Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up – 4 September 2020

This week on Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up – from the archives Don McCullin, plus the FotoEvidence W Award is open for submission and the 2020 Alexia Grants round is coming up.

If you haven’t done so already, please watch the first three video interviews in the series Photojournalism Now: In Conversation – Robin Hammond, Renée C. Byer and Sean Gallagher – and look out for the next instalment coming later this month.

From the Archives:

Don McCullin at his exhibition in Perpignan 2013 (C) Alison Stieven-Taylor

In 2013, Don McCullin had his first major exhibition at Visa pour l’Image in Perpignan, France. I had the opportunity to chat with Don the morning before the retrospective – The Impossible Peace: From War photographs to Landscapes, 1958-2011 – opened and to attend the press conference later that day. A version of the following feature story written following my trip to Visa was published in New Zealand Pro Photographer magazine in 2014.

Don McCullin – No Rest for the Weary

Somerset (C) Don McCullin

Looking back over his lauded career photojournalist Don McCullin says, “The laurel wreath of success does not sit happily on my head”. After more than five decades covering some of the most horrific conflicts that have beset the planet, McCullin is not sure if the photographs he has taken have done anything to ease suffering or affect change. But despite his personal reservations and his sense of guilt at having “profited from others’ misery” as he labels it, he is adamant that photojournalism still plays a vital role in exposing the truth.

McCullin is a larger than life character, and his own story reads like a page-turning novel. He’s been held at gunpoint, beaten up, and was once imprisoned in Makindye Jail in Uganda, Idi Amin’s notorious “killing house”. And in 1968 his trusty Nikon F camera took a bullet for him in Vietnam.

The life of a war photographer carries a veneer of excitement and adventure, and in his hey day McCullin claims he “used to chase wars like a drunk chasing a can of lager”.  But while he may have “needed war” at one time, on reflection McCullin says the reality is quite the opposite.

“I have to be honest with you. When you are a young man it is quite exciting, there is an adrenalin rush and an addiction to getting away with your life after a heavy battle, but I’ve known some wonderful men and women who have died covering wars. Is getting a negative worth dying for? Even though it is a very noble thing to be the messenger, I am lucky to be here, so no it’s not worth dying for,” says McCullin. Then to lighten the mood he adds; “When I was in the war I always used an exposure meter because I thought if I am going to die it would be terrible if they said, by the way his pictures were under exposed.”

Shellshocked 1968 Vietnam War (C) Don McCullin

Despite his lack of formal training, from the outset McCullin was a born newshound. He recalls watching the Vietnam War escalate from his London base and champing at the bit to get into the action. It took him days to convince his picture editor at the Sunday Times, Mike Rand, that they needed to cover it. By the time he got the go ahead, Saigon was under attack and the airport closed. It was 1968 and the Tet Offensive was underway.  

“I was stranded in Hong Kong for five days…I looked at the light. I knew the light would be the same in Vietnam. My light. Grey, raining, no sun, perfect for great dramatic pictures…I went into a deep depression imagining what I was missing.” When he finally got on the ground Eddie Adams, David Douglas Duncan and Larry Burrows were already filing stories. McCullin thought, “My God I can’t win”. But he went on to capture what are now considered some of the most iconic images of that time.

McCullin honed his photography skills in the heady days when photojournalism was in hot demand. Working for London’s Sunday Times Magazine in the 1960s and 1970s McCullin says he lived a charmed life for most of the 18 years he shot for the paper. “I’d walk into the office and say to Mike Rand ‘why aren’t we doing this’ and he’d say ‘clear off and do it’…today you’d never get away with the way I worked. I used to go away from the office for several weeks, never ring the editor, never make contact. And then I would come back in and they’d look around and say oh he’s back,” he smiles wryly.

The horror of the Biafran Civil War

Having photographed so many conflicts I am curious to know if there is any one event that stands out for McCullin, who turns 79 this October (2013). He doesn’t hesitate, recalling how he was rocked to his core the day he walked into a makeshift hospital during the Biafran Civil War in 1969 to see 800 children dying of starvation.

“I never thought anything could be as bad as that…I thought I was quite tough…I was rubbing my eyes and these children saw me, a westerner, and thought I was bringing aid. What did I bring? A Nikon camera. You can’t imagine how I have struggled with my conscience…those memories are still present today”.

