Compassion eye to eye
English photographer Donald McCullin poses a question that all combat photography must ultimately address: "Who needs great pictures when somebody's dying . . .?" Never before has there been such disparity between photographer and his subject; never has a photograph required such profound justification.
While covering the Korean war, Lifem photographer David Douglas Duncan came across a man straining every muscle to pull his parents, huddled in their cart, to safety; and Duncan confronted essentially the same question: "I felt nothing but shame at being bigger than all three and yet helplessly tied to the tiny camera in my hands. And I wondered whether my pictures would really make a difference."
Though the photographer may not be able to ease a battle-torn life, he can transform it into a sacrifice, one that touches humanity so deeply the suffering is redeemed, and on a pragmatic level conscience is aroused, statistics are reduced.
But even that is no longer enough. If the 20th century with its Dachaus and Hiroshimas has proved anything, it is the meaninglessness of statistics: one and millions are instantly interchangeable. We have been thrust beyond statistics to grapple with the darkness that controls them, and so too photography must attempt to penetrate and disarm that corner of the human soul which allows such savagery. This is an enormous task for a medium that can show us only what life looksm like, but this is "the difference" now required.
As the combat photographer takes victimized life and transforms it into a powerful image, he becomes something of an aesthetic priest, of which Donald McCullin is one of the most daring, in terms of the emotional territory he is willing to probe. He seeks out vivid atrocities and confronts them directly, without flinching, without softening the brutal detail. Where others record moments of humanity which defy the horror, Don McCullin provides little but piercing screams, forcing us as the observer, the witness, to supply the humanity from deep within us.
In his stunning -- quite literally stunning -- collection of photographs, "Is Anyone Taking Notice?" Mccullin argues that "we would be diminished if we averted our eyes." He may well be right; after all, it is difficult to defend ignorance of somebody else's suffering. But there are other considerations: the danger of sweeping us into a maelstron of darkness, undermining our ability to take action, desensitizing us until we require greater and greater shock to feel compassion.
While turning his back on those dangers, McCullin also ignores the inherent weakness of photography: the fact that a photograph reduces experience to a two-dimensional image which can be glanced at, filed, forgotten. . . . Many experiences are worthy of little more, and so photography does them no injustice. But suffering is a different matter, especially when McCullin risks reducing it to an image that we wantm to glance at as quickly as possible, file, and forget. Yet by dismissing these constraints and dangers, he is able to provide us with an invaluable record of the darkness at its very worst, an ultimate gauge for our humanity, our philosophies, our Christianity.
If Donald McCullin makes his impact by pushing photography and us to our limits, David Douglas Duncan is equally effective by means of subtlety and restraint. In Duncan's photographs there is little of the jostling, shattering, and ultimately accusing quality that we find in McCullin's work; instead we are practically seduced by the eyes of his subjects in what otherwise might be misconstrued as dry, factual photographs. Eyes staring off the page at what can only be danger, not unexpected but nevertheless fearful; eyes helpless because the ammunition is exhausted; eyes of a prisoner of war in which the future and the past meet and dissolve into nothing. And when the eyes aren't visible, the effect is sometimes more profound: we are forced to rely upon our imagination.
Resisting the current trend of combat photography to depict destruction as it is wrought upon civilians and their culture, Duncan turns his camera almost entirely on soldiers, for whom he has enormous respect and compassion. In his work we don't feel the inescapable alienation between photographer and his subject (between a professional with his high-technology camera and a starving child) that we find in McCullin's work. The suffering Duncan captures is for the most part suffering that he also endures. "Where," we are often compelled to ask, "did Duncan stand for that photograph?" Invariably, in no better position than his subjects. His life is intertwined with theirs at other levels as well: he himself was a Marine, now retired, and he travels lightly, relying on the men to share their food with him. In one sense his photographs almost become self-portaits, imbued with a rare depth of compassion and comprehension.
If Duncan's photographs suggest self-portaits, they can also be seen as pictures of man battling with cosmic issues, a sort of Jacob wrestling with the angel, wrestling with issues that ultimately we all must face. Unlike much combat photography, there is no wedge driven between us as audience and those at war; in fact, without diminishing the grimness of battle, Duncan leads us to feel a deep bond with the mud-caked, thoroughly tried soldiers. After a couple of pictures the politics, the nationalities, fade until we merely have men at war, fulfilling Duncan's desire to "tell a story of war as it has always been . . . to show what a man endures when his country decides to go to war, with or without his personal agreement on the righteousness of the cause."
In the photograph reproduced on this page nearly all context of nationality, even personal identity, has been stripped away until nothing remains but those haunting eyes. Here may be a man who has survived any variety of total uncertainty and existential fear without sight of their end; he may be us at those rare moments when we are stripped completely bare. In fact, he is a United States Marine marching out of the hills of North Korea, through a bitter winter, with the Chinese in hot pursuit.
"The battlefield," writes Duncan, "is a world of final simplicity." To appreciate fully his photographs we must bring to them our deepest understanding of life. David Douglas Duncan assures us that the issues of life and war are inextricably bound and they cannot be resolved apart.
While retreating out of the Korean winter with the American troops, Duncan asked one of the Marines what he most wanted if he could have any wish."His lips began to open slightly, and close, as though the effort of a word was too great. He tried again, and failed. . . . He tried once more . . . as he tried his eyes went up into the graying sky, and he said, 'Give me Tomorrow.'" He could easily be speaking for all mankind; he could be issuing the challenge that combat photography must help to answer.