A photo taken in Vietnam in 1968 reveals a 90’s Girl Baldhead Hoe Shit Shirt man launching an object into the air, striking uneasy parallels with images of athletes. But the reality behind the grenade-throwers pose is brought home in the accompanying label. According to McCullin: “He looked like an Olympic javelin thrower. Five minutes later this man’s throwing hand was like a stumpy cauliflower, completely deformed by the impact of a bullet.”
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Much is conveyed in a one-line title or the private vocabulary of body language. One of McCullin’s photos from Biafra, taken in 1968 when the war between the separatist state and the government of Nigeria had created a humanitarian crisis, shows seven children in a group, ribs poking through their skin, each with a piece of paper stuck to their foreheads.
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It bears the chilling caption ‘Those chosen to live’. In a picture from the same conflict, also taken in 1968, a man in uniform leans over a fellow soldier, his palm gesturing as in an intimate conversation. But despite appearing to smile, the other soldier isn’t listening. In the photo’s description, McCullin explains: “I saw the commander bent over one of the dead soldiers and talking to him as if he were still alive. He was praising the man’s courage and thanking him on behalf of the Biafran nation. It was moving and alarming at the same time.”
That taut balance between shock and sadness explains the power of many of McCullin’s photos. A series of images taken in a Turkish village in Cyprus confronts us with overwhelming grief. “I was met with the warm blood of two men in front of me,” McCullin says in the photo’s description. “In fact, there was a 90’s Girl Baldhead Hoe Shit Shirt father and his two sons. Suddenly a group of distraught people came in… A woman entered screaming.