He has been called by his former editor Harold Evans, ‘a conscience with a camera’ and by Henri Cartier-Bresson as ‘Goya with a camera’. Certainly, that is how photographer Don McCullin – whose haunting images in the 1960s and 70s helped define my generation’s perception of modern war – comes across in the stunning documentary McCullin that I have just seen.
Don McCullin was born and raised in a tough neighbourhood of Finsbury Park, a place, in his words, that ‘oozed poverty, bigotry and all kinds of hatred and violence’. His childhood was marked by adversity, and he left school at 15 to work when his father died, putting an end to his dream of going to art school. On the streets he knocked about with tough guys who were gangsters. McCullin purchased his first camera while doing National Service in 1955, and once demobilized started photographing the people he lived among in Finsbury Park.
Among his early subjects were members of a local gang, the Guv’nors, and one of the resulting images caught the attention of the Observer picture editor in 1958 after members of the gang were involved in the murder of a London policeman. In the film, McCullin reflects on how ‘the jumping-off point for my whole life was based on a terrible act of violence and its consequences’.
Photography has been a lifelong love affair. You have to remember I came from a background, where I didn’t have an education, I couldn’t read properly and I came from a violent community where people were interested in how well you could fight or steal. Photography was this amazing door opening, it was amazing I was able to escape from the life of Finsbury Park at that time.
With the publication of the Guv’nors photos in The Observer, a career was launched which was to take McCullin to war zones throughout the world for over 20 years as a photojournalist for The Observer and the Sunday Times until, in 1983, he was sacked from the Sunday Times following its takeover by Rupert Murdoch. Subsequently, in his own words, ‘I fell apart’.
Gradually, he worked his back to a different kind of photography, making beautiful black and white portraits of the landscape of the Somerset Levels where he now lived. Now aged 77, McCullin has just returned from his first trip to a war zone since the 1980s – photographing the conflict in Syria in reports for The Times.
These days documentaries have the all production values of feature films. McCullin, directed by Jacqui and David Morris, opens with Don McCullin stepping through across snowy hillside near his Somerset home, battered and patched up film camera at the ready, stalking beauty rather than horror. From there, the film offers a chronological account, beginning with his London childhood and the Observer break, and extensively illustrated with examples of his brilliant, but deeply disturbing, photos.
The two film makers have restricted the straight to camera interviews to two – with McCullin himself, and with his former editor at the Sunday Times, Harold Evans. The film is thus free of the parade of talking heads extolling the virtues of the subject that often blights documentaries. Credit is also due to the film’s research team who have located newsreel archives that provide context for McCullin’s words and images, often finding film shot in the same place and at the same time as McCullin made his shots.
Filmmakers David and Jacqui Morris provide a clear account of McCullin’s career, introducing each assignment with contextual newsreel footage, then allowing McCullin’s personal observations to tell the story, illustrated by the extraordinary images he shot, often accompanied with details about how they came to be.The directors choose, wisely, to rely on McCullin’s own words to push the narrative forward: he speaks with integrity and with a poetic turn of phrase, speaking calmly of the carnage he witnesses and the moral dilemmas that constantly tear at his soul.
Not long after The Observer had printed the Guv’nors spread, McCullin got married and took his wife to Paris. While they were in Paris, he saw a photograph of an East German soldier in uniform and helmet leaping over barbed wire in Berlin. It was 1961 and he was escaping to the West, just as the East Germans were beginning to build the Wall. When McCullin and his wife got back to England he asked if she would mind if he went to Berlin.
Despite a lack of interest on the part of The Observer McCullin went to Berlin, where ‘the Americans were facing the East Germans across Friedrichstrasse and there was enormous tension. … I felt I was in the right place at the right time. I had an almost magnetic emotional sense of direction pulling me to extraordinary places’. The photos he took in Berlin gained him a contract with the Observer on fifteen guineas a week, and later won him a press award.
In 1964, he was sent by The Observer to cover the civil war in Cyprus. In addition to learning to ‘assess where the bullets were coming from’, he says that he was ‘learning about the price of humanity.’
The first day in Limassol I saw a man coming out of the side of a cinema and the scene looked just like a film still. He had on a raglan raincoat and held a Sten gun in his arms. … He wore a flat peaked cap and looked like a Sicilian bandit. Everyone who looks at that image thinks it’s a Hollywood still. He was followed by another man and then by women and children. Some of the women were running with mattresses on their heads, as if a mattress would stop a bullet, but the poor women were so afraid. … I stood there photographing. I felt guilty about just taking pictures as everyone was rushing for cover. I ran over and grabbed one of the kids coming out of the building.
