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WAR A Sweet Taste In My Mouth

War is humanity in an unavoidable search for a new beginning. Men engage in war since not yet being considered men, according to science, on top of trees. Equally, men engage in war since the post paradise era when, according to the Bible, brother kills brother. War toke place long before we could discuss depression, drug abuse, alcoholism or suicidal behavior. Indeed there are many reasons, let alone excuses, why nations go to war. And photographers behave similarly. In 1855, Roger Fenton covered the Crimean War. Although considered the first photographer to seriously cover an armed conflict he refrained, for technical, financial e political reasons, from documenting the horrors of that war. We don’t know a great deal about the psychological consequences of his four weeks visit to the front, but we do know that he gave up photography for good a few years latter. Perhaps a suggestion that war photography is much more than an exciting job. Since Fenton’s first adventure, many photographers have spent time and risked their lives photographing conflicts around the globe. Robert Capa lost his life in action. Kevin Carter committed suicide after a history of drug abuse. Don McCullin is a troubled man, hunted by ghosts. And Philip Jones Griffiths seams untouched by the events he has witnessed. It seams just natural that as we grow older we tend to analyze the options made in life based on childhood experiences. Some of us resolve these options in desperation and in death. This essay, which is not designed to be a treaty on psychology, aims to draw a line from childhood to maturity and the role of photojournalism as expression and resolution in two photojournalists’ lives, Kevin Carter and Don McCullin.

DON McCULLIN What Have I Done With My Life?

Don McCullin was a child of war. He smelt the horror of the German bombs being dropped in London during the blitz as he and his mates run for shelter. He played at war because this was what all he had. Many times, in the front, he would remember how the playground and the front were so similar. War is always traumatic – even more so in McCullin’s life. At age of 5 he had to evacuate from London leaving behind his family and was separated from his young sister. He recognizes this event as the beginning of what we can now see in his pictures – a succession of tragedies. As an evacuee McCullin had a difficult time, especially when he was sent to live with chicken farmers near Bolton, in Lancashire. There he developed a mistrust behavior for being mistreated by the family he was with, by the schoolmates and in the playground. In other hand, McCullin developed a sense an affinity with persecuted people as he was treated as uncivilized and unclean. McCullin return to London didn’t make a huge difference in his life. He was surrounded by poverty and violence and at school. Even after being diagnosed as dyslexic, he was pushed physically as well as psychologically to the limits by teachers who were not prepared to deal with his condition and who also had to manage very aggressive and disrupted kids. It is evident that McCullin’s low life in a poor and violent environment gave him a sense of justice. His mother was the main provider and who brought home the needed bred – a strong woman. His father, who was unable to work as consequence of a disability, was kind and cared for him. Indeed, he was source of gentleness amongst so much trouble. With the end of the war, came the clear idea that his neighborhood was still at war, but this time with itself. After first work experience in Mayfair he knew he had to leave. The only thing he did not realize then was that he was in Mayfair but Mayfair wasn’t in him.

KEVIN CARTER On The Other Side Of The Fence

Depression can sometimes lead to suicide. This was the experience of Kevin Carter, a South African photographer, who documented years of trouble in his homeland. He formed, with three other friends, The Bang-Bang Club. He killed himself soon after being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for photographing a starving child being stalked by a vulture, in a refugee camp in early 90’s Sudan. Kevin seamed to be hunted by memories of those he photographed and was overwhelmed by a sense of guilt as well as suffering from deep depression. The photograph of that child was reason for much discussion regarding his moral role as a photographer. Did he help the child or was he a vulture himself? As a white South African, Kevin Carter was surrounded by the best of life could offer. The structure of the society in the tip of the African continent favored enormously its white population as the Country rich natural resources and cheap labour were well manipulated by a minority established on an evil social-political ideology – The Apartheid. And, although coming from a considered liberal family, he did profited from this structure. He lived in Parkmore, a Johannesburg middle-class whites-only neighborhood, was brought up as a Christian and graduated from a Catholic boarding school, in Pretoria. These attributes would put Carter in the rank of a racist in those days. Or was he? Kevin Carter was part of a generation keen to question the moral aspect of the apartheid and as a child witnessed police raids, and brutality, to question blacks who adventured illegally in wrong neighbourhoods. He then would argue with his father on why didn’t he confront the police. Later, in the army, he was beaten up by some Afrikaan-speaking soldiers on the accusation of being a kaffir-boetie, or nigger lover, for defending a black worker. Soon after he deserted the army and found himself working as a disc jockey under the false name of David. As he lost his job he made the first attempt to commit suicide by swallowing hundreds of painkillers pills, and returned demoralized to his family’s house. Photojournalism was very much a question of being able to communicate his anxieties and thoughts.


I have decided to include two distinctive cases to in order to compare the outcomes. The two cases above work as illustration for our analysis because relate to two different photographers from very distinct backgrounds and with different motivations in life. McCullin is a working class young man who experienced poverty himself and who is in search of an opportunity to escape it whilst Carter is a white middle class man worried about moral aspects of the South African society who is also concerned with his family non responsive relation to this society.


