the world in hours. More relevant to the question asked in the course notes is Tami Silicio’s image of flag-draped coffins being returned from Iraq, in defiance of a  a government ban on such images which some considered to be part of a policy of sanitising the conflict.

A UK example is the death in April 2009 of Ian Tomlinson, a bystander caught in a police riot-control ‘kettle’ in London, who died after being attacked by a balaclava-wearing policemen with his badge number covered to avoid identification. (Lewis 2009). Video shot by an American hedge-fund manager also caught in the ‘kettle’ gave the lie to the police account of the incident, resulted in the identification and prosecution of the policeman and led to changes in the policing of protests.

We are asked to comment on the objectivity of our examples.

In my opinion, the Zapruder film and the Tomlinson video were objective at the point of capture; in both cases, an unexpected event occurred in front of an unprepared observer who happened to have a camera running. The relevant question is one of  objectivity in distribution. Zapruder gave copies of his film to the Secret Service for investigation/evidence purposes and sold the rights to Life for $150,000 (1963 currency) (Wikipedia, 2017). The Tomlinson film was provided (price, if any, unknown) to the Guardian publishers, rather than to the investigating authorities, five days after the event because the photographer had read of a conflict between the police story and that of protestors and others caught in the ‘kettle’. Would the film have come forward if the controversy were not already being reported?

The Iranian bystander and the Kent State images arose because each photographer had seen an event, then filmed the aftermath. I suspect an element of subjectivity in each case; would a government supporter in either case have filmed and distributed their images? We must consider that the photographers were shooting images that supported their own world-views and, again, there is the question of objectivity in the method of distribution. Filo sold images to an already-sympathetic press. The Iranian photographer used social media (YouTube) because the local media could not be relied upon.

The Silicio image of the coffins is objective – the scene existed in front of the camera – but shot for subjective reasons. ‘Tami Silicio was moved by the increasingly human freight she was loading and felt compelled to share what she was seeing’ (Dyer, 2015)

Objectivity in news images is uncertain. If an event is unfolding in front of the photographer’s eyes, he has no opportunity to ‘pose’ the subjects, but he may be able to influence the look and apparent context of the images by a choice of lens, technique or viewpoint. If shooting aftermath images, then there is more opportunity for posing or ‘gardening’ (Rosenthal’s Iwo Jima or Fenton’s cannonballs, for instance).

In post-production, at editing and selection stages, there is a risk to objectivity by selecting one image over another from the contact sheet or memory card. The selection of an image might simply be a function of page design but it may represent the editors world-view.

References

Dyer, G. (ed.) (2015) 100 photographs: The most influential images of all time. United States: TIME.

Lewis, P. (2009) Citizen journalism counters police propaganda. [online at] https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2009/aug/04/ian-tomlinson-death-g20 (Accessed: 16 February 2017)

Rosen, J. (2008) PressThink: A most useful definition of citizen journalism. [online at] http://archive.pressthink.org/2008/07/14/a_most_useful_d.html (Accessed: 16 February 2017).

Wikipedia (2017)  Abraham Zapruder. [online at] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Zapruder (Accessed: 16 February 2017)

100 Photographs from TIME

If you ask a photographer’s opinion of the most influential photographs of all time, you will probably get a list of 5-10 images. Of course, we will each have a slightly different list but most of us will find our lists well-represented in this book.

‘100 photographs’ (Dyer, 2015) is the book of the website of TIME’s project to assemble the most influential photographs of all time (or at least since 1826, which is when time started for photography – and, yes, the Niepce rooftops image is here).

There is no formula that makes a picture influential. Some images are on our list because they were the first of their kind, others because they shaped the way we think. And some made the cut because they directly changed the way we live. What all 100 share is that they are turning points in our human experience. (100photos.time.com)

An influential photograph is not necessarily a good one – the book includes the 2014 Oscars selfie yet has nothing from Ansel Adams or Walker Evans. It is also rather US-centric (unsurprisingly given the source) and appears biased toward more recent images. In part, this is because there are overwhelmingly more photographs taken since the birth of digital than before (see previous post) but I suspect the same kind of bias that packs lists of ‘the ten best films (or songs, albums or whatever) of all time’ with recent examples.

The book is divided into three parts, Icons, Evidence and Innovation.

Icons are the images that stick to your consciousness in a way that a mere photograph does not. Examples are Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ (presented here, rather than in the ‘Evidence’ section), Joe Rosenthal’s flag-raising on Iwo Jima or – more quirkily – Betty Grable’s legs and the vertigo-inducing ‘Lunch atop a Skyscraper’

Evidence is the largest section and contains the photos that say “This is happening now”. From Gardner’s 1862 ‘The Dead of Antietam’ which brought the reality of the America Civil War home to New York society, through Nick Ut’s napalm girl which did the same for Vietnam to more recent images of famine in Africa, these are the photographs that changed public perception and, indirectly, changed the world. We also see the rise of the citizen-journalist with Filo’s Kent State shooting and Tami Silicio’s defiance of the ban on showing flag-draped coffins.

Innovation is the shortest and, perhaps, the lightest section and covers the development of photography itself and of photo-journalism. [If I may ride a personal hobby-horse for a moment – while the Niepce rooftops picture and Daguerre’s Boulevard du Temple are landmark early images, why is there nothing from Fox Talbot? After all, the daguerrotype was a technological blind alley while the calotype ushered-in the negative-positive workflow that dominated the film photography era and which made photographs infinitely reproducible, therefore democratic and influential.] This section includes Muybridge’s horse, Röntgen’s X-rays and the Apollo 8 ‘Earthrise’ picture which showed us just how delicate our planet is.

Not all is doom and gloom. We also see the Beatles pillow fight, Buzz Aldrin on the Moon and Michael Jordan in flight. Plenty for everyone.

I have referenced 18 images, which means I have missed 82. None of them is trivial; all repay viewing, but I have to stop somewhere.

Having said, in the first paragraph, that most of us will find our personal lists well-represented I would go further and say that, after reading this book, most of us will add a few images to our lists. I know I did.

References

Dyer, G. (ed.) (2015) 100 photographs: The most influential images of all time. United States: TIME

TIME (s.d.) TIME’s 100 most influential images of all time. [online at:] http://100photos.time.com (Accessed: 13 February 2017).