Thoughts on Documentary – McCullin and Rosler

Matt Damon’s politics owe a great deal to his mother. The first time Nancy Carlsson-Paige saw her son featured in a glossy magazine, she was appalled. “My beautiful boy is being used to sell products,” she told a newspaper. “He is just a cog in the capitalist system.” She’d never even read a magazine like Vanity Fair before, her son explains. “She’s a professor…. And she said, ‘This thing is nothing but page after page of adverts for products that nobody needs!'”  The Guardian

Watching the documentary “McCullin” for the third time I was struck by a number of points that he made. I think it is important to recognize that this film, wonderfully produced by David and Jacqui Morris, allows McCullin to have the sole voice. Of course editing decisions have been made to develop the narrative and therefore we understand as viewers that there is a form of censorship in play; but I get the sense that McCullin may have objected quite publicly if he was unhappy about the representation by which he is depicted with this film. I imagined I was listening to the ‘voice’ of McCullin.

This re-watching of the film has come about with Martha Rosler’s strident text “In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)” as published in “The Contest of Meaning” edited by Richard Bolton 1992 still revolving in my head. Rosler posits, I think, that no documentary work comes without the baggage of ‘an angle’. That the ‘Documentary photographer’ is driven by motives beyond the exposition of the dispossessed, the dying, the etcetera of the documentarian’s standard canon. And so, when McCullin admits, very early in the film, that he may be ‘addicted to danger’, and that when after establishing himself with a contract with the Guardian he is offered an “opportunity… my great chance… to make an impression” by covering the civil war in Cyprus, without a hint of what the conflict issues were or what he thought they might be. I thought then of what Rosler had said about Eugene Smith’s cover shot for the work he did for Camera 35, April 1974 on the plight “mercury laden effluent waters” dumped into by the Chiso chemical firm in Minamata: “Smith had sent in a cover photo with a carefully done layout. The editor, Jim Hughes, knowing what sells and what doesn’t, ran a picture of Smith on the cover and named him “Our Man of The Year” (Camera 35’s first an probably only” one)” pp 308 C & M. McCullin though, instantly knew – he said he felt he was “levitating” he felt so good “…that another door had opened for him and he was ready to go”. That his time had come to seize the opportunity that photography had provided when it afforded him an escape from Finsbury Park, to something that he felt provided him those few wonderful years at the Guardian and “eighteen fantastic years at the Sunday Times” under Harry Evans and Thomson.

McCullin is seen in vintage footage describing how he seems to need at least one war a year, maybe even two wars a year to cover and whilst he recognizes it, he may, because of his appetite for war, increase his likelihood of not returning from the war zone other than in a body bag, his eagerness seems undimmed.

These “Muckrakers” are an inconvenience. Damned as they were by opponents of Roosevelt, these busybodies serve to itch the side of the body corporate and they have served as such to varying degrees from Riis through McCullin to Stirton and beyond. It was Murdoch that put paid to McCullin’s continuance on the Sunday Times, as News International, who, through his mouthpiece Andrew Neal had said wars were out, we’ll have lifestyle and leisure instead – they pay more. McCullin’s mark had been made though, which was probably why he was refused a passage to the Falklands when Thatcher declared war. Riis, one of the originals rakers of the Bowery was accused of the same, but did eventually made money and fame out of those same occupants that stared dumbly at the new fangled flash chemistry that Riis had refined.

Rosler, though, contends another position for the Documentary photographer which, whilst not disregarding the money of course, transcends the sole notion of fiscal gain or positional amplitude, and that is that all these documentarists chart a course that builds a comfortable distance between subject and spectator. Riis did so to appeal to a burgeoning class that tended to ameliorate their liberal consciousness by ‘giving’. McCullin, whose determination to ‘go further’, to jump that plane to Stanleyville, to bring the Congolese atrocities home for Sunday breakfast thereby cementing his reputation as ‘the’ provider of ‘otherness’. The albino on spindly legs, the bum in the Bowery, the needle pocked, sore ridden, HIV infected whore in the Ukraine are all ‘others’ served up to forge a void between us and them. Just a few years after Edward R Murrows refused to cow-tail to McCarthy he appeals ‘..to the viewers (then a more restricted part of the population that at present) to write their congressman to help the migrant farm workers, whose pathetic, dispirited victimhood has been amply demonstrated for an hour – ….. because these people can do nothing for themselves.” Pp306/7 ibid. Nine years later McCullin is in Nigeria finding that albino, an ‘other’ in an ‘other’ land, holding his hand and in a further dozen years he will swoon at the heat and stench of Lebanese hospital ward for blind mad children locked inside a room with no food or water. But like Riis and Stirton, McCullin gets his shot and delivers the pain for breakfast. The pages turn and the advert says Special K for a healthier way to get slim.

Stirton enters a competition with his drug addicted prostitute and wins category in the world press awards, McCullin gets awarded a CBE for his services to photography – the only photographer to achieve the accolade, Riis publishes and assures his financial security and gets to marry his childhood sweetheart. They have all made the grade, passed go and collected their rewards, just as Major ‘Mad Mike” Hoare  – an apt homonym if ever there was one – “…was just there for the adventure and the money” according to McCullin.

Riis wanted to remain anonymous, leaving his victim’s of both camera and destitution rubbing their eyes after the frying pan of light has receded from their retinas. McCullin’s decision to stay in the front line during the Tet offensive, counting himself fortunate not to be amongst the 50% who didn’t make it home in a body bag and ensuring he held the gaze of the shell-shocked soldier for the spectator to behold. All the way to Stirton who has perhaps paid for the prostitute to look at the camera as she fallates her punter – did he pay for the work to get his shot? The money shot? Both punter and whore are victims of the lens and a society gone mad. Is the only difference in a century one of collaboration? Is this unholy alliance of prey and hunter what we should expect, how much further does Stirton’s successor have to tread to keep the spectators eyes blinking in some form of disbelief?

