Posted on February 14, 2019
‘I grew up angry,’ says Sir Don McCullin, as a new retrospective of his work – including some of his earliest photographs – goes on show at Tate Britain. He was born in Finsbury Park, north London, in 1935, and spent his childhood sleeping in the same room as his brothers, his mother and his chronically ill father. ‘The way I grew up shaped my life, because I can understand poverty,’ he explains.
His father died when he was 14, forcing McCullin to drop out of school and bring money in for the family. ‘I was angry about that,’ he says today. He spent his teenage life out on the streets of north London, still in partial ruin after the Second World War Blitz, and peopled by homelessness. He got his first camera – a Rolleicord – while on national service with the RAF in North Africa. ‘I was bound to be angry,’ he notes when recalling the poverty, misery and pain he saw through the viewfinder of that camera. ‘It would be wrong if I wasn’t angry.’
McCullin is now 83, and has been photographing consistently for more than 60 years. His new exhibition features over 250 of his photographs over the span of his long career, each of which has been hand-printed by the photojournalist in his darkroom at his home in Somerset. The exhibition is entirely in monochrome. McCullin actively seeks out dark images, and will process them as such. ‘I see darkness as my voice,’ he adds. ‘I sometimes almost believe myself that I am speaking for the victims and the casualties of war.’
The Guvnors in their Sunday Suits, Finsbury Park, London, 1958, by Don McCullin. © The artist
Yet McCullin hates being categorised as just a war photographer – ‘a reductive term’ he says, when we speak on the phone. The exhibition reflects the many hours McCullin spent as a young man photographing the streets of London. Indeed, his first break with Fleet Street came when a newspaper published a photo of a local gang of street urchins known as the Guvnors, ordered together in a bombed-out house. They had grown boys notorious after the murder of a policeman, but McCullin would routinely knock about with them, and easily got insider access.
‘I started out in photography accidentally,’ he notes in the exhibition. ‘A policeman came to a stop at the end of my street and a guy knifed him. That’s how I became a photographer. I photographed the gangs I went to school with. I didn’t choose photography, it seemed to choose me, but I’ve been loyal by risking my life for 50 years.’
The exhibition is notable for the number of photographs taken in parts of London that now teem with restaurants and cafés and shops and new-build complexes: Shoreditch’s Old Spitalfields Market, Liverpool Street and Commercial Road, for example. When framing the many destitute people he captured in those early years, he remembers: ‘I would make myself unimportant in the presence of such people, to let my eyes meet their eyes, so I could become drawn into their vision.’
Near Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, 1961, by Don McCullin. © The artist
The exhibition includes a series of photos McCullin took of the Berlin Wall as it was first being built in 1961. McCullin was 26, and, in his own words, ‘a rank amateur’. The American and Soviet militaries were eyeball to eyeball in the centre of Berlin. ‘I was sat on the hottest story in the world.’
McCullin was straight off the flight from London with roughly £20 in his pocket. He had no knowledge of international affairs, nor had he experience of the aesthetic rigour needed to shoot a story of such calibre and significance. He simply persevered, shooting again and again from as many angles as he could find. The tension and division of the scene (and the Berliners attempts to carry on with their lives as usual) is still bitingly evident in his photographs, even in the serene calm of the Tate Britain.
The Berlin images launched his career in the heyday of the newspaper era. For the next few decades, the photographs of McCullin (and a few of his contemporaries) were often the only thing connecting the British people to the brutal realities of war in faraway places. Some of his images have since become iconic, like the Northern Irish youth in the black suit brandishing a bit of plywood against the occupying British army. Or, of course, the shell-shocked American GI in Hue, Vietnam – ‘he didn’t blink once.’
But there are other pictures in display that have never entered the public consciousness, and, indeed, were not noticed by McCullin until he revisited his contact sheets for this exhibition. One shows a senior Biafran soldier bent over the corpse of a dead comrade. ‘I saw the commander talking to one of the dead soldiers as if he were still alive,’ McCullin says. ‘He was praising the man’s courage and thanking him on behalf of the Biafran nation. It was moving and alarming at the same time.’
Some of the adjoining images, of starving women hopelessly trying to breastfeed their babies, are almost impossible to look at without feeling a deep sense of despair. McCullin says of the Biafra civil war and famine of 1968: ‘It was beyond war, it was beyond journalism, it was beyond photography, but not beyond politicians. We cannot – must not – be allowed to forget the appalling things we are all capable of doing to our fellow human beings.’
‘I didn’t choose photography, it seemed to choose me, but I’ve been loyal by risking my life for 50 years.’
