Film

War-Photography Doc ‘McCullin’ Showcases Empathy, Pain, and Ethical Dilemmas

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Over the course of a four-decade career, British photojournalist Donald McCullin took some astonishing pictures, but the smartest choice directors David Morris and Jacqui Morris make in their documentary McCullin is to keep the man himself in the frame.

Famous for his war photography, McCullin’s gift is his sensitivity, a capacity to feel the pain of other people that informs both the images he produced and the ones he refused to take. The depth of his empathy is manifest in his face and his words as he narrates his story, a singular presence that grounds the film in a sense of commiseration for the inevitable victims of war — those too poor to flee from armies.

He has a knack for small, revealing details: During the civil war in Cyprus, he captures a group of armed guerrillas waiting for combat; a beautiful mastiff dog sits among them. In the single photo he ever staged, he sought out two American soldiers who had looted the body of a Vietnamese soldier moments before, to photograph a proxy portrait of the dead man via his meager effects. And always, always, there are children. In the Congo, he watches soldiers and mercenaries beat and murder unarmed boys. He captures the starving children in Biafra in unimaginable states of physical deterioration. He watches Christian troops in Lebanon shoot fleeing Muslim women and children, describing it as murder rather than war.

He has a lot of accumulated wisdom about the ethical dimension of wartime photography, which can be voyeuristic or thrill-seeking at its worst. It’s evident from the degree of his rumination that, for him, this is still an unresolved dilemma.

McCullin

Directed by David Morris and Jacqui Morris

Opens October 30, MoMA

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