Monthly Archives: February 2013

A Book Like No Other

Every now and again, entirely by accident—amidst the blizzard of iDevices, glowing rectangles, and craning necks that define This Digital Life—you come across a real paper book that justifies the continuing existence of real paper books themselves.

If, as I did, you unearth this real paper book from the dusty, bottom-shelf stacks of a semi-private library in a redwood-shaded coastal retreat center with patchy wireless reception and no television, the experience is so much like going back in time that it feels like a grim and primitive distant future.

“should we stand for this?” reads the cool, minimal lower-case print running across the top of still-glossy white pages, oddly shaped like a tall square.  “can we tolerate this?  is anyone taking any notice?”

These words are from someone you’ve probably never heard of.  I’d certainly never heard of Donald McCullin, though since the printing of Is Anyone Taking Any Notice? by MIT press in 1971, a thing or two has happened to the onetime anonymous evacuee of the Second World War, the East Ender street kid who described his young adulthood thus: “Where I was, no one was encouraged to do well for themselves. You were much more acclaimed for getting your collar felt by the police or battering someone. It was full of bigotry and it was like quicksand pulling me down to oblivion.”

In 1977 he’d been made a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society; in 1993 he was granted the CBE (Commander of the British Empire), the first photojournalist to receive the honor; and throughout all these years he continued to rack up an impressive array of honorary degrees from colleges and universities throughout Britain.  He would continue to cover conflict in Sudan, Lebanon, and Iraq.

But all this had yet to happen when Is Anyone Taking Any Notice? rolled off the presses to a public that needed no further evidence supporting their disillusionment with governments, ideas of progress, or the human race in general.

Open the cover of this book, if you are lucky enough to find a print (the San Francisco Public Library has one copy, and it is kept under lock and key), and view the darkest possible side of life through eyes that are now horrified, now compassionate, now grasping for beauty in the rubble.

McCullin’s unflinching black-and-white photos speak for themselves, but the book’s real psychological impact starts with its disorienting architecture: there are no informative captions for the photos—no locations, no dates, no chronological listing of photos anywhere in the book.

The introduction explains that the book is divided into “eleven segments which are geographical but not chronological.”  So we turn pages through Biafra, Vietnam, the Congo, Bangladesh, the coal fields of Britain, the streets of Londonderry in the thick of the Troubles, never exactly sure where we are, never quite able to quench our knee-jerk need to contextualize the human faces we see into nationalities, events, or known situations.

The wall between photojournalist and reader is broken down; these people cannot be framed into sets of exact information, so we have no choice but to see them simply as people, to look into their eyes as we would someone across from us on the bus or in the café.  Is Anyone delivers a harrowing, grim, and deeply affecting gutpunch after which you may never be the same.


Somewhere in Northern Ireland, a suited man carrying a neatly wrapped package steps over a soldier coiled on the pavement with a machine gun.

Children pelt tanks with rubble amidst burned-out buildings.

A girl with tragic eyes caked in wild makeup stands in the middle of a wet cobblestone street.

A teenage boy with long, unruly hair is caught in mid-jump—to avoid gunfire or just for the hell of it? We’re not told.

Tanks navigate down narrow streets.  Swarthy elders in traditional hats sit under naked light bulbs in near-destroyed houses.  On hills of rubble near the shells of incinerated cars, headscarfed women in peasant clothing embrace each other in grief.

There are pictures of corpses in this book, and some of them belong to children.  They lie along African roads in unidentified countries.

It takes not just talent but the courage of empathy to deliver these images without layering on a passive sheen of sensationalism and exploitation.  McCullin is clearly honed in on some frequency of pain most of us don’t wish to access; his hardscrabble childhood seems never to have abandoned him.  Some of his most apocalyptic images are not of conflict at all—just lousy life continuing in its lousy way, close to home.

Elderly men with grim, determined faces tow their burdens amid a flat, puddled, denuded hell every bit as cold and featureless as a nuclear winter.  For this shot, McCullin treats us to a rare explanatory caption: “These guys are carrying sacks of coal which they’ve spent hours sorting from a slag heap.”

Then a few pages later, a huge squashed rat with its entrails splayed across some East End street.

Probably even in countercultural 1971 this book was pushing the envelope; its gritty aesthetics either hearken back to the air-raid-siren decades of McCullin’s youth, or presage the punk movement with its naked abandonment of idealism.

Is Anyone is almost the bastard twin of an earlier classic of photography that aimed to show us the world as it was: Family of Man.  In 1955, American photographer and curator Edward Steichen culled human-interest photojournalism from all over the world and arranged it under broad themes: birth, death, childhood, work, play, old age, love, grief, joy.  Locations were freely given, and white space was decorated with words from philosophers, literature, and the great wisdom traditions.  Dark subject matters were frankly addressed, yet the book’s editorial hand steered with gentle optimism, and envisioned a resilient brotherhood of man defying the threats of the atomic age.

The moral urgency of Is Anyone, on the other hand, seems to explode forth from a near-total forsaking of hope.  This is it, the images seem to say.  If this species doesn’t get it together now, it’s curtains for all of us.

So where are we now, some 40 years later?  Would a book like this even be produced now?  What has changed in the years since is not just a swing towards apathy and disengagement but a commercialization of the news itself (which then feeds into that apathy and disengagement).  In the 1980s, a new editor at the Observer sacked McCullin because his photos were “too depressing.”

Fellow war photographer James Nachtwey has also had problems getting his photos into news magazines because of the increasing sway that advertisers have over editorial content.  Nobody wants their candy bar ad across from a photo of body bags, and advertisers have no problem letting editorial staff know their wishes.  (View the documentary War Photographer for more on this.)

Over decades this palliative approach weakens the tolerance of the news-consuming public for images that might teach us things we need to know:  War is hell.  People in other countries hurt just like we do.  Civil society and sensible options are dependent on intricate, fragile systems that take decades and centuries to build; they can disappear nearly overnight with one detonation or stroke of the pen.

Couple this consumer distaste for bitter medicine with the Internet’s undermining of newspaper and journalism infrastructure altogether, and you have what would seem to be a dead end for photojournalism’s power to provoke, engage, and connect with a mass audience.

But in spite of this, and in spite of being 77, McCullin continues to work.  After a stint photographing the ruins of antiquity in the Middle East (which, after a career dodging bullets, could be interpreted as semi-retirement), he is back in the thick of it—this time in Syria.

“What we really need,” he told the BBC, “is the human interest side of this story.”

And that he delivers.  While the evening news paints Syria for us with shouting reporters and blurry footage of gunfire, explosions, and street chaos, McCullin gives us a silent quest for survival: children hunting for drinkable water, shiftless crowds in front of bombed-out stores, entire neighborhoods gutted and abandoned, families with young children sitting in buildings without utilities.

Can a life itself stand as a symbol of hope?  Nobody told this elderly photographer to go work under fire in Aleppo but, as he told The Times in London, “I got curious about this war.”

Is it honest curiosity that blocks us from pity, from objectifying those suffering in ways we can’t understand, and leads us to connection?

Is anyone taking any notice?  The Syria shoot is billed as McCullin’s “final trip,” but who knows.  Like the photographs he takes, he can’t stop asking all the right questions.