THE HORRORS OF BEING A RECORDER OF HUMAN SUFFERING AND UNMITIGATED CONFLICT
On a personal level, I cannot even begin to communicate to you what it is like to be a recorder of human suffering and war. I am not a war photographer: I do not photograph human suffering. I have never been this kind of photographer, and I probably never will be this kind of photographer. I am, for the most part, an art photographer.
I am not a “War-Junky”. War does not inspire me. Human suffering does not push me to create powerful images, although, I could probably do it…there is a sort of possession I feel when thrown into scenes of action, and when I have a camera up to my eye. In the end, however, I would probably become terribly depressed, facing other people’s pain and suffering too often.
Nevertheless, there are, and have been, many photographers whose jobs it has been to do such things. And, they have created powerful images as recorders of human suffering, which in many cases, have been poignant enough to change public opinion against aggression. Nick Ut’s photo of Napalm Girl, or, Eddie Adams’ photo of Saigon Assassination, these photos come to my mind.
A powerful photograph taken more recently, is Kevin Carter’s image of the starving Sudanese girl, crawling her way to a U.N. Food Camp, with a vulture nearby, just waiting for her to die, and eat her. Carter’s photo sparked something in me to speak up about Hunger and Starvation. I guess I was a little irritated with certain religious zealots who claim that by fasting, you will better understand how the poor feel when they are hungry. I wrote that, that argument, when used as a good reason to fast, was nonsense, as NO ONE with resources will ever understand real hunger, or what it is like to be starving—the poor child in Carter’s photo is the sad epitome of starvation.
☆ Poor people who live in extreme conditions and environments may always feel hungry, and many of them always feel starving, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, until unfortunately, they die due to starvation or the diseases and health problems associated with starvation.
DO YOU THINK YOU PERSONALLY KNOW HUNGER AND STARVATION?
People with resources, who fast for example, will never-ever understand what it is like to feel hungry or starving, and if you think you do, you need to look deeply at Kevin Carter’s photograph of the starving child!
Here’s a simple, “Do I Understand How it is to be Chronically Hungry, Malnourished, or Starving,” test:
1) Are your bones nearly sticking out through your skin?
2) Is your belly bloated, and are you feeling disease-stricken due to malnutrition?
3) Are predators just waiting for you to die so that they can eat you because you do not have the strength to move?
4) Is your daily caloric intake so low that you have lost so much weight, that you appear like a ghost of your former, healthy, self? At the beginning of the day, do you have thoughts that you may not be eating today?
If you answered “NO” to all four of those questions, then you have no idea what it is really like to feel hungry, starving, or malnourished.
WHAT DO I KNOW ABOUT HUNGER AND STARVATION?
What do I know about hunger and starvation? All I can claim is that I have studied social planning issues dealing with hunger and starvation, but that was years ago during my graduate school education. More recently (about two years ago), due to a illness, I went from a healthy 75kgs weight, down to a ghostly 57kgs! So, that’s what I honestly know about hunger, associated health issues, and living at an unhealthy weight. If you are at a healthy weight and lose nearly 20kgs in less than a year, and then you see only a remnent of yourself when looking in the mirror, that’s when you BEGIN to understand the feelings surrounding health conditions associated with nutrition, disease, or anything else that causes a person to be at a lower than healthy weight.
WITH SO MUCH HUMANITY LOST—WHERE DO I FIT IN?
With so much humanity lost in the world, sometimes, I wonder what damn good am I to anyone. I am the creator of pretty pictures. There is so much suffering in the world, and I wonder how what I do with my photography, or with my words, actually helps anyone. I know I get a fair share of “sympathetic-Likes” on my photography blog posts. I wonder, however, how many people actually take time to read what I have written.
I do what I know how to do—I am a Photographer—an Art Photographist. I wish and hope what I do, inspires someone…anyone.
MY ARTISTIC INSPIRATION
I get much of my inspiration from my favourite artists of the nineteen fifties and nineteen sixties, such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Piet Mondrian. Most of my artistic photography influences come from the Abstract Expressionism painters of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism: BOY…were they a rowdy bunch of partying drunks (a good share of them), with truckloads of problems, and there were several suicides within the group (i.e., Rothko, Gorky, and “existential suicide” like Pollock).