I saw this whole village trying to evacuate to safety, and there was this one old woman who was lame, walking with two sticks. A British soldier was trying to coax her along, before she lost her life. I was with a friend of mine and I said ‘This is ridiculous’. I took one picture, put my camera down and scooped this old lady up. It was like scooping up a rag doll. I just ran and ran with her. I didn’t want to see that old woman shot down and killed. It made me feel good, as if I wasn’t there as just some sort of voyeur. It is a very fine line, I’ve been accused of taking these terrible pictures and people have asked if I helped people. Of course I did, but I don’t want to brag about it. I did it sometimes to clear my own conscience.
Don McCullin won the World Press Photo of the Year Award in 1964 for his picture ‘A Turkish Cypriot woman mourning the death of her husband at Ghaziveram’:
I went to this one village early in the morning and they were finding bodies of these men who’d been killed. Then they were coming back to the village and telling the women their husbands had been killed. Then you saw these Goya-esque poses of people looking up to Christ. I’ve noticed that a lot in war, that when people are in deep grief they look up, as if they can see God himself, offering them some help.
In 1962 the Sunday Times had launched the first newspaper colour magazine. It was the heyday of the paper, with the great Insight investigative team, and an unrivalled group of graphic designers and picture editors working under the editorship of Harold Evans. In 1966, Don McCullin started working for the Sunday Times Magazine for which he did his finest work. ‘The sixties’, he observes in the film, ‘were packed with opportunities if you wanted to go to war’.
At the time, there were no restrictions on journalists or photographers in war zones on what they could cover or how. McCullin took full advantage of this freedom – a freedom, as he points out in the film, which is denied to photojournalists today. He took great risks to get his pictures.
I try to stay calm, I try not to indulge myself in the picture-taking. I was trying to stay alive, but also the photography was something I felt I was meant to do. There was a lot of anxiety about hypocrisy spinning around in my mind at the time about whether it was right to be there. I sometimes thought that the people who were doing these terrible things thought I was okaying it. Which I certainly wasn’t.
McCullin went to Vietnam three times, and one of the most searing accounts in the film is of the twelve days that he spent with American marines trying to recapture Hue after it had fallen to the Vietcong during the 1967 Tet Offensive. He left, having lived and slept in the same clothes for two weeks, with ‘thirty rolls of the most powerful film I’ve ever taken in my life.’
I photographed this giant American, who looked like an athlete, but he was throwing a hand grenade. Within seconds this sniper had shot him in the hand. The picture itself almost defeats the anti-war feeling I was trying to put across, because he looks the picture of manhood, like a javelin thrower at an Olympic event – except, instead of that, he was throwing a hand grenade that was meant to bring death to others.
The one meaningful event I took a picture of in that battle, was of a man who had been hit in both legs, being supported by two friends. If ever I thought, in my atheistic mind, that I was looking at something religious, it was at this man, who looked like Jesus Christ being taken down from the cross.
‘War’, McCullin says repeatedly in the film, ‘is madness, insanity – a nightmare experience.’ He describes how the American and North Vietnamese forces were barely twenty yards apart, with grenades being thrown. ‘You’d dive for cover and discover that it was the man next to you that got it.’ He describes tanks that ran over bodies in the road, flattening them like oriental carpets.
When he left Hue on a helicopter to Da Nang, McCullin says he knew he was slightly insane: ‘I’d been surviving solely on Army C rations for a fortnight. My body was somebody else’s body. My face was somebody else’s. How I felt went way beyond madness. I threw all my clothes in a waste bin’. The picture that everybody remembers from that assignment is the one of a shell-shocked American soldier sitting in a yard where a battle was going on;
Of course, it’s the perfect cover picture. There’s an iconic look about it and you have to be careful of icons because they can border on art. I have to mindful about playing that card because I don’t want to be associated with art. I’m a photographer, a photojournalist. I don’t belong to the world of art.
Looking back, McCullin reflects that ‘these people, the Americans, were not my people. It wasn’t my war. The enemy was not my enemy. I was an observer in their uniform.’ His feelings are, perhaps, expressed most clearly in the image above, the only time in his life when he moved objects to arrange a picture:
I’ve only ever staged one picture in my life, in 1968, when I found a dead North Vietnamese soldier whose possessions had been rifled through by some American marines hunting for sovenirs. They walked away making derogatory remarks about this man, calling him a dead gook and so on. He could only have been 18 or 19. I hated them and yet I was part of them, I was sharing their food, their uniform, their daily lives.
I decided this wasn’t right. This man had sacrificed his life. He was an innocent young man fighting for national reunification. He had a bullet through his teeth and his brains were shot out of the back of his head. He deserved a voice. He couldn’t speak, so I was going to do it for him. I shovelled his possessions together – his pictures of his family, his pathetic little medical kit and his bag of bullets – and photographed them at the foot of his dead body. That’s the only contrived picture I’ve taken in a war. I know it was staged, but I did it as a statement.
McCullin still seems tormented by the contradictions in his life’s work, and talks in the film about feeling like a hypocrite, debating where the line is drawn between doing a job and exploiting someone else’s misery.
