The go-to site for what makes life worth living in and around Petersfield, Hampshire, and some other stuff too. For flaneurs, bon vivants, indeed boulevardiers of every complexion - why go anywhere else?

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Through a Lens Darkly: Don McCullin's 'Unreasonable Behaviour'

A brilliantly written account of Don McCullin's experiences in every available 'hot war' across the 70s, 80s and early 90s. 

On one hand, 'Unreasonable Behaviour' can be read almost as a boy's-own story of fearless derring-do, as McCullin plunges into situation after situation of almost unimaginable peril, with only a Nikon between him, an awful lot of hot metal and some really terrifying people, and with almost no regard for his personal safety. Heart enters mouth as early as the second chapter and rarely leaves thereafter. 

On the other, it's one of the bleakest, most wretched books I have ever read, and not only because so much is concerned with brutality, atrocity and the very worst examples of human behaviour. 

McCullin's bravery is initially astonishing - he reports very little fear even when faced with the worst danger, even when staring down a lens at its terrible consequences. Gradually it becomes evident, however, that what we are witnessing is less about heroism, more about an almost complete absence of self-worth and that the reason he can so recklessly put his life on the line is because he values it so very little. Not quite 'no sense, no feeling', for he is by no means a stupid or insensitive man, but something along those lines. There's something missing. As the book progresses towards an almost unbearably sad ending, the personal life moves increasingly centre stage and it becomes evident that the title isn't just about what McCullin has witnessed. 

This isn't really a book for camera geeks. McCullin is a photojournalist first and a photographer second. His interest is in getting close to the action, less about the technical quality of the snap - which, ironically, is what makes them so arresting. But you'll look in vain for anything on lenses, bodies or films, other than a useful tip on what camera works best when you have to change film under fire and flat on your back.

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