The winter forest pulls me closer.
I see leafless branches sagging
under the weight of long-held snow.
Simple harshness captures me, like music.
Trees no longer stand monolithic;
They are now just brushstrokes
on God's cold, white canvas.
I sit with my pad and pens.
My face is red and my hands shake.
I feel the snow-chilled breeze
against my side, as if He's telling me
to get out of the way
so this still life can be perfect.
I consider walking away from the scene,
until a sparrow lands on a nearby branch,
freeing it from the canvas.
My sin no greater than his, 
I pull out my pens and 
in a few strokes,
trap the bird
under snow
of my own.
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

-- Exodus 20: 4 (KJV)


I once had a man die under my hands while I was on the street. He had been shot multiple times in the chest, shortly after lunch. Not much I could do. Soon after the man was gone except for a burgundy stain on the sidewalk, an eruv of yellow tape defining his universe.

I went to a work meeting that evening--it did not go well. When it was clear it was not going well, I mentioned what had happened. Folks mumbled, I had made them uncomfortable. I do not talk about it much anymore.

When you see a photograph, you have the option of looking away. We are surrounded by images. Don McCullin could not look away.

We like numbers, quantification. How many died?

3000?
                          110,000?
            160,000?

6,000,000?

I do not have that kind of imagination. No one does.
I have watched a child die. And my mother. Then my father.
My sister died, but I did not hold her hand. I like to imagine it was not too painful as her chest filled with blood.



Someone here sent me Don McCullin's autobiography. Don McCullin takes photographs.

The aborigines believe a camera steals your soul. McCullin proves it. Like the executioner who performs his job admirably because he is affected by it, McCullin captures the souls of the dying. Or at least he did. It got to be too much for him. Now he does landscapes.

During Biafra's brief (and futile) struggle to break from Nigeria, most folks starved.

McCullin had a natural eye for composition, but that is not why he took pictures, at least if he is to be believed (and I believe him). Otherwise he would just be another pornographer.

You may have seen the picture. McCullin had traveled to a hospital for war orphans. The children are grotesque, large heads and bellies balanced on insect legs.

This child is an albino--and he has been ostracized by the other children. He carries an empty tin of corned beef, as well as its lid, stamped with the word "FRANCE" He is leaning over, barely able to stand, supporting himself by holding his right knee. He has on a tattered long-sleeve shirt and underwear. His eyes reflect sadness deeper than I can imagine.

Yes, the composition works, the angles and the light, the artistic dominance of the child's head in the frame--to focus on this, to intellectualize this photograph, to make it "arty" helps you step back a tiny bit from what McCullin witnessed. To step back from a child suffering is obscene.

I'm not a person who wants to go stealing images of other peoples grief, and things like that.... I don't sleep well, I think sometimes.... I wake up and think about things like this. I can still remember the day I saw a man shot in cold blood in front of me. And sometimes, it's not always convenient but these memories come back at the most terrible times. Sometimes at night, sometimes even on a beautiful sunny day when I'm sitting in my garden, or walking through some woodland. And you know, photography has been very very generous to me, but at the same time it's damaged me, really.

Don McCullin

We are visual creatures. But we are not loving ones.



Don McCullin, Unreasonable Behaviour, An Autobiography, Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1990
Matt Kime, in a review of Don McCullin, A Retrospective, in TVcameramen, http://www.tvcameramen.com/lounge/Don_McCullin.htm

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