He tells that one image from that day haunts him; that of the skeletal albino boy. “I have not printed this photograph for many, many years. This boy came in while I was talking to a doctor. He held my hand…it was so terrible. I know that boy did not survive. I had young children of my own at the time and I went home from the Biafran War to my children who were well clothed and sometimes wouldn’t eat their Sunday lunch. It was quite a balancing act for me…to go to madness and then come back to normality”. (In 2015 this photograph was named in TIME 100 Most Influential Images of All Time)

Biafra (C) Don McCullin

He doesn’t discount it was an ordeal for his family also and two marriages fell in the wake of McCullin’s career as a globetrotting photojournalist. His first to Christine ended after 22 years, and McCullin claims his betrayal of her “was the single most shameful thing I’ve done in my life”.

The couple had three children and Christine tragically died on the day of her son’s wedding from a brain tumour. “I’ve had the roughest journey you could ever imagine in photography, but if I can give you a personal story, one of the worst experiences of my life was to see my wife dead in my house on the morning of my eldest son’s wedding. It was a glorious, warm, cloudless day and the saddest of my life”.  

He tells how the setting for his wife’s death was reminiscent of a scene he’d photographed in the Cyprus civil war years before. “There was a young wife crying over her dead husband, and in the room behind me were all the wedding presents which consisted of cups and saucers and plates to create a household…On my son’s wedding day, in another room there were the presents for his wedding. There were incredible human parallels and I thought to myself, am I being taught a lesson because I have intruded on others’ grief? Is it finally my turn to have grief under the roof of my house in England? So I never got away with it really, you might say”.

Yet bringing attention to stories that often don’t sit comfortably with notions of what a civilised society looks like is the essence of photojournalism, and McCullin has devoted much of his life to this pursuit of bearing witness to all that humanity dishes out. McCullin’s photographs of the Biafran Civil War made headlines and brought a story to light that few were aware of. The images were horrific, yet McCullin’s sensitivity and compassion showed through and the tragedy of the human stories captured in his lens was impossible to ignore; McCullin’s images turned statistics into real people.

In the early 1980s McCullin was fired from the Sunday Times when the new editorial edict, laid down by new owner Rupert Murdoch, declared “there would be no more photographs of dying babies in this magazine”. McCullin muses that had he stayed on he may well have covered Bosnia, Kosovo and Chechnya. “Maybe he did me a favour,” he says of the editor who gave him his marching orders. But it was a shock for McCullin who by then was in his mid-forties and not prepared for unemployment. Reluctantly he turned his camera to advertising, to what he saw as the nemesis of journalism, earning more money in a day than he could have imagined.

Early Shift, West Hartlepool Steel Works, County Durham
McCullin documented Britons of all classes over his career, from his first published photograph of East London gang The Guv’nors in 1959 to the Beatles, who requested him in 1968. Through the 70s McCullin documented the estates of Bradford and the foundries of County Durham.

While he is most well known for his conflict photographs, McCullin’s oeuvre encompasses landscapes, which he began to photograph after he left the Sunday Times; being in the country saved his sanity he says. And there is his 1969 series on the homeless in London, which has also brought him critical acclaim. He uses this series to illustrate that often there are great local stories to be told and he encourages young photographers to pursue these, and not just focus on going to war.

“I get a lot of letters from people saying they want to be a war photographer. I never answer those letters. You don’t have to go to Afghanistan, or Libya…you will find many social wars, many tragic situations of poverty and unhappiness and misery, stories you can cover without getting on an airplane. It is just as important to look around you before you start thinking of risking your life in Syria right now…I think a lot of people think that going to war is a form of glory, and it is attractive and is going to bring you untold rewards. I don’t believe that.”

Going to war at the age of 77

Having said that McCullin concedes that if photojournalists don’t cover wars like Syria then those without a voice will remain silent and important stories left untold. Yet he knows firsthand how dangerous the Syrian conflict is. In 2012 at the age of 77 years McCullin found himself in Aleppo scrambling through the rabbit warren of apartments and abandoned buildings that the “freedom fighters” squat in, and use to traverse the city.

McCullin says Aleppo presented a war-scape that was completely foreign to him and he felt enormously uncomfortable being in these spaces, which were clearly beloved homes of those who had fled. “These freedom fighters are traipsing around these houses in amongst peoples’ beds and televisions and possessions. It is very bizarre and strange. And it is very sad”.

