Photo Documentary Heaven

Time to explore photo docs – starting with one of the best..and one of our favorites:

In the age of digital streaming, there are so many outlets that can be accessed to provide insights into the minds of photographers, and the applications of photography. A living digital archive exists on the Internet for anybody wanting to expand their knowledge of the iconic photographers and movements of this and the last century.

For instance, just one of the offerings available on “Documentary Heaven” (and there are many, many more: check it out at is the protean portrait of perhaps the most resonant war photographer of the past 60 years, ”McCullin.” (

In the 1950s, Don McCullin started his creative journey as a documentarian by taking picture of the rough street gangs in London; but 20 years later, he found himself in a different world of “rough,” when he – by pluck and sheer invention – masqueraded as a mercenary and took a flight to a Congo village, to watch what the mercenaries were going to do to the local inhabitants. In this documentary, he tells of how he witnessed terrible beatings, boys being shot in the back of the head and dumped in the river, strung up on wires, skinned alive; and all he could do was take pictures. There was no chance that any intervention that he could have the courage to initiate could achieve anything (he would probably have died himself if he had intervened), so he had to ask himself what his “moral sense of purpose and duty” was, as he stood there, with a camera and 20 rolls of film. And it was, simply, to record.

Later, situated in Vietnam, he saw an American soldier dying; his face covered in gore, and decided to turn his camera away. McCullin seems to imply, in his interview, that the soldier’s eyes asked him not to record his own death scene, and so – in this different context – his sense of moral purpose changed, to accommodate the desires of his (non) subject…and McCullin turned his camera away.

Being a recorder of death, of cruelty, of visceral human evil towards one’s fellow person, might seem like it might excite a self-confessed “war junkie” (as McCullin describes himself), but the documentary, 92 minutes long, presents sampled minutes of his own life story, and paints a much more ambiguous picture of a decent man who is drawn to capture the realities of war, and finds himself irrevocably changed as a result.

It’s one of many fascinating documentaries available online. The Hillman Photography Initiative, at the Carnegie Museum of Art (, presents a documentary a world away from the frighteningly mundane terrors of human-on-human violence; and, instead, focuses on the mind-bending applications of how photographic technologies are being used to visualize the subatomic world at CERN (at the European Organization for Nuclear Research; where physicists and engineers are probing the fundamental structure of the universe). How does one actually record that moment when sub-atomic protons and sub-atomic electrons actually collide… but emit no light? Even if one cannot understand (remotely!) the jargon used by the eggheads in charge, at least one can take comfort that they need good old-fashioned nineteenth-century (so uncool!) photographic principles to record the world’s most advanced particle physics research collisions.

Whether your tastes and interests range from the human to cosmic, sites such as

“Expert Photography” ( can link you to all valences in between, be it film grain or pixels.

Want to see nine minutes in the life of the Paparazzi ; Richard Avedon at the height of his fame; or “Duffy: The Man Who Shot The Sixties?” then there’s no excuse not to get your mouse clicking and your mind buzzing!

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  • Laura Lucas says:

    Great blog. Very poignant. Would be interesting to identify if photo journalists feel the same today about the morals of capturing death. Certainly in the mainstream, with everyone recording episodes of crime on their phones – there wouldn’t seem to be any moral guidance. Hopefully some of them are reading this article.