‘Shaped by War’ at the Imperial War Museum

November 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

From ‘Shaped by War’ (photo credited to Pierre Giovanetti – flickr)

Shaped by War is not just an exhibition of Don McCullin’s life’s work as a photojournalist. It is an exhibition of the worst of humanity.

Displayed prominently on the wall as you enter the exhibition, is a quote from McCullin:

“I want you to look at my photographs. I don’t want you to reject and say, ‘No, I can’t do that. I can’t look at those pictures. They are atrocity pictures.’ Of course they are. But I want to become the voices of the people in those pictures” (2009).

Walking through the exhibition you see McCullin’s words are true – these are photos of atrocities. From the grieving woman in Cyprus for which McCullin won the 1964 Press Photo of the Year award, to emaciated women and children in the Biafra War, to the photograph of two Palestinian men dead in their home, an event McCullin witnessed himself.

These images capture the worst the world has to offer.

Colour – not for war 

What is striking about the exhibition is its lack of colour. The photographs – with the exception of those from the Vietnamese Eastern Offensive (1972) and El Salvador (1982) – are all in black and white. The photographs sit in black frames with white canvases.

A quote on the wall from McCullin sums up why this is so, “Occasionally I use colour – I can use it quite well if it comes to it. But I thought that black and white images in war were much more powerful” (2009).

At the end of the exhibition the focus of McCullin’s photography shifts away from war to still life, landscapes, travel and social documentary.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that these images are any less moving. The close-up image of a young Zimbabwean boy, crying at his father’s funeral, tears streaking his face, is packed with emotion.

Memorabilia and more… 

The exhibition is not just photographs. There are a number of pieces of memorabilia from throughout McCullin’s career, including a glass case containing the second-hand US Army equipment that he used while in Vietnam – his helmet, boots and US Army WWII watch.

In another is the passport McCullin used in Cambodia, along with the Nikon F camera that got hit by a bullet, saving his life.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is the 30-minute film of an interview with Don McCullin. Particularly moving is his telling of getting shot in Cambodia and how he considered swimming, injured, through the nearby river in the event that the Khmer Rouge passed where he was wounded.

And in spite of the accolades and awards bestowed upon him, McCullin says, “I really don’t believe I’ve changed anything at all.”

The comments left by members of the public on a touch screen at the end of the exhibition perhaps say otherwise. The words, “thought-provoking”, “moving”, “haunting” and “inspiring” are all used.

And in direct contradiction to McCullin’s statement, one comment says,  “A remarkable body of work… yes, you have made a difference.”

I happen to agree.

‘Shaped by War’ will be on display at the Imperial War Museum in London until April 15 2012.





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