This does not mean that I am not moved by, and inspired by, a few photographers.
MY QUESTION IS: “HOW TO DO THIS JOB AND NOT BE SUICIDALLY-DEPRESSED?”
One of the photographers I respect the most is Don McCullin. He was a “War Photographer” for over two decades. However, he eventually determined that the title, “War Photographer” was dirty.
(Photo of Sir Don McCullin)
McCullin has survived his time as a conflict photographer. Kevin Carter, however, did not survive—he killed himself. The extreme depression and loss of hope experienced by Kevin Carter, is one extreme. Kevin Carter killed himself in July of 1994—only 3 months after winning the Pulitzer Prize for features photography. Kevin Carter cited in his suicide note that the nightmares of his life basically cancelled out any joy, so much so, that there was no joy left in his life.
However, on the other side, there are other photographers, like Don McCullin, who witnessed and endured great tragedies for a long time: He too suffered mental anguish, and he was highly affected due to the nightmarish experiences he faced while working as a photographer of conflict. The difference it seems, was McCullin’s ability to come to terms with his work and survive the experience.
THE PURPOSE OF THIS POST
Well, this is neither a psychological study, nor a guide on occupational health and therapy. Mostly, this is just a look at McCullin’s work, and an inside look at some of his wisdom. At the end of this, the mystery will still remain…”How to do this job and not be suicidally-depressed?”
The purpose of this story is not to give a psychological evaluation of War Photographers and why some survive and some don’t—I am not an expert on PTSD, or Clinical Depression, and I will not even attempt to touch further on those subjects.
● I think the biggest thing you should take away from this essay is that you cannot be a conflict photographer recording human suffering, and NOT be affected mentally, in a very serious and long-lasting way.
For educational purposes, I wanted to further pursue some thoughts on the subject of Recorders of Human Suffering, and how they also suffer in their lives, due to a great extent, because of all the experiences of human misery that is stacked one on top of the other, for which they have either written about, or photographed, because that is part of the job. It is interesting, and sad, how this trauma from witnessing so much suffering affects them to such a great extent, that some of these reporters are unable to cope. I have a feeling that most people nowadays don’t have much of a clue about the misery of human suffering because mass media/Press is highly regulated and scenes of extreme suffering are rarely seen in newspapers and magazines because it is bad for selling advertising to these periodicals, and also, it is really bad publicity for the Industrial War Complex, who profits from death and destruction.
It appears that photographers like Kevin Carter and Don McCullin face the ultimate conundrum, of when to separate their job from their humanity, and evaluating when it should be morally right to put their job on the back burner, and to focus on their humanity, and give at least a little help to their photographic subjects, who are in need of help. This is a mind-crushing moral line that all conflict photographers seem to face. The wrong choices in these moral situations can leave mental scars, and those choices can haunt the photographer for life.
To show the impact of McCullin’s work, I need to actually show some of his work, but that brings up copyright issues, so I resorted to studying the “Using Images” topic, at MIT’s website, http://libguides.mit.edu/usingimages .
Is my use fair? — The four factor test:
Purpose of use?
WEIGHING TOWARDS FAIR USE:
Nonprofit, educational, scholarly or research use? Repurposing, recontextualizing, creating a new purpose or meaning? Transformative use?
ANSWER: YES. The images used here are screenshots from the video documentary “McCullin”—in most cases, the screenshots were repurposed, cropped, to focus more on the main points of the images, and the images are of very low resolution. The purpose of the images’ use is also different from the original usage. This is educational and non-profit usage.
Nature or type of work?
WEIGHING TOWARDS FAIR USE?
Published, fact-based content?
ANSWER: YES. Blog published and as factual as possible.
WEIGHING TOWARDS FAIR USE?
Using only the amount needed for a given purpose; Using small or less significant amounts.
ANSWER: YES. Just a handful of images out of probably tens of thousands in Don McCullin’s archives. Enough just to make an educational point.
WEIGHING TOWARDS FAIR USE?
If there would be no effect, or it is not possible to obtain permission to use the work.
