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Don McCullin
Photographer Don McCullin | Image Source Internet

Unreasonable Behaviour

Biopic of a war photographer

We hate to look at his pictures, but we have to. McCullin is the eye we cannot shot.

– John Berger

Actor-film maker Angelina Jolie has announced that she would direct a biopic about wartime photographer Don McCullin based on his best-selling autobiography Unreasonable Behaviour, first published in 2002.

Undoubtedly, Don McCullin is one of our greatest living photo-journalists. From the construction of the Berlin Wall through every conflict up to the Falklands War, Don McCullin has left a trail of iconic images. These trails weren’t made without risks – he had the courage to venture out to the troubled lands which put him on the line of fire several times. In 1968, his Nikon camera stopped a bullet intended for him; in 1972 he spent four days in a Ugandan prison, where every morning Idi Amin’s lorries would take corpses to the Nile to feed to the crocodiles; In 1982 the British Government refused to grant McCullin a press pass to cover the Falklands War, claiming the boat was full, probably because the Thatcher government felt his images might be too disturbing politically. Nonetheless, his sensational works projecting the realities of war is said to have contributed substantially to the growth of anti-war sentiments among the public.

Following an impoverished north London childhood blighted by Hitler’s bombs and the early death of his father, McCullin was called up for National Service with the RAF. After postings to Egypt, Kenya, and Cyprus he returned to London armed with a twin reflex Rolleicord camera and began photographing friends from a local gang named The Guv’nors. The photograph titled The Guvnors in their Sunday Suits shot in a bombed-out building was published by the Observer in 1958 and brought him recognition and commission opportunities. His assignment in Berlin to photograph the building of the Wall secured his contract with The Observer in 1961. In 1961 he won the British Press Award for his essay on the construction of the Berlin Wall. Soon his commissions took him around the world, starting with the Cyprus War in 1964, which began his career as a war photographer. He covered the armed eruption of ethnic and nationalistic tension, winning a World Press Photo Award for his effort. He then moved to The Sunday Times Magazine, where his assignments included covering Biafra, the Belgian Congo, the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’, Bangladesh, and the Lebanese civil wars. His photographs from the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia are among the most famous and well-recognized. In 1993 he was the first photojournalist to be awarded a CBE.

Don McCullin also took photographs of Maryon Park in London which were used in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blowup. Also in 1968, on 28 July, he was invited to photograph the Beatles, then at the height of their fame and in the midst of recording The White Album. These sessions, made at several London locations, have become known as The Mad Day Out. They contain many well-known images of the band, including the gatefold sleeve picture from the Red and Blue compilations, where the Beatles mingled with the crowd seen through railings. The photographs from this day were published in the 2010 book A Day in the Life of the Beatles.

1 Youths vs British Troops at the height of the Troubles © Don McCullin, Belfast 1971 | 2 Early morning, West Hartlepool © Don McCullin, England 1963 | 3 A Turkish wife learns of her husband’s death © Don McCullin Cyprus, 1964 | Image Source Internet

From the early 1980s increasingly he focused his foreign adventures on more peaceful matters. He traveled extensively through Indonesia, India, and Africa returning with powerful essays on places and people. He also has been chronicling the English countryside – in particular the landscapes of Somerset – and creating meticulously constructed still lifes all to great acclaim. “I had long been uncomfortable with my label of war photographer, which suggested an almost exclusive interest in the suffering of other people. I knew I was capable of another voice”, Don had said.  However, many had criticized that his landscapes too looks like war. “I am a photographer, not an artist, and I don’t make art” he repeatedly iterates. Don continues to be attracted to photograph war. In October 2015, Don traveled to Kurdistan in northern Iraq to photograph the Kurds’ three-way struggle with ISIS, Syria, and Turkey.

Angelina Jolie has been developing her career as an anti-war filmmaker and a bio-pic about Don McCullin will be a deal-breaker. To be titled Unreasonable Behavior after McCullin’s autobiography, the film will be centered around his coverage of international conflicts. Actor Tom Hardy will portray the role. BAFTA-nominated screenwriter Gregory Burke (’71) wrote the Unreasonable Behaviour script, with additional production being handled by Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner (Darkest Hour). McCullin will be actively involved in its production as the executive producer. Unreasonable Behaviour marks Jolie’s fifth scripted feature as a director, following In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011), By the Sea (2015), First They Killed My Father (2017), and 2014 blockbuster Unbroken, which went on to receive three Oscar nods atop of grossing $115 million at the domestic box office.

In the political systems, as they exist, we have no legal opportunity to effectively influencing the conduct of wars waged in our name. To realize this and to act accordingly is the only effective way of responding to what the photograph shows. Yet the double violence of the photographed moment actually works against this realization.

– John Berger

Don McCullin and his works have received quite a lot of criticism as well. English art critic John Berger had pointedly asked, “What effects do such (photographs of agony) have?.” In recent years, the world of Photo-Journalism has received a lot of criticism, especially about the ethics of representation. There are a certain demand and fame that comes with haunting images of war and poverty. It is as if, the more violent and sensational an image is, the more it is viewed and circulated – and even though it has raised awareness about what’s happening around the world – photographs of war have made only a little difference. The photographers themselves are not devoid of such concerns. Once Don McCullin commented, “Looking back, it served no purpose, my life. I doubt whether I have made any difference. It is as if I am preaching to the converted.”

Commerce apart, hopefully, Angeline Jolie’s biopic about Don McCullin, his life, contributions, challenges, and dilemmas provokes some dialogues, not only about the horrors of war, but also the ethics of war photography. The release date of the film is yet to be announced.

By Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi | Published on February 4, 2021

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