The Face Series - Don McCullin

In previous parts of The Face Series we've learned to see the difference between boredom and enjoyment by studying Arnold Newman's portrait of Picasso. We've looked at Richard Avedon portraying a telling sign of contempt from Sharon Stone. We've also seen Richard Avedon's 'Beekeeper' diptych and why the difference in each portrait held spiritual significance for Avedon.

With this entry will we study the work of Don McCullin, starting with a quote from Don himself:

Photography isn’t looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.
— Don McCullin on BBC Radio 3

So, as photographers we don't just need to look with our eyes and minds, but we also need to, as Don says, feel with our looking. Our looking needs to become so alive and vigorous that we feel what we see, and that feeling is translated into an image. What I am providing with this blog series is a tool to train our seeing; a tool to clearly see the emotional expression of the face, which will improve our portraiture.

Detail of Turkish woman by Don McCullin, Cyprus 1964

When we see this woman who's husband had recently been killed in a civil war it is clear she is experiencing intense grief.  Her hands are in a posture of supplication in front of her heart, and her face is contorted by emotional pain. Don McCullin was feeling clearly enough with his vision that within a war zone he could capture this expression amid a moving a chaotic crowd, and create an iconic image, expressing the human cost of war.

Using the research of Paul Ekman to understand the face we can see two distinct expressions. If we observe the woman's eyebrows we can see they are strongly pulling inwards and up, expressing a huge amount of sadness. We can see, and so feel, that this woman is experiencing an overwhelming level of grief.

If we observe the woman's mouth something is slightly different to what we usually see with sadness. Usually with sadness the chin will tighten and push upwards, creating a ridge below the lower lip. The corners of the lips will pull downwards into an upside-down crescent shape. With this woman's expression we can see the corners of the lips pulling the mouth horizontally, along with the usual action of the chin. It is this action in the mouth that signals the woman's level of grief is so intense that she is in agony, rather than a less intense form of sadness. Just seeing the such an intense expression is enough to move us to tears ourselves.

If you are interested in Don McCullin's work please see the following:

Unreasonable Behaviour by Don McCullin

For more information on Paul Ekman's research please see