ANSWER: CORRECT. There will be no market effect, this is only for educational and not-for-profit purposes, and it would probably be near impossible to obtain specific permissions with any ease.
I believe my intention of using a few low resolution, cropped screenshots of images, for not-for-profit, educational use in this blog post satisfies “the four factor test.”
Sir Donald McCullin, CBE, Hon FRPS (born 9 October 1935) is a British photojournalist:
THE BEGINNING OF HIS PHOTOGRAPHY EXPERIENCE
Don McCullin grew up in Finsbury Park, a rough part of London. He did his first story for The Observer in 1959. He photographed the boys he hung out with, who were all gang members. Early on you could tell that there was a direct honesty to his work, capturing the real character of his subjects and showing the truth behind the subjects, to tell a truthful story. Only years later, Don would discover the nightmare of his work, and how this kind of work, as a recorder of human suffering, demands a very heavy toll on a photographer’s life.
CYPRUS CIVIL WAR (1955 – 64)
The Cyprus Civil War between the Greeks and Turks, was McCullin’s baptism of war.
McCullin quickly found out how to photograph war, but he said he also discovered that “War is partly madness, mostly insanity, and the rest of it is schizophrenia.”
“You’re trying to stay alive, you’re trying to take pictures, and you’re trying to justify your presence there.”
McCullin said, “I want to take the photographs but I don’t want to take the photographs.”
Someone once asked McCullin if he has nightmares? He said, “I only have nightmares during the daytime…and my darkroom is a haunted place.”
There was a little old Turkish lady barely able to walk, and holding two sticks, being hurried along by a soldier, but she wasn’t moving fast enough and McCullin did not want her to get killed.
He photographed her, and then he picked her up and ran her to safety. He said the action was a way to help him clear his conscience. He said, “If you are a reporter or photographer, it’s best to be on the side of humanity.”
THE MISSISSIPPI — The First Story for The Sunday Times
THE CONGO: THE CONGOLESE ARMY VS. THE SIMBA REBELS (1960)
McCullin said, “If I look forward to doing two wars a year, I’m not going to survive.”
THE BATTLE OF HUE, TWO WEEKS OF HELL, VIETNAM (1969)
“It was like going into total madness and insanity,” said McCullin, of the Battle of Hue. Two full weeks of urban warfare, the last North Viet Cong stronghold after the Tet Offensive.
Of Hue, McCullin said, “I need to make sure that when they see my pictures after Sunday breakfast, that it’s going to hit them hard.”
Don stayed with the U.S. Marines and went out on missions and rescue evacuations of wounded soldiers, while other reporters were nowhere to be seen—The Marines suffered 50% casualties at the Battle of Hue. McCullin was so caught up in the battle, that for two weeks he wore the same clothes, and he never showered. He was always in the action. His Editor at The Sunday Times, Sir Harold Evans said that “The truth of a photograph is told by a truthful photographer,” and that’s what McCullin was.
McCullin had a lot of freedom to go with the troops to photograph the horrors of war. This freedom for photographers does not exist nowadays, and you will never see these types of dramatic and devastating images in modern publications. Why? Because it is bad for advertising! Advertisers do not want to advertise in publications that have graphic images of war and starving children. The other reason is because it looks really bad for the Industrial War Complex, whose business it is to keep wars going, to sell more weapons of death and destruction!
THE BIAFRAN WAR (1969)
McCullin walked into a camp of 800 starving children—they thought he was there to give them something, and offer some sort of salvation from their misery. However, these are starving children, they had no idea he was there to do his job, of taking pictures.
McCullin said, “I have never seen anything so horrible in my life…this was worse than any inferno-of-insanity you could ever imagine.”
McCullin was humbled by the dignity these starving and dying children had. Most of them were within a day of death, and they showed more dignity than most people have.
It was during this assignment that McCullin was wounded by shrapnel from a mortar attack. He was bleeding and on a stretcher on this truck, and took the photo of this other man who was also critically wounded.
McCullin made 16 trips to Vietnam during the war. On this, his 16th trip, after the photos were published, South Vietnam put him on a blacklist.
