Category: Documentaries

Burdens of a war photographer


Shell-shocked US marine, Hue, Vietnam, February 1968. Don McCullin

War photographers have a thankless job to be sure.  Gaining entry into some of the most dangerous parts of the world armed only with a camera and their intuition they experience life on the raw edge.  They have that rare position as an impartial spectator, neither unlucky civilian caught in the cross the fire nor rebel, nor soldier armed to the teeth, the war photographer is a rare breed.  Is it narcissism, to enter such a world for own your kicks?  To advance your career and win a Pulitzer Prize, to make money at the expense of man taking his last breath, or a rotting corpse stuck to the roadside?  Is it the ultimate sacrifice to brave an interminable amount of pain and suffering to deliver a message to the outside world, let them know what a war is really about – and see if they can stand it?

This weekend I watched the documentary ‘McCullin’ about British war photographer Don McCullin.  Growing up in blitz devastated London in the 40’s and 50’s McCullin was born into a landscape ravaged by war, and he began by taking photographs of gangs and slums, the impoverished and hard working.  After successfully selling a few photographs of gang members he had grown up with to the Observer McCullin went to Berlin to watch the wall go up, and then on to Biafra, Vietnam, and Northern Ireland.

His photographs capture the essence of all it was to be at war in the late twentieth century.  The shell-shocked soldier in Vietnam, who looks as if he has his eyes fixed permanently on a horror he cannot forget.  McCullin said the soldier never moved, or even blinked, while he was taking the photograph.  It has been observed that in Vietnam almost none of the most well known photographs were posed – a poignant fact from a televised war.

It wasn’t the corpses or smashed in faces that affected me most while watching this documentary, but brief footage of some kwashiorkor bloated bellied, toothpick legged children of Biafra struggling to climb a single step.  The kids were naked, anonymous, just hours from dying in the dust – and it was painful to watch.  When there are so many it is difficult to remember one individual, but Don McCullin spoke of one albino child who approached him out of the crowd and tried to hold his hand.


One face in a crowd. Albino child in Biafra, Don McCullin

Biafra brings me on to my next point – following the theme this weekend I also watched ‘The Bang Bang Club’.  This film is based on the true story of several young photographers in South Africa who captured images of violent clashes between the ANC and IFP in the early 1990’s.

Amongst them was Kevin Carter, the first photographer to capture the gruesome execution method of ‘necklacing’ whereby a tire is placed around the victim’s neck and set alight.  However, it is Carter’s 1994 Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of a little girl dying in the Sudan while a vulture looks on that really caught my attention.  I first became aware of this photograph in a round about way while reading Mark Z. Danieleweski’s ‘House of Leaves’.  One of the main characters is a photographer based on Carter who took a ‘similar’ photograph of a dying girl.  In the book, the character is haunted by thoughts of the little girl he did nothing to help and when he becomes lost in his labyrinthine house it is not the Minotaur, but the girl who stalks his uneasy mind.

In real life Kevin Carter too was stalked by his subject.  He was unable to answer questions about what happened to the girl, although he later claimed to have picked her up and carried her to a feeding station.  It’s possible to argue that there were two vultures present – the one in the photograph, and the one behind the lens.  In the moments that Carter was photographing death, could he have been doing something to prevent it?  Or was exposing this scene to the world enough?  Undoubtedly the weight of this debate contributed to Carter’s suicide in 1994.


Dying girl, vulture and photographer. Kevin Carter, 1993 (Pulitzer Prize 1994). ‘And the viewer is in the same position as the lackey behind the camera; the experience is sickening’ – Susan Sontag ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’

Don McCullin also mentioned being criticized for merely profiting from the pain of others, although he attests that he did help of course – as any human being would have.  Moving around from atrocity to atrocity must surely take its toll though.  Like that story of a girl little girl walking a long a beach covered in hundreds of starfish and throwing them back into the sea one at time – it’s impossible to save them all.  Don McCullin comes across as a very calm, measured and somber person on film and I’m inclined to think this is a temperament either developed as a result of exposure to war, or else well equipped to deal with it.  Nevertheless he openly states that he was a ‘war junkie’, chasing the immediacy of life and that it eventually wrecked his marriage.

