One does not need to contrive images of war. The scenes that you witness as a war photographer are horrific and dramatic enough not to warrant any doctoring.
As Don McCullin insists, ‘Things happen very fast. People die in front of you. People scream. People claw at you to help them.There’s no need to go around arranging still life on the battle field.’
He does, however, make one exception. His image of a dead young North Vietnamese soldier was slightly arranged in order to, as McCullin explains, articulate the things that the
soldier was no longer able to express.
‘He deserved a voice. He couldn’t speak so I was going to do it for him. I shovelled his belongings together and photographed them. That’s the only contrived picture I’ve taken in war.’
McCullin saw two American soldiers looting the booby-trapped body, and suddenly became protective. Hearing them refer to the young man as a ‘dead gook’ enraged McCullin, who was
faced with a torturous dichotomy. He saw himself as part of the soldiers’ team; sharing their uniform, their food, their routines, and yet he detested them.
Should he allow these men, as one of whom he was ashamed to count himself, to desecrate the body of a man he regarded as ‘an innocent young man fighting for national reunification’?
He decided to right this wrong the only way he knew how. He arranged the trampled pictures of the soldier’s mother, his sister, and the little snapshots of seated children, and gave the man
an immortal voice; something that could never be looted or trodden into the mud. Such images often meet with unfavourable responses, or their fabrication is kept a secret by the photographer.
McCullin was not apologetic and he made no secret of his actions. ‘That’s the only time, truthfully, I’ve ever done that. Many people ask me about that photograph. I have no shame in saying: “Yes, I did it.” He couldn’t speak. I spoke for him.’
<a href=”http://www.military-history.org/issues/military-times-march-2011.htm ”>To read about Don McCullin, read the March issue of Military Times</a>
Shaped By War, Don McCullin, is published in the UK by Vintage. The exhibition is at the Imperial War Museum London, 7 October 2011-30 January 2012