The Tate exhibition underpins what a brilliant war photographer McCullin undoubtably is. For he has an ability, amid the violence and the chaos and the endless churn of tragedy, to create imagery that seems elevated by a higher message. ‘I make it possible for you to look at them and try to come to terms with them,’ says McCullin.
Forcing himself to so consistently bear witness in such a way has wrought a great toll. ‘I wasn’t a great family man,’ he reflects. ‘My children were always waving goodbye to me. Would my children look at me and think “Is he not going to come back?” I can’t claim to have been a great father. I sacrificed their childhood for my photography.‘
McCullin has lived in Somerset with his third wife for 35 years. It’s only now, in his eighties, that he has found a degree of peace, and been able to experience his children’s lives, and married life, without the turmoil of knowing he would soon have to return to the frontline.
Woods near My House, Somerset, c1991, by Don McCullin. © The artist
The exhibition ends with the very beautiful photographs McCullin routinely takes of the bucolic landscapes around his adopted home. ‘The landscapes became a process of healing,’ he explains. ‘It was a way to forget about wars and revolutions and dying children.’
He recalls the experience of re-entering the darkroom for this exhibition, where he developed new prints from the original negatives that pile up in the spare rooms of the house. ‘They actually talk to you,’ he says. ‘They remind you. I take those memories to bed with me, have terrible dreams and wake up in a sweat. They have contaminated that house.
Posted on February 10, 2019
With a “constant fascination for new people,” New York-based, Norwegian photographer Johanna Siring often features strangers as the subjects of her work. In a recent series, Siring has taken her love of meeting new people to another level by capturing portraits of total strangers before and after kissing them.
Aptly called Kiss of a Stranger, the project features pairs of portraits taken at Denmark’s Roskilde Festival. To create the series, Siring would first approach a fellow attendee and ask him or her to pose for a picture. After snapping the first shot, she would explain her project and ask for a kiss. If the individual happily agreed, they’d lock lips, and Siring would immediately capture his or her post-smooch expression.
As one would imagine, Siring’s subjects’ reactions—both to her kissing query and to the intimate acts themselves—varied, with the results manifesting in the “after” images. “Some would give me a quick kiss and then die of laughter afterwards, while some went straight for making out,” Siring tells i-D. “The most interesting part was that I kind of felt that I knew them a little bit after the kiss, and I think this feeling is reflected in the second portraits.”
Siring spent 2 days creating the series, culminating in a collection of 20 black-and-white photos. In addition to photographing strangers, Siring also shoots portraits of celebrities, as evident in her impressive portfolio. Ultimately, however, whether famous or unfamiliar, Siring believes that “every person on this planet has a unique character and personality- there is always a new story to tell.”
Posted on February 10, 2019
A part of growing up is becoming aware of changes. Have you ever wondered how your neighborhood completely changes when you are walking down those familiar streets ten to fifteen years later? Now, imagine if you lived in a place surrounded with trees and found all of them have vanished when you returned from a trip? That is what happens when we have rampant deforestation taking place all over the world. We are aware of the problem, but few countries are taking any step towards it. That’s why we need to step up as individuals and make a change.
Enter award-winning photojournalist Sebastião Ribeiro Salgado and his wife Lélia Deluiz Wanick Salgado.
When the Brazilian photojournalist returned home after his traumatic assignment of reporting on genocide in Rwanda, he was devastated when he saw the devastation that had taken place in his childhood land. The Minas Gerais, his home, which was once a paradise of tropical forests, had turned into a barren land with no trees and no wildlife.
The Instituto Terra wanted to recover 1,502 acres of rainforest in the Bulcão Farm in Aimorés, Minas Gerais. In 1998, this farm had become a cattle ranch after the deforestation. It was dubbed as Private Natural Heritage Reserve (PNHR). Salgado went out for the first seed planting in December 1999 and continued to do so. Since they had the motive to restore the rainforest back to the way it was, Salgado made it especially clear that the trees that were replanted should be native to the land. He had observed that if the trees were not native to the place, the native wildlife doesn’t return to it, keeping the once loud forest, forever silent. He planted over two million seedlings of 290 species of trees and more. And the result was amazing!
172 bird species have come back, of which 6 are already in the danger of becoming extinct.
There has been a return of 293 species of plants, 15 species of reptiles and 15 species of amphibians.
But that is not all that the Instituto Terra is doing. It slowly turned into a ray of hope for people who were aware of the environmental problems and knew why afforestation must be turned into a way of life. To spread this light of hope and awareness, the Instituto Terra created the Center for Environmental Education and Restoration (CERA), a place for research and education which focuses on environmental restoration. It has already looked into the different models of development that exist today and is trying to modify it to create a model that could be used for sustainable development. As a result, by December 2012, the Instituto Terra had developed about 700 educational projects and brought in about 65,000 people who work in more than 170 municipalities present in the Valley of the River Doce. It covered the states of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo, as well as reaching out to states of Rio de Janeiro and Bahia.
