Christopher Howse

Landscapes of grief

The caption on the photograph (above) makes a difference: ‘A young boy grieves at the funeral of his father who died of Aids at Ndola, Zambia, 2000.’ There were two million Aids orphans in Zambia alone. ‘I care about not letting this tragedy go unseen,’ Don McCullin said.

Shaped by War: Photographs by Don McCullin, at the Imperial War Museum (until 15 April 2012), shows 250 items from the long career of a man best known for his photojournalism, from Vietnam onwards. The boy at Ndola looks straight at the lens, if he is looking outwards and not into the empty future, or back into the life with his father that has gone. Light from one side catches tears that have coalesced in the valley by his left nostril.

Later in the exhibition hang black-and-white landscapes from Northumberland and Somerset, where McCullin lives. After the galleries of war, they are moving, for these English fields are as much to do with humanity as the images of atrocities and sorrow. The Ndola boy’s hair looks like the snow-blown tufts of grass by Hadrian’s Wall, the surface of his coat like the Somerset fields flooded by winter rains, not tears.

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