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Blown away: Don McCullin debated at the IWMN

Jonathan Schofield on Don McCullin's eye-scorching, soul baring, life-affirming exhibition plus a date for debate

Written by . Published on April 12th 2010.

Blown away: Don McCullin debated at the IWMN

I've got a confession to make.

I was so overwhelmed by the 'Shaped by War: Photographs' by Don McCullin exhibition when I first saw it that I've kept putting off writing about it.

Most heart-rendingly it reveals the helplessness of those for whom all the safety nets are down, of people who've lost the ability to exercise any control over their lives. It shows children alone or abandoned.

The Imperial War Museum North's best exhibition yet somehow seemed too big. The images too visceral.

McCullin's images of war and famine reveal the human condition in all its stripped away rawness. Covering Vietnam, Cambodia, Biafra, Cyprus, Lebanon and Northern Ireland it looks at people in extremes, it shows people lost in fear, despair and doubt, and others, for whom carrying a weapon makes them cocksure, confident and dangerous. Thus while the way people react when afraid, brave or cruel might appear similar the circumstances are all very different.

Most heart-rendingly it reveals the helplessness of those for whom all the safety nets are down, of people who've lost the ability to exercise any control over their lives. It shows children alone or abandoned.

Perhaps its the emotional response to this exhibition which is the over-riding reaction.

But there are other responses too. Historical: the pictures are a documentary of global conflict and tensions in the near past. Intellectual: why, when we are repulsed by the images, are we so drawn to them? Artistic: how does the captured moment, cropped and packaged in the right way, become an eternal image; how does it morph from the purely documentary to the artistic.

Whatever our response, most visitors will feel that this is important work, that it needs an audience, that it teaches us something about ourselves.

Yet times move on, situations chage.

There's a question mark over the future of photo-journalism as delivered by McCullin in this exhibition.

To investigate this, on Saturday 17 April there will a debate entitled The Future of War Photography at the Imperial War Museum North. In this leading figures from the world of war photography will debate whether we are in danger of losing photography of key events in history due to restrictions on, and developments in, the media.

The panel includes multi-award winning, contemporary conflict photographer Simon Norfolk, and Mines Advisory Group photographer Sean Sutton (whose moving images of landmine survivors are currently on display in five metre high frames outside Imperial War Museum North).

Other panellists are Jon Levy, Director of FOTO8, and David Campbell, Professor of Cultural and Political Geography at the University of Durham. The event will be chaired by Paul Hermann, Director of the photography network Redeye.

The day after the debate on Sunday 18 April, Hilary Roberts, from Imperial War Museum’s huge and prestigious Photographic Archive, will give a free workshop on how to read and understand photographs. Roberts is a world leading expert on war photography and curator of 'Shaped by War: Photographs by Don McCullin at IWMN'.

Meanwhile regular Closer Look tours of the exhibition by Museum staff are ongoing and take place at 2.30pm most Tuesdays and Thursdays until June. On Sundays, 2.15pm, In Focus tours are followed by a short film screening.

Whether you go to any or all of these is down to you of course. But please, if you've not been yet, don't miss out on visiting this truly remarkable collection of images down on the Quays.

You can book tickets for the Future of War Photography debate on www.quaytickets.comOtherwise access to the exhibition is free and the museum is open every day. The exhibition finishes on 13 June 2010 and the Imperial War Museum North is at Trafford Wharf Road, Trafford Park, Manchester. 0161 836 4000. www.iwm.org.uk

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