Thursday, 12 September 2013

Don McCullin on the "shame of memory"

The "Lens" blog in the New York Times picks up on comments by renowned photojournalist Don McCullin recently.
“Photography was a beautiful thing to me... But once I started putting my hands in the blood and suffering of war I became really disillusioned. I would stand in front of men who were going to be executed in front of me, crying, looking at me and hoping I could stop their murder. There were dying children in Africa who were starving, and I would come to a feeding center. They would think here was a white man, he is going to bring some food aid. All I had was a Nikon camera around my neck... At the end of the day, after years and years of assuming you can steal the pain of people in your pictures and the suffering of soldiers, civilians and starving children and dying children that drop dead in front of you, you have to suffer the shame of memory and then you have to somehow live with it, sleep with it, understand it without trying to become insane... Nobody said that you have to get on this airplane and go to these wars and make these terrible images. I did it. I have to accept the responsibility.”
Strong words which raise pertinent questions about the point of photojournalism and the uses of photography. 

I think McCullin is right that claims about the power of photography (and indeed, memory) are often overblown. Recordar para no repetir, we hear. Nunca más. Never again. But atrocities do happen again. The Holocaust was unique, but it didn't prevent Rwanda, Guatemala, Cambodia, Argentina, Peru, and the rest. He is quite right that there is no sign of an end to war and bloodshed.

So why bother? Firstly, I think, there is a value in learning about and remembering historic events whether or not this can affect the future. It seems like a question of respect towards the victims as much as anything. Photography plays a role in illustrating this and giving it a "human face".

Secondly, let's not only see the negative. While countries continue to suffer trauma, there has been progress too. Argentina - a country which experienced six coups in the twentieth century - is about to mark 30 years of democracy. Brazil is examining its past in a truth commission. Peru has imprisoned both its main guerrilla leader and the president who combated terrorism with disregard for human rights.

The issue of shame is an interesting one. Yes, being a photographer is a job and they earn money from it - I have no idea how much, but I have a suspicion it's not that much when you consider the risks they run (which they choose to run). So are they merely exploiting their subjects? It's an issue with many sides, clearly, but my instinct is that we need to see, however imperfectly, what is happening in other parts of the world. Photographs can't work miracles, but they do form an important part of memory work, and memory might not prevent future disasters, but it is still important in its own right.

The “Shame of Memory” Haunts a War Photographer (NYT)

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