That Which Has Been Seen, Cannot Be Unseen

I detest war. There is no other way to say it.

With that in mind, it may seem somewhat strange to hear that in 2010 I travelled to the Imperial War Museum in Manchester to see Shaped By War, an exhibition of work by Don McCullin. Visitors to this exhibition were given the opportunity to write their comments on a card and post it in a box. I remember writing “Yours are the only photographs of war I can look at.”

At that time, I couldn’t work out why that was so. His are powerful and often graphic images of war, of devastation and destruction; the kind of images I usually find myself running away from. Yet there I was, up close and looking, spending time with each image. And there I was buying the book Shaped By War; no longer running away but actively taking the images home with me.

I later thought it had been some sort of turning point and that from there on out I’d be able to look at war but that wasn’t so; his are still the only images of war I can look at.

Roll forward to 2013, the Cardiff Diffusion Festival have the McCullin documentary on their programme of events. There was no question of would I go or not, tickets were purchased and I looked forward to it.

McCullin is a great documentary; it is predominantly a portrait of a photographer (which it does very well) but it also succeeds in documenting world events of a period in time and the changes that took place within this period in relation to how news was gathered and told.

I think it hit me about half way through the documentary; that elusive answer to why his photographs and not others’. It’s because of the humanity he brings to the subject – he is the ultimate humanistic photographer. I felt quite overwhelmed, not because I’d finally found my answer but because as I did, I realised just how much his photographic body of work had cost him. That which has been seen cannot be unseen, by the end of the documentary that is all too clear.

I don’t see Don McCullin as a War Photographer, I see him as a photographer compelled to take photographs of war and I think there is a big difference in the two; you can see it in his photographs, you can see it in this documentary.

The memory plays tricks and sometimes I think I wrote one other line on my comments card; if I didn’t write it then I should have and in case I didn’t I write it now “Thank you for taking these photographs so that I may see what would otherwise be unseen”.

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