Three defiant Scouse lads are the first people you meet on the way into this new iteration of Tate Britain’s Don McCullin 2019 retrospective. But it’s the faces from further away that will leave with you.
The trio in the mega-sized image at the entrance are a nod to local audiences that the exhibition has been rejigged with them in mind; they stare down the barrel of McCullin’s camera lens as a reminder to artsy Tate-goers of how considerably less genteel Liverpool’s now-fashionable inner city ‘Georgian Quarter’ looked in 1963.
Later on in the exhibition, there is an entire room dedicated to faces and lives like theirs from ‘The North’, full of monochrome prints of slum clearances and coal miners from the 1960s and 70s. Some of these shots have never been seen before, and were printed by Sir Don himself in his Somerset darkroom for this show. They are not light-hearted images; along with punchy portraits of the homeless from McCullin’s native London, they ask powerful social and political questions about housing policy, poverty and continuing inequality close to home.
Yet these scenes of post-war English life are a slice of the colloquial amid the scenes of further-flung human suffering that constitute most of this celebrated war photographer’s work. That suffering is at times hard to look at. The 1968 image of a starving 24-year-old Biafran mother attempting to feed her newborn with withered breasts beats stiff competition in being the most harrowing among the more than 200 photographs from assignments in Vietnam, Congo, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Lebanon and more.
In the age of Black Lives Matter, the ethics of photojournalism and of the white man’s gaze upon such multi-ethnic scenes of violence and misery could be problematic. In places, even the act of seeing the exhibition feels voyeuristic. In that context, Tate Liverpool has done a good interpretive job of highlighting the role of imperialism and of Western nations in bringing these conflicts about. McCullin’s own internal conflicts about his role and right to witness are referenced, raising thought-provoking questions about how – or if – a photographer can draw attention to the plight of the persecuted without somehow exploiting those subjects in the process. It isn’t an easy exhibition.
After a while, it becomes hard to give each image – a life or a death in a smart picture frame – the reverence it deserves. Some visitors, in these heavy times, might find it all a bit too much additional emotional weight. Yet perhaps the now 84-year-old McCullin’s testament to some of the 20th century’s darkest moments might serve as a reminder that many of us continue to enjoy real privilege even in COVID-19-stricken Britain, and teach us that we should not look away from those who don’t.
Main image: Don McCullin Liverpool 8 1961. Tate Purchased 2012 © Don McCullin.
Don McCullin is at Tate Liverpool until May 9, 2021. For more information, click here.