Don McCullin gives a tour @ National Gallery of Canada

Recently I had the great pleasure of being part of a tour given by the veteran photojournalist Don McCullin of the new National Gallery of Canada retrospective exhibition of his work.  

For more than an hour we walked through the galleries as he spoke intimately of his life, his work and the many dangerous and heart wrenching encounters encompassing the several decades he traveled the world.

The small gallery spaces were packed with people in a breathless silence as Mr. McCullin spoke in a humble, and at times shockingly frank manner of the horrors and injustices he personally witnessed and sometimes captured with his camera. 

I say “sometimes” because, as he explained, often he could not bring himself to capture the brutality and other worldliness of what he was witnessing and in some cases he was told in no uncertain terms, “you take any pictures we will kill you”.  The images he captured on film represent only a small portion of his actual life experiences.  

That could be said of us all, but very occasionally in life we meet people that seem to have lived many more lives within this short lifespan we all experience - their bodies and minds, vessels of a million stories witnessed. Don McCullin is this sort of rare person.  And, as he admitted himself, it is even more rare to have come through it all with your sanity intact, “I am not sure why or how I am not like one of those insane street people in my photographs.”

He often spoke in an off-handed manner about stumbling about in the dark and how anger was a motivating force in his work. His humility seemed to attribute credit for his images to “luck” of some sort.  One look at the evidence, his photographic legacy and you can easily recognize there is much more at work here. 

Don McCullin intuitively understands light, has mastery over composition and visual language - he can in an instant capture fleeting moments so powerful that they sum up human emotion, frailty and injustice.  Perhaps, he was in the right place at the right time, but I am thankful it was his finger on the trigger of the Nikon F.

Do not miss this exhibition, now on at the National Gallery of Canada.

Don McCullin speaking to a full house at the National Gallery of Canada

Don McCullin speaking to a full house at the National Gallery of Canada