He continues. “Syria is a hell of a dangerous place. When I was in Aleppo I came up against a fundamentalist who was a really nasty, awful man. I put my camera to my eye and I could see him coming down the road and I thought, no don’t do it. I put my camera down and he was screaming in my face.” McCullin says he bluffed his way out of the situation, telling the man to go away and “stop annoying me”, but it could have gone horribly wrong as the toll of journalists kidnapped and killed in this conflict testify.

McCullin says covering conflict has always been risky, but what’s happening in Syria is something else. “Media are being captured and used to barter with. It is almost human trafficking now”. He fears for the safety of many young freelancers who without the support of newspapers or wire services, are at greater risk as they have little or no experience working in war zones.

And the future of photojournalism?

Looking to the future of photojournalism, a profession in which he has invested his whole being, McCullin shakes his head in disbelief. “What a shallow world we live in where how much money footballers earn and all this Hollywood rubbish takes precedence over hard news. Photojournalism has been sidestepped because the proprietors who own these newspapers don’t want ugliness, tragedy or pain. Even the Times newspaper in England is becoming celebrity-based and it was once a very serious newspaper. I am really disgusted”.

The conversation turns to McCullin’s exhibition, ‘The Impossible Peace’. Curated by his long-time friend and agent, Robert Pledge of Contact Press Images New York, ‘The Impossible Peace’ comprises images that span McCullin’s career. This exhibition offers a rare chance to view some of the 20th Century’s most iconic pictures including McCullin’s 1961 photographs of the building of the Berlin Wall, images that elevated him to the international stage.  

“I hope I have photographed suffering with integrity, and in a way that can be accepted,” McCullin says quietly. “I have tried to present my pictures so you won’t turn your head away. The worst thing that can happen for me is for people to walk past these photographs. I want people to stop and think.” (Don McCullin in interview with Alison Stieven-Taylor).

Grants & Awards:

FotoEvidence W Award – open now

A reminder, the FotoEvidence W Award for Personal Story is now open. The award will be granted to one woman photographer whose work merits a book. The hardbound book will be published by FotoEvidence Press, which has forged an impressive reputation as a publisher of photobooks on stories that address social injustice and the abuse of human rights. Two other entrants will receive honourable mentions. Entries are now open and close October 15th, 2020.

Alexia Grants – open September 14

(C) Professional Grant Recipient 2019 Katie Orlinsky/Alexia Foundation: Newtok, a 380 person Yupik Native village along the Ninglick river in the Kuskokwim Delta area of Western Alaska, is one of the most urgent and extreme examples of climate change today. The entire village is sinking as the permafrost beneath it thaws and it is estimated that in only 3-5 years the entire village will be underwater. Erosion has already wiped out nearly a mile of Newtok’s land, with thawing permafrost rapidly accelerating the loss. Newtok is currently in the process of moving to an alternate village site about nine miles away named Mertarvik. It is the first community in Alaska that has already begun relocation as a result of climate change—pioneering a process that many Alaskan villages may one day undergo. . The indigenous Alaskans of Newtok live a traditional way of life that is inextricably tied to the land and depend on hunting, fishing and other subsistence-based practices. And while they are an incredibly self-reliant people, they are also some of the most ignored, lacking resources such as proper plumbing, potable water or safe sewage system. Newtok residents use what are referred to as “honeybuckets” for toilets, and the contents are now getting dumped straight into the river. Due to erosion, they currently cannot access their garbage dump. When storms cause flooding in the village, it leads to a public health crisis. Meanwhile, due to their extremely remote location accessible only by small plane or barge, they still pay some of the highest prices for food and fuel in the United States.

On Sept. 14, the Alexia Professional and Student Grants will open for submissions. Alexia “grants help visual journalists produce projects that inspire change by addressing topics that are socially significant.” Entry fees for professionals have been lowered from $50 to $20 and parameters for spending the grant funds are also altered, so check out the website. Deadline: Oct. 5, 2020.

The Alexia Professional Grant recipient receives $USD20,000.

The Alexia Student Grant recipient receives “a fellowship for tuition and student fees to enrol in three courses during a semester at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School and a $1,000 stipend and is the research assistant for The Alexia director at The Newhouse School during the semester, a paid position.”

(C) Student Grant Recipient 2019: Isabella Bernal/Alexia Foundation
Carlos, 56, arrived last summer from Guatemala to the US, since then he has been making a living standing outside of a convenience store and waiting for the small vans to take him for making random jobs that are paid by hours. Alexia

Past professional winners include:

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