In ‘The Bang Bang Club’ the photographers are constantly drinking, smoking, chasing girls, attempting to make the most of every precious second of life, and blot out the atrocities of the day.  The photographers chased ‘bang bang’ until it took away everything they had.  Ken Oosterbroek was killed in Thokoza township fighting in 1994, Greg Marinovich was received a gunshot wound in the same clash and has since been shot several more times, Joao Silva lost both legs below the knee in Afghanistan in 2010 – and Kevin Carter never made it that far.  Whatever fame or glory a war photographer receives, he certainly pays his dues – one way or another.


Burning man being attacked with a machete, Greg Marinovich, Soweto, 1990 (Pulitzer Prize)


Night and Fog

Ok, so three days before Christmas is probably an unlikely sort of time to be reviewing a Holocaust documentary.  I really ought to be munching on mince pies and offering my views on The Hobbit or something.  However, I’ve been meaning to watch Night and Fog for ages (since September) and I thought as I’ve already mentioned Alain Resnais this week I might as well run with that.

The Holocaust has loomed quite large in my sphere of consciousness this year.  I spent a month in Berlin during which time I visited a concentration camp and wrote up the experience for a travel guide, as well as writing up both the Jewish Museum and Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.  I was morbidly fascinated with the Holocaust when I was younger (I read the Diary of Anne Frank when I was 11 and it snowballed from there) but it didn’t occur to me until this year that even though I might have learnt a lot about the Holocaust I still didn’t ‘get it’.  I still don’t ‘get it’, and I believe that unless you’ve been through it then you never will.

The gate at Sachsenhausen

The gate at Sachsenhausen

But boy, since wandering around Sachsenhausen concentration camp on my own do I have a better idea, and I have to tell you I’m not really pushed to dig a lot deeper.  I always wanted to visit Auschwitz, but hey, now I’m really not sure about that, I think I’ve done my concentration tourism – and it was certainly enough.  Anyhow, I got into conversation with one of my friends about this whilst in Berlin and he recommended Night and Fog, so here I am.

I already like Alain Resnais, but how would did he deal with such a sensitive subject?

Bearing in mind what sort of thing Resnais would go on to produce it is interesting that images in this film appear so surreal.  Surely with that box full of human heads and bulldozer clearing away bodies we are looking a work of fantasy, something from a different world?  But no, not this time.

Night and Fog was produced in 1955, a ridiculously short amount of time after the war.  I think this might actually be the earliest documentary about the Holocaust I’ve ever seen, and it’s certainly the most shocking, no surprise that it ran into censorship problems.  The film switches between archive footage and contemporary views of Auschwitz, faint of heart beware – this is graphic, and it’s absolutely brutal.

‘Night and Fog’ is a poignant title, drawing attention to the shady handling of prisoners by the German military.   Millions of ordinary people were plucked out of their lives, sent off to the camps and ‘disappeared’.  I’m not sure how I feel about this, so the mechanics of the camps were kept secret – but what did the people really think happened to those prisoners?  In Oranienburg (the sleepy suburb where Sachsenhausen is located) residential houses run almost up to the front gate.  Thousands of people go in, no one comes out, and still more people keep coming.  It’s pretty obvious what’s happening.  Or is it?  That section of life between arriving at the camp and death is where the real cloak and dagger horror is; the starvation, the miserable conditions, death leering at every corner.  So giving the film this title is like a attaching a billboard to the whole thing, calling out the Nazi’s on their great cover up.

The script was written by camp survivor Jean Cayrol, no doubt an almost impossible task.  The narrative is measured and poetic without being bitter or condemning, there is a sense that Cayrol and Resnais are just presenting the facts and it is up to the viewer to draw their own conclusion about who is responsible.    As the camera spans over the tumbledown, now peaceful ruins of Auschwitz there is a plea not to forget, not to let it happen again.