Once McCullin became known as a “War Photographer”, he didn’t like it—it felt dirty. He said, “It felt like being called a mercenary.”
His career, constant absences from home, ended up ruining his marriage.
BEIRUT CIVIL WAR (1976)
McCullin was allowed to follow the Lebonese Christians. He ended up photographing these Christians committing unspeakable horrors against Muslim soldiers and civilians.
The Christian soldiers so proudly wore their crosses as they brutalized and killed Muslims in the name of Christianity: The Christians (“killers”) went house to house performing executions of the men and older boys. One Christian soldier told Don that if he caught him taking photos that he would kill him.
The photo above shows Christian Lebanese soldiers having a good time over the dead body of a Palestinian girl, and she is looking like a dishonored victim of a crucifixion in the mud.
When this photograph was published and seen by the world, McCullin became a target: “It was almost an honour that they (Lebanese Christian soldiers) wanted to kill me for taking that picture.”
MASSIVE CHANGES AT THE SUNDAY TIMES
McCullin was sensitive but he wanted to wake people up and inform. He spent 18 years with the Sunday Times, but in 1981, disaster hit the paper due to the Trade Unions strike, and that led to the sale of the paper to Rupert Murdoch. That was the beginning of the end for the paper. The paper’s reporters and photographers were no longer independent and free to do hard-hitting conflict stories, and that was bad for Don McCullin.
In 1982, the Falklands War began, but McCullin was banned from going—his style was to revealing and truthful.
McCullin’s photographs showed the consequences of governments’ greed, and the consequences of that greed. He never intended for his photos to legitimize murder—ever! His long-time editor, Sir Harold Evans, said that McCullin “Was a humanitarian photographer with genius skills.”
Instead of going to the Falklands War, he went back to Lebanon in 1982. By that time, he said he had become a “war-junkie”.
Phalangist forces, with the backing of Israel, massacred 3,000 Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. They also attacked hospitals where many wounded children were recovering. McCullin said, “It was a war of religious madness!”
(Photo above) Dead Palestinian bodies lined up, victims of the refugee camps massacre.
“These memories come back as fresh as if they happened today, to haunt me,” said McCullin.
(Below Photo) A malnourished and mentally ill child strapped to the bed with rope and covered in filth and flies. The hospital this boy was in, was being targeted and shelled by Lebanese Christian and Israeli forces.
ONLY ENGLISH LANDSCAPES NOW
In 1984, McCullin got pushed out of The Sunday Times with the changing of Editors. The publication would no longer publish war and misery photographs, they were changing direction and Don was not a part of that change.
In his remaining years, he wants to only photograph the beautiful English landscape. He wants to try to eradicate the memories of horror from his mind. The English landscape he says, is his form of heaven. Nevertheless, there are always reminders out there in nature of what he used to do, of some similarities. If he hears a chainsaw noise in the distance, he thinks a tree is dying. When he hears a shooting, he thinks there is going to be some blood somewhere. McCullin said, “No matter how hard you try to run away from these memories, there will always be someone out there pushing a button to remind you of what you used to do.”
McCullin said, “I have been manipulated, and I have in turn manipulated others, by recording their response to suffering and misery. So there is guilt in every direction: guilt because I don’t practise religion, guilt because I was able to walk away, while this man was dying of starvation or being murdered by another man with a gun. And I am tired of guilt, tired of saying to myself: “I didn’t kill that man on that photograph, I didn’t starve that child.” That’s why I want to photograph landscapes and flowers. I am sentencing myself to peace.”
I think that last statement is very important to distinguishing which “Recorders of Human Suffering” will cope and survive, and those who will fall into despair because of paralyzing depression, and perhaps in addition, fall even deeper into the abyss due to other personal and financial problems. Those photographers of conflict who have their “reminder buttons” pushed, but have found some level of peace, will probably live healthy lives. A few of the others, the ones who can’t cope with the madness of their memories, and have their “reminder buttons” pushed often, may not be so fortunate, and that is what probably happened with Kevin Carter. Major Depressive Disorder is an insidious and crippling illness, and if it is not confronted, the sufferer can literally waste away. In the worst instances, they can even be pushed to suicide to make the pain stop.