Exercise: conflict photography


Listen to Don McCullin talking about his exhibition Shaped by War on Radio 4’s Excess Baggage.


I’ve expanded this exercise slightly to take in my thoughts of a couple of other photographers mentioned in the course notes and from my own research, to compare their style with McCullin’s.

Don McCullin

The BBC Radio 4 interview is a curious choice for this exercise, as I don’t think it really enlightened very much about his conflict photography; I have read, heard and watched various other interviews that have provided much more of an insight into McCullin.

McCullin is a war photographer in the traditional sense, taking what he describes as “stark” photographs with the stated intention of shocking people into a response. His best work is blunt, raw and graphic – not what you’d call nuanced or sophisticated.

Hue, Vietnam, 1968 by Don McCullin

Susan Sontag wrote an essay for McCullin’s self-titled retrospective book (2003) that summarised it well: “There can be no doubt of the intentions of this tenacious, impassioned witness, bringing back his news from hell. He wants to sadden. He means to arouse.” (Sontag 2001)

His photography is the kind of work that Sontag subsequently wrote about in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), her complex and inconclusive examination of responses to conflict photography, where she revisited the notion of ‘compassion fatigue’ from On Photography (1977) to broaden the discussion out to a wider range of potential responses:

“Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen.” (Sontag 2003)

I think it’s fair to say that by the time Sontag had written that, McCullin’s raw, unflinching work was the archetype of conflict photography – and maybe the viewing public had seen rather a lot of this.

Gilles Peress and Tim Hetherington

Other photographers have in recent years taken slightly different approaches, possibly aiming to find ways of getting across messages using imagery that circumvents the risk of compassion fatigue, or any related less-than-useful responses.

Sontag again (my emphasis): “Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand.” (ibid)

In a sense the work of Gilles Peress and Tim Hetherington (both suggested in the course notes) represents simultaneously a continuation of McCullin’s work and a reaction to it. They aim to communicate similarly unpalatable truths, but in a more nuanced way.

I liked the way it is described in the course notes: “Visual metaphors probe deeper than visual spectacle. Leaving the viewer to complete the visual message allows them to unleash the power of their own imagination.” (course notes: 89)

I’m very interested in the use of metaphor and allusion in documentary photography (it is likely to be the subject of my critical review assignment) and agree that making an image even slightly ambiguous can make the viewer engage more closely, and reflexively use their own imagination, context, knowledge and opinions to ‘join the dots’. This recalls the ‘mental modelling’ concept that Stephen Shore refers to in The Nature of Photographs (2010).

Peress often employs a technique of showing scenes that allude to rather than show acts of war or conflict. He often captures the ‘moments in between’, where people in war-torn areas are depicted getting on with their lives, albeit in a surreal, grotesque facsimile of normal life.

Obala Vojvode Stepe Stepanovica, Sarajevo. 1993 by Gilles Peress

This image is a case in point: Peress shows children playing, drawing chalk lines round their own shadows, but the allusion to chalking around a dead body is chillingly evident, reinforced by the accompanying text that explains this as the site of regular sniper shootings. My mental processing for an image like this goes something like this:

  • Children are playing, but are emulating something that happens to murder victims
  • So they live in an environment where bodies on the ground has become normalised
  • So even if they physically survive it, the war has already damaged them

In a sense, this image is more affecting than an equivalent of an actual sniping victim in a chalk-line. The mental effort it took to unpack the image means that the resulting interpretation is both more ‘hard-won’ and more collaborative. These aspects can make an image more memorable.

Tim Hetherington’s image described in the course notes demonstrates another approach to conflict photography that contrasts with the McCullin style.

US soldier resting at “Restrepo” bunker, 2007 by Tim Hetherington

As noted, it is a very painterly photograph, quite at odds with the normal war photography aesthetic. This discordance between the subject and the style is part of what makes this photograph successful. It isn’t ‘just another war photograph’, it’s something more expressive and emotive.

Luc Delahaye

While I’m talking about alternative approaches to war photography, another contemporary photographer springs to mind. Luc Delahaye straddles the normally quite distinct spheres of photojournalism and the ‘art world’. He has shot images that are clearly documentary in nature, and others that are more etheral and abstract – all from the same source material: war zones. He shoots on a large format camera and exhibits wall-sized prints that sell for thousands of dollars, yet the subject matter is the kind of thing seen daily in newspapers, magazines and on news TV – bomb sites, angry mobs, bodies.

US Bombing on Taliban Positions, 2001 by Luc Delahaye

One clue to this apparent contradiction is the title of his war-zone project: History. He seems to want to rescue these images from their transient, repetitive, ongoing-present and preserve them life-size as historical artefacts for the future. It’s a bold approach to documentary, no doubt about it.

The reason I wanted to expand this exercise out to other photographers is because I’m personally more interested in these alternative approaches to conflict photography – how people are stretching and subverting the genre in order to keep getting the messages across to an audience that might think it has seen it all before. Not that I dismiss McCullin by any means – he’s one of the photographers I respect the most – but more that I don’t find much new to discuss in his work at this point in my studies.


Shore, S. (2010) The Nature of Photographs: A Primer. 2nd ed. New York: Phaidon Press.

McCullin, D., Evans, H. and Sontag, S. (2003) Don McCullin. London: Random House.

Sontag, S. (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador


One thought on “Exercise: conflict photography

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s