Posted on February 3, 2019
“Where should we go?” Melissa, my girlfriend, was trying to narrow down what seemed like a mountain of possibilities-places that were worthy of exploration. After a month of repeating that same question a million times, we finally settled on India.
Why? Throughout my 8-year career, I have seen such an overwhelming amount of photography. I have studied the greats in both photojournalism and commercial portraiture. Out of the millions of photographs, many of the ones I remember most vividly were from India. Every time I listened to top photographers speak, it seems like they all mentioned the same thing: how incredible and unexplainably magical India is.
Eventually, it was these comments and the related work that I love so much, that drove me to insist we go there.
Our goal was to stay in as few places as possible and go deep, instead of trying to see everything. We wanted to find a story, but didn’t want to go there with expectations and decided to figure out what that story would be once we arrived.
India is a massive place, and picking just a few locations was difficult, but one we settled on was Varanasi because of the many incredible portraits and accompanying stories about Sadhus: religious people who renounce worldly possessions and embark on a spiritual journey with the goal of reaching ‘moksha’, or spiritual liberation.
We booked our flights and accommodations and prepared for our trip.
I had always been excited to see the Ganges, or ‘Mother Ganga’ as it’s affectionately called by many followers of the Hindu religion. You see, the Ganges River is not just seen as a river, but as a holy and sacred entity. From where it rises in the Western Himalayas to its end-1,600 miles away at the Bay of Bengal-it is worshipped. Despite this, the river is highly polluted and the level of fecal coliform (E. Coli from human waste) is over 100 times the official government limit around Varanasi. Imagine my surprise when we arrived in the middle of the night and peered out our bedside window at a man bathing in it. As we realized the next day, this is extremely common.
The streets of Varanasi were packed with both animals and humans. What smelled like a mix of diarrhea and bleach permeated the air as heavily as the ashes of the dead. Varanasi, formerly Benares, is over 4,000 years old, making it one of the oldest cities in the world. Much like the Ganges that it sits upon, it is sacred. The most sacred city in Hinduism and Jainism, in fact.
Hindus believe that to die there is to break the cycle of life and death, or to reach ‘Moksha’.
As a result, Hindus will travel from around the world to Varanasi as they (or their loved ones) age or fall ill. When the person dies, a family member will purchase wood that is placed along the Rivers edge. The body is placed on top of this wood pile and burned in the open. This is happening 24/7, 365. To walk along these ghats is to accept the ashes of the dead falling upon you.
Some things are harder to get used to than others.
From a visual perspective, the city was incredible. People toiling and working and laughing and smiling and swimming. It was all so striking. The character in people’s countenance was apparent everywhere we went.
Throughout my 8 years as a photographer, I’ve photographed a variety of content. As I matured in my work, I focused my efforts on environmental portraiture and knew I wanted to reflect the strength of my skill in this area within my portfolio. After seeing so many great photos of Sadhus taken by artists that I respect, I wanted to create some strong photos of these holy men. This was a large motivation for going to India.
I began wandering the ghats. There were many Sadhus.
After an hour or so of scouting, I approached a Sadhu who I thought had a particularly strong look. I sat down and had a good conversation with the man. Eventually, I asked if he would allow me to photograph him.
“500 rupees!” he demanded.
I was a bit shocked. As I mentioned at the start of this blog post, Sadhus relinquish all worldly possessions-including and especially money- in pursuit of spiritual liberation.
I explained to the man that I was there as a photojournalist and that to pay anyone or accept payment for a photo would compromise the integrity of my work and would, therefore, be unethical. I simply wanted to honor and document his culture. He made a motion with his hand, shooing me away. I happily obliged as an austere Sadhu would have never asked for money.
No problem. There were many more Sadhus in the area.
I approached one, then another, and another. They all demanded payment to take a photo of them. I can understand some Sadhus-like in any religion-not being as devout as others, however, I would not expect every Sadhu I approached to disregard one of the core tenants of their faith.
That night, we went back to our hotel confused and frustrated. I asked the gentleman at the front desk whom I had befriended over the previous days, “What am I missing?”
“Those are fake Sadhus. They are not real. They dress in a Sadhu’s clothing and grow dreaded hair in an attempt to fool foreigners into giving them money for photos. All of the real Sadhus are up in the mountains, and tend to avoid people.”
Suddenly it was starting to make a bit more sense.
There are many great photographs of Sadhus that have been taken over the years. I pulled out my phone and showed my new friend a few photos of these Sadhus. I asked if he knew where I could find REAL Sadhus like the ones I was showing him.