This distancing, this ‘othering’, allows the spectacle to be viewed from a safe distance assuaging our collective guilt by texting to Children in Need, and not just to shut Wogan up. You can’t go on, thinking, nothing’s wrong. Call now! Give us your fucking money!

Rosler goes on to relate how photograph will have two moments the ‘first’ when the image was made, that immediate moment in front of the lens, however contrived, constructed, composed, edited or post processed. And the ‘second’, which is the most likely reading of the photograph, after it has passed into history – the ‘aesthetic-historic’ as she places it; which is of course how most photographs are viewed most of the time. “....a refusal of specific historical meaning yet ‘history minded’ in its awareness of the pastness of the time in which the image was made.” pp 317 ibid. Not a million miles from Barthes (again) then. But these photographs were made, there were these witnesses to these atrocities, whether in the McCullin front line approach or, perhaps, with Robin Hammond’s slightly more reflective accounts, that suggest, as Paul Theroux proposes in his travelogue “Dark Star Safari” – the only news coming out of Africa is bad news”. I am reminded of that old aphorism ‘it’s only bad news that sells”

During every avenue that I look at documentary photography I am beset with commerce; Riis, Hine, Theroux, Stirton, Hammond and McCullin all with vested interests in providing their version of the awful truth. As Sontag might observe, there seems to be some image fatigue setting in!

But does any of it work? As Rosler points out, these images mutate almost as soon as they are created. Baggage collects on them as pollen to bee, or as refuse does to a drain cover. Various political persuasions are convinced of their rhetoric by the availability of the same captured frame of information. The only way for Florence Thomson not to try and want to gain some recompense for Lange’s impertinence to exhibit her destitution, would have been to absent herself from the frame in the first place, and in doing so deprive the San Franciscan populace in raising capital to fund a relief effort – and maybe just to ensure they were fed enough and strong enough to ‘ride on by’ to get to the ‘bread basket of America’; wouldn’t that have been a greater crime? The appropriation of meaning, maybe the ‘contest of meaning’ for these images serve too many masters. The right for saying ‘well I told you so’ and the left for saying ‘let us rage against the machine’.

The rage we feel we see in these images has to be contextualized, both in terms of the motivations of the protagonists of the image and the perspective of the spectator. McCullin went where most wouldn’t dare; those he accompanied in the irrigation channels avoiding sniper fire, weren’t volunteers, they were largely conscripts. But those documents he made were like death warrants, so many of those he photographed died in the attempt to impose tyranny on a volunteer army of local insurgents, and I make no comment on the futility of their efforts to attempt such an imposition, but perhaps on the worth of the role to bear witness.

If McCullin’s Nikon hadn’t been there would it have made any difference? Rosler wonders also I think. That these images, that have sunk into mythological status and have lost their initial currency, who now wonders about Florence’s plight as she dragged her family south? Who now wonders about the albino whose ‘otherness’ was further ‘othered’ by his lens? I suspect no-one. Kevin Carter’s image of the baby girl being stalked by a vulture was perhaps remembered by him as he gassed himself; but most talk of those images are about verité, about how truthful they are, about whether they are. Or, as Rosler suggests I think, about re-focussing the zeitgeist to somewhere else. About how Szarkowski favoured “the connoisseurship of the tawdry’ pp 321 ibid with the ‘new documentarians, Winogrand, Arbus and Friedlander.” pp321 And from his position of cultural power vested the value of the document away from the atrocities that the opponents of “..our own global enemy, world communism” p 307 ibid – now read world Islamism – were doing on our behalf, on behalf of the ‘free world’ to the quotidian notions of photographers, who in one case thought the taking of the image was more important than the presentation of it. Now that is a notion of hers I do have some sympathy with.

Rosler speaks about the ‘radical metonymical’ nature of the photographs discussed in her essay, and her refusal to be ‘sold’ to the materialistic valuation of the image; a notion I also have a great deal of sympathy for. I attempt at all turns to refuse to be commodified to the hegemony of consumerism, unwilling as I am to be ‘rolled-up’ into a statistic. I fully acknowledge Rosler’s dialectic that posits no image comes without the conflation of purpose, position and penny. ‘The documentary of the present, the petted darling of the monied, a shiver-provoking, slyly decadent, lip-smacking appreciation of alien vitality or a fragmented vision of psychological alienation in city and town, coexists with the germ of another documentary – a financially unloved but growing body of documentary works committed to the exposure of specific abuses caused by people’s jobs, by the fanancier’s growing hegemony over the cities, by racism, sexism, and class oppression, works about militancy, about self-organisation, or works meant to support them. Perhaps a radical documentary can be brought into existence. But the common acceptance of the idea that documentary preceds, supplants, transcends, or cures full, substantive social activism is an indicator that we do not yet have a real documentary.” pp325

I can’t top that, but maybe Matt Damon’s mother can: “Corporations have been allowed to assume, without public dialogue or debate, a growing influence over children’s play, thoughts, and values, an influence which is, for the most part, a negative one. Those who market to children do not base their decisions on the well-being of children but on the well-being of their profits. And if violence sells, then they provide it, no matter what the costs are to children and society, no matter how much the values they push conflict with those of families.” Nancy Carlsson-Paige

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Documentary – McCullin and Rosler

  1. Interesting post—with some really valid comments. Now you need to read Ariella Azoulay’s ‘The Civil Contract of Photography’; Sontag’s ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’; and Linfield’s ‘The Cruel Radiance’! They go in different directions; but there is still a common ground with this reading.

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