As a society we need those who put their lives on the line to uncover, inform and defend, and we have to be prepared to deal with their success and misfortune. Exposing someone to violence for a consistent number of years is putting in test one’s capacity to eliminate, as much as possible, its effects. Scholars widely accept that if a person was exposed or suffered from violence he is expected to carry, in one way or another, psychological scars. If this effect persists long after the event toke place and there is no more physical risk associated, he may become psychological numb. When this condition persists for more than a month, it is diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder – the term first appeared after the Vietnam War and the American Psychiatric Association then formalized it, in 1980. This concept is an attempt to consider the effects on the so-called normal citizens as well as those engaged directly in the business of war – soldiers and war photographers alike. In fact, the rate of PTSD in the war photographer’s group over the course of their working life is well above that in traumatized firefighters or police officers. There are three categories of symptoms. The first involves re-experiencing the event – perhaps the main characteristic of PTSD and involves flash backs and nightmares. The second are avoidance and psychological numbing and usually happens soon after the trauma. The sufferer will strongly avoid places or situations, which would make him, remember the occurred event. And the third involves insomnia, increasing aggression and lack of concentration. It is common from those suffering from PTSD to lose interest in activities previously enjoyed as well as to fell extreme guilt. There are illnesses that are developed as consequence of PTSD. Depression, alcohol and drug abuse are commonly related to it but normally treated separately.


Photojournalism is photography on its most interactive and expansive expression and the photographer’s commitment and personal involvement rises above any technicalities. The photographer’s experience is a paramount component of the action of capturing a stressed moment. Whatever he transmits is just a tiny fraction of what he really sees as he acts just like a filter, retaining for himself much of his experiences. And this can eventually be the most hazardous poison. Sometimes his motivations are about a person finding a reason for being close to the trouble just to be enslaved by it Don McCullin’s late landscapes are scary not only because they show an unseen side of a green and tranquil part of the countryside in England, but also because it shows the side of his heart, brain and soul. McCullin does not simply suffer from flash backs or never suffered after coming back from any war. Quite the opposite! His anger and bitterness is about not being able to cover wars any more since the changes in the editorial structure in the Sunday Times, which shifted towards life style and soft news. A prove of that is his disappointment for not being sent to the Falkland War – in fact he was black listed by the British Government. He had flash backs because he could not see action. I read McCullin as a man attempting to escape, once again, from the impositions by his maker. Poverty sent him to the front and the front sent McCullin back only to be a sad, bitter and miserable man that he is. The front was his home because he was at ease with disgrace – he would be very uncomfortable in Mayfair. Many people never came back from the front and this was the place he whished to stay, forever. But instead death spat him back so many times he can hardly remember. Now, at a late age he finds comfort in working for charities on cheering assignments. Here the light is soft and the fight is for life. As an old man he waits, quietly, for the final assignment. Kevin Carter decided that waiting was not an option. But, once again, I can’t consider his suicide as a pure consequence of war coverage. War photography only (re)organizes a series of events in a person’s life in a much more intense way. Carter achieved liberation from the burden of being a witness of his time and from not being able to face his own immorality. And this was an issue long before he could shoot a single frame. Death was within. War photography was for him a benediction because it was the only thing he could do to make him exist as a person. Being white, aware of the inhumanity of the social structure of his Country, unable to understand and confront his parents made him confused and insecure. Profiting from a photograph of a black child near her death and being morally confused did send him to

the inferno he was trying to escape. War does not do harm to the individual who feels seduced by it. It is an extension of his life. It is an encounter. There are many reasons and consequences around war photography. They are moral, financial, and psychological and can be analyzed in a number of ways. McCullin and Carter are two very different men and through war they became aware of their surroundings. Through war they had to confront their fear and ghosts to the point of considering their only lives. They had to make decisions on staying alive in misery or dead in search of the unknown. The main consequence of their coverage is a greater understanding of their own limit. It has very little, if anything, with intellectual discussions or analysis. Many photographs taken of horrendous situations are never published – and the photographers who take then know it. They want to keep that awful moment for them. It is a mater of life or death.





Clarke, Graham, The Photograph, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. *Marinovich, Greg and Silva, Joao, The Bang-Bang Club, London: William Heinemann, 2000. McCullin, Don, Don McCullin, London: Jonathan Cape/Random House, 2001. McCullin, Don, Sleeping with Ghosts: A Life’s Work In Photograph, London: Jonathan Cape Ltd/Random House, 1994. *McCullin, Don, Unreasonable Behaviour: An Autobiography, London: Jonathan Cape Ltd/Butler & Tanner Ltd. Sun Tzu (Foreword by Clavell, James), The Art of War, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1981. *especially recommended

The Effects of War Coverage  

An essay exploring the psycological implications of war/conflicts within the profession of photojournalism