Heart of Darkness – ★★★★
The Polish writer Joeseph Conrad once wrote that “The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness“. There doesn’t seem to be a more apt summation of the photographs of British photojournalist Donald McCullin.
McCullin is a documentary concerning his photography, much of which became iconic images of numerous armed conflicts across the globe. He got his break photographing a local London gang he hung out with and The Observer offered him employment upon seeing the pictures. Being a working class lad from Finsbury Park where your fighting skills were all that mattered he could never have imagined where his career would take him.
Where McCullin really came into his own was at The Sunday Times under the editorship of Harold Evans. Evans allowed McCullin free reign as he knew he would take thought-provoking, compassionate photographs that would try to make the world wake up to the evils of humanity. From Vietnam to the Congo and the conflict of Biafra, we are shown image after image of incredibly horrifying scenarios concerning the plight of mankind. McCullin soon began to realise it was always the worst off people who were just trying to eek out a living that ended up suffering the most. Determined to show the real effects of war he put himself into the stuff of nightmares. His most devastating shots being those of starving children in Biafra, totally helpless and bewildered as to why this fate had befallen them.
The form of the documentary is mainly McCullin talking us through his photographs and the escapades he got himself in. Most documentaries would falter if they tried a similar narrative but so compelling is his voice and the sincerity of his words that we are glued to the screen. He describes himself as neither a poet or artist, when in reality he is both. In a single image he is able to capture the insanity of war and the core of the human spirit. His work has certainly taken its toll in many ways; he mentions briefly a failed marriage and how he is still effected by some of the things he saw. He tries to find sanctuary in his darkroom only to admit it too is haunted.
Once The Sunday Times was bought by Rupert Murdoch, Harold Evans soon retired and this was to spell the beginning of the end for McCullin. The colour magazine was no longer going to feature photographs showing the ravages of war as advertisers were to become the new guiding light. The frightening note towards the end is when McCullin reveals how today’s photojournalists are chaperoned to within an inch of their life, especially in war, making sure the truth is properly controlled.
McCullin is a fascinating insight into the mind of a man who took it upon himself to show us what we didn’t want to see and has no doubt suffered for his efforts. At seventy five years of age he is still alive to tell the tale which is more than can be said for most of his subjects.
UK / Directed By: David Morris, Jacqui Morris / 90min / Documentary / Release: 1 January 2013 (UK/Irl)