Views & Reviews Review

The stare of death

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 04 January 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:d8283
  1. Jonathan Kaplan, war zone surgeon and writer, London
  1. Jonathan.Kaplan{at}

Two exhibitions of the seminal war photographer Don McCullin show how photojournalism has the power to alert the world to the horrors of war. Jonathan Kaplan, a surgeon who has also seen war zones first hand, reflects

Rating: ****

Doctors know the feeling of looking into a face and seeing death stare back at you. But it’s seldom as naked and implacable as on the face of the starving albino child clutching an empty corned beef tin, photographed by Don McCullin in an orphanage in Biafra (now part of Nigeria) in 1969. His pictures in the broadsheet press and the images on the television evening news forced humanitarian suffering into global consciousness. Biafra transformed humanitarian thinking. The French doctor Bernard Kouchner was moved to found Médecins sans Frontières, Aengus Finucane established the Irish non-governmental organisation Concern, and Oxfam’s condemnation of the war as a “genocide” began an era of moral humanitarian intervention. Frederick Forsyth (reporting on Biafra for the Times) was inspired to write his novel The Wild Geese, about a group of European mercenaries applying their deadly expertise to help a “good” African leader oust the …

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