Thursday, 19 January 2012

I am not a photojournalist

I went to the Don McCullin exhibition at the Imperial War Museum last week. It was incredibly intense and moving. After 3 hours of Don and the holocaust exhibit I was wiped out. The whole museum is very troubling really. Huge tanks, weapons, war toys - would women design these if we ruled the world? Discuss.
Anyway it got me thinking about my claim that I "could never be a photojournalist". I find it extremely difficult to take snapshots or portraits if my subject and I have not formed a rapport, and if I can't promise them they will get copies of the photographs.  I wonder if I am just egocenric, or maybe I can be less harsh on myself and say that it's my own passion for capturing who people are and how they are feeling that drives my photography. McCullin developed his passion for war photography from a desire that people should know what is happening in the world, by showing the horror and injustice and hoping that might stir some positive action.
The nearest I have got to McCullin's world would be my trips to Ukraine - to a town 25 miles from Chernobyl. Here, 90% of the children were sick and dying, as were their parents. Seems like the ones to suffer less from the effects of the radiation were the elderly. Most of he children I met were very disabled and disfigured, and most were dying of cancer. I trawled the huge run-down hospital corridors, photographing children, doctors, patients, treatments.....I saw impossibly difficult things and managed to take photographs. I went with doctors visiting terribly poor families outside the town and families with disabled children who never ever left the house because they had no wheelchairs, or transport of any kind....and what I did, that Don didn't (I don't think!) was to carry a piece of paper that read, in Ukrainian, "If you come back to the hospital next month, you can have your photos". I believe almost all the photos got distributed, and there were hundreds of them. I made calendars and cards back home which I sold, and sent the money to them. I did what I could do within my own emotional abilities.
So when I saw Don McCullin's work I managed to resist feeling somehow inferior and just admired him for what he chose to do with his skills. Bottom line, we do what we can do. Anything is better than doing nothing, and sometimes we just need to respect our own motives.
One child who has stayed in my mind is Olya. She was from a dirt poor family with countless children and by all accounts a pretty miserable life - but all of them looked straight at me when I took their picture -  even the teenagers, who despite being filthy and badly dressed had a proud directness that I'm afraid surprised me. I can never decide whether Olya's face shows strength or despair. I'd like to think it is hope.

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