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The Berlin Wall and industrial England: Don McCullin's conflict photography

This video brought to you by Tate.org.uk

Despite having photographed everything from the Vietnam War to the construction of the Berlin Wall, Don McCullin doesn’t like to be referred to as a war photographer. McCullin has been covering events of global importance since the 1960s by placing himself in the heart of the action armed with nothing but a camera. In this video, he speaks about a series of his photographs in which there are no explicit images of war or violence, but traces of more subtle and insidious instances of conflict, such as the ravaging effect of industrialisation on the English countryside or poverty in major cities. His photographs also illuminate an idea that is central not only to photography, but to art in general: the relationship between text and image. If you had seen any of McCullin's photographs without titles, would you know where they took place, who they depicted, or what message they were intended to convey?

For McCullin, the camera can reveal the untold truths of a society. It also serves as a tool for healing, allowing the photographer to not only capture an image through its lens but to engage with its subjects in a unique way. Would you agree? Do you think a camera can change the way you see things?

Created by Tate.

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Video transcript

my name is Don McCallum I'm a photographer uncle's Tate Gallery a very kindly invited me to show some of my work here which is a great honor for me it's slightly out the ordinary because I'm sadly known as a war photographer which I really hate being spoken of in that light but so what's happened here today we've chosen or that the curator here Simon Baker has chosen a set of my pictures that doesn't show any signs of war despite the fact there is a section of the building of the berlin wall in 1961 which many people's eyes thought was the art break of third world war i could have been well I was a very young photographer with with I wasn't even really a photographer I had very little experience I mean I had no experience of International Affairs and a story of such a huge caliber I went straight to friedrich starza where the tension between the Americans and the Russians of the East choppers are really the build-up was in all of us and it would tanks and armored vehicles from both sides facing each other it was very serious I had a very very close association with London having been born in London and having been born on the wrong side of the tracks as they say and I started seeing people sleeping in shop doorways and when I went to third world countries people would refuse to believe there were poor people in England but there are many many untold truths about this country we had poverty we had unemployment we had you know we had a class system that wasn't convenient that all kinds of things that people who lived outside of England wouldn't have understood so when I started walking the streets of London and seeing people sleeping in shop doorways even I was shocked what I try to do is I try to draw those people into my my vision I try to make myself unimportant in the presence of such people I try to let their eyes meet my eyes at which I think in many cases I've managed to succeed I want them to see I no harm no threat to them I want them to see that I'm looking at them through a pair of eyes that have enormous compassion and understanding there is a section on the industrial north of England these pictures show the cost of units by being a great powerful industrial nation but at the same time someone had to suffer and that was the English countryside so when you look at some of these industrial landscapes they're rather harsh and brutal because the industrial demands on landscape was wicked I mean you know it turned beautiful countryside into you know mud pits and and slurry pits and places like that all eventually I moved out of London because I couldn't stand being around too many people I needed to isolate my myself from people I was always you know it went to the wars and saw the suffering and then I came back and I felt I couldn't share that suffering just with my photography the landscape became a kind of process of healing so that I could forget about wars and revolutions and dying children because I was beginning to take those those memories to bed with me at night and having terrible dreams and terrible nightmares I'm feeling guilty and waking up in a sweat that wasn't doing me any good so to stand in the English countryside with my camera I'm harming nobody you