“Most of the men in these photos are not Sadhus. These are the same homeless men dressing up and fooling tourists that you saw today. I can take you and show you tomorrow.”
“Wait, so you’re saying many of these Sadhus aren’t legitimate?”
Oh. No big deal. Didn’t travel from the opposite side of the planet to find real Sadhus or anything…
…I couldn’t believe it.
I can see how what happened to me might have also happened to other photographers.
You think you are coming for one thing and discover it’s not what you thought. You realize you came around the world, spent your time, money and resources only to realize you are looking for a ghost. So you just take what you have, photograph the “fake” Sadhus and Aghori and continue to perpetuate the false narrative so that you can still come out with a ‘win’ and appear more legitimate. More ‘Nat Geo’ if you will. I just can’t do that.
The next morning, Melissa and I went out for some breakfast. On our way there, we were passing the ghats where they burn the bodies. A man stopped us and asked us to wait out of respect for a ceremony that was taking place. Despite being frustrated from the night before, we waited. and waited. and waited. While doing so, the man started to discuss the ceremony and tell us everything we already knew about what was going on. Eventually, my hunger got the best of me and I told him that we were just going to go up and around the entire ghat in order to not disturb anyone.
“1000 rupees!” he demanded. He actually expected us to pay him because he spoke to us for 10 minutes.
Unbelievable. Even the funerals weren’t off limits. At that moment, I felt like Varanasi was like a Disney theme park-all the characters dressed up imitating something it once was — a well-oiled machine, with its only legitimate truth being to extract money and scam people. Had he no shame? What kind of person is willing to stand on the backs of dead bodies in order to try to guilt and obligate someone into paying them money?
After eating our usual crepe filled with Nutella, we discussed our next move. It was then that we realized that we hadn’t lost our story, but gained one. We decided to spend the rest of the trip photographing these “fake” Sadhus to show just how legitimate they can appear. Knowing we wanted to write this story, we needed to show you examples of the Sadhus standing along the River asking for money in exchange for posing for a photo. Their attire and appearance is representative of how they looked when we found them:
Finally, it was time for us to journey back to Brooklyn. The gentlemen we made friends with at the hotel insisted on carrying our luggage a quarter mile back to our taxi. I admired their hospitality and hard-working attitude. This seemed to be a theme across all of the hotel workers and restauranteurs in India. I was happy to end our trip with this sentiment in mind.
45 hours after our plane took off from Varanasi, after many delays, a Kuwait police officer being more blatantly sexist than I’d ever seen in my life, and awesome airport lounges (thanks Chase Sapphire Reserve), we were back in Brooklyn. The whole flight back, thoughts kept racing through my head;
What does it mean to be a “real” anything?
How can we know ones true beliefs? Often, we struggle with answering this question for ourselves.
How closely do we need to follow our faith to be considered legitimate?
How much responsibility do we have as photographers, journalists, and travelers?
Does the tourist or naive photographer and the ‘fake” Sadhu deserve one another? Are they both not giving the same level of effort and depth towards their journey and commitments?
We want to go learn and empathize with another culture. We want to tell their story, and give a voice and platform to people who might not already have one. But we also want to be recognized and appreciated for providing that insight, doing something many aren’t willing to do. To find the truth. To find something real. Maybe that’s truly what we’re searching for. Something 100% authentic and pure. Maybe that’s the most important question of all;
How far do we have to go to find something real?
How much do our own expectations play into our idea of what that is?
If finally confronted with it, could we accept the truth even if it didn’t fit into our expectations?
This blur between legitimacy isn’t only present in India. There are monks in a Buddhist temple that are constantly over-charging for entry. Tribes in Ethiopia that set up near major roads and dress in more dramatic make-up than is typical of their village located a few miles away-all to gain more money from tourists. Young members of the Jewish faith going to Israel for ‘Birthright’, a program created to deepen their understanding of Jewish heritage, only to party in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Sexual abuse being perpetrated by Catholic priests.
There are a lot of important stories that need to be told, but this line of thought drives deep into human nature and truth itself. Something more timeless that goes beyond what we want to be and asks who we actually are. A string that I feel is worth tugging on, despite the wormhole that might ensue. So with that, I’m beginning a new series that will be titled, “Only God Knows.”
Now that I’ve had a couple months to reflect on our trip to India, I realize how much I’ve grown from it. It was so dirty, yet beautiful. Everything seemed fake but was so real. Humbling and rewarding.
There were many parts of the trip that I didn’t enjoy, but in a way, it was everything I wanted it to be.
You can’t really define India or put it in a box, and trying to understand why I want to go back again is enough to drive me crazy…
But hey, I guess I’m just drawn to the irony in India.