By Gregory Crofton
The “albeano” – what the word albino sounds like coming from Don McCullin – was starving to death. It pained the photographer when the 9 year old with bulging eyes followed him around camp silently asking for food. All he could offer this powdery white boy was a barley sugar candy.
Covering war and famine in 1969 Biafra, Africa (Nigeria today), where McCullin encountered the albino boy, still haunts him. The little boy’s image lives in his memory, and that kind of thing is probably nothing new for a war photographer. The profession is a crazy one, one that runs on adrenaline, talent, and a required reservoir of sensitivity. If you don’t feel enough, you won’t get the shot. Once you’ve gotten the shot, it might not ever leave you.
This reality McCullin admits is a very difficult one to live with. Regardless the 77 year old just recently returned from covering the war in Syria. I was lucky enough to catch a screening of the documentary “McCULLIN” on Wednesday at the Nashville Film Festival. It is a heavy film, one loaded with raw images of war, poverty and hunger, and all-too-vivid stories from McCullin who reflects on his long career.
Co-directed by one of the McCullin’s long-time assistants, Jacqui Morris, the doc takes the viewer to the front line of war in Cyprus, the Congo, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Lebanon. It really is almost too much to absorb in 90 minutes. But overload is what the filmmakers might have been going for to create a sense of what McCullin has endured. Relief from the grinding tales of war and poverty comes from his magnificent black-and-white photographs, and really these are the things that make this film work.
McCullin’s highly regarded work is given context in the film. Business owners and editors who once allowed him to take the pictures he thought best to take have been replaced. Today massive corporations led by men such as media executive Rupert Murdoch control the game. They want to publish what sells, and often it’s celebrity.
Sir Harold Evans, McCullin’s editor for years at The Sunday Times in London, knighted for his contribution to journalism, helps explain the changes in the industry. Evans also serves to better communicate some of McCullin’s heroic actions in war – like his running into gunfire in search of a wounded soldier – when the photographer’s modest, dignified-self won’t do. Be on the lookout for “McCULLIN,” and go see his photos on the big screen if you can.