I feel guilty that I’ve made a success out of my photographic life. Those pictures were of suffering, dying children. I cannot indulge myself by saying I was proud. I wasn’t. I was ashamed, if you want to know the truth.
There is one image, taken in Biafra in 1969, which still evokes this sense of shame in McCullin: ‘I think it’s one of the worst pictures I’ve ever taken.’
In Biafra, as the war turned into a terrible famine, he says he ‘saw scenes you can’t imagine’. He recalls walking into an orphanage and finding 800 children standing on their dying legs. What he saw was one of the most shocking things he had ever seen: ‘It was very diffficult for me. In such a place people are thinking you’re bringing them something. In fact you’re bringing nothing but a Nikon with some 35mm film in it.’
I saw this one albino boy, who haunts me to this day, he was barely managing to stand on his spindly legs. He was clutching a corned beef tin, licked dry and I thought ‘I can’t bear to look at him’, so I walked away and talked to a doctor. Suddenly something touched my hand and I looked down and it was the albino boy, he was holding my hand. And I thought ‘Why are you doing this to me’ – he was making me feel so ashamed. So I gave him this barley sugar from my pocket, and he went away and licked it. This was worse than any inferno of insanity. I almost became paralysed, I was so shocked.
Instead of becoming hardened and cynical during his exposure to war, McCullin continued to feel deeply and reflect on the human condition. ‘Even my dark room is a haunted place,’ he says. ‘I don’t just take photographs, I think.’ In McCullin, again and again he returns to the question of his conscience:
Not a day goes by when I don’t think about my moral obligations. In the beginning, I thought it was exciting. But then, when I started seeing the children dying in the Biafran war, I saw that I’d got it all wrong. It made me see things in another way. There’s nothing I don’t know about war. The stench of it. But I say that without any pride. War is a terrible thing. My hope is that you’ll get that through looking at one of my pictures.
But as the photographer tells the stories behind the now iconic images, a reoccurring theme emerges—that, for McCullin, the work wasn’t simply about the photographs, but ‘about humanity’. He mentions in passing that in danger zones he sometimes intervened to help victims whenever he could: part of the film’s recurring focus on the ethics of photojournalism in conflict situations. But he is also honest about his addiction to war photography: ‘It gives you excitement, a tingle, a buzz. And fear, too.’ He admits he would ‘chase wars like a drunk chasing a can of lager’.
There’s no question about it, that one does become a junkie … I was excited about just looking for the next war… and it becomes obsessive. And also, it’s not very nice in a way, if you think, that’s all your mind can run to, is other people’s demise; it wasn’t right somehow.
His photos are marked not only by the decisive drama of the moment, but by a deep humanism and sense of human suffering. ‘He had a very sensitive feel for other people’s suffering,’ Harold Evans says in the film. This sensitivity gave him the impetus to feel: ‘I can make people wake up to what’s really going on here.’ McCullin simply says: ‘You have to bear witness.
In 1976, McCullin went to Beirut to cover the civil war in Lebanon. The horrors he witnessed there were unimaginable. In the film he retells the terrible story behind two photographs that stopped me in my tracks during the exhibition of McCullin’s work at the Imperial War Museum North in 2010. McCullin was shadowing a Christian Phalangist squad searching for Palestinian men in order to execute them.
People appeared, surrendering, crying and screaming. I saw a man shoot a woman in the stomach close up in cold blood. Inside a house I saw two Palestinian men standing with their hands raised in surrender in the corner of a stairwell. Coming down the stairs was a group of Palestinian women and children looking at the two in the corner who were part of their family. The moment the women came out of the building, some Phalange came in and shot these men at point-blank range. I was so shocked I ran round to another stairwell. I was shaking and broken emotionally, but I knew I had to get a grip. This was going to be a bad day.
We see a stairwell. In the first image, Palestinian women are fleeing down the stairs, whilst below the steps we can just see the men, huddled and awaiting their fate. In the second image, the stairwell is deserted except for the bodies of the dead men at the foot of the stairs.
I often think about the wicked people who could act so brutally. They’re cowards. To allow themselves to have the courage to kill somebody, they have to abuse them first in order to dislike them. When they hear people call out for mercy, it feeds the hatred even more. They hate them for begging for their lives.
That same day, McCullin heard someone shout, ‘Mister! Take this photo!’ He found a group celebrating over the body of a dead Palestinian girl:
Everywhere I went I could see another person being murdered. Eventually I got this shot of the man playing a lute over the dead Palestinian girl’s body. They were celebrating over the body of a dead Palestinian girl lying in the winter rain. She was on her back, dead. She could have been sleeping but she was on the road in all this filth. They were laughing. They were so angry about this photograph, that they said if they ever caught the man who took the photograph they’d kill him. In a way it was almost an honour that they wanted to kill me for taking that picture.
Over and above photography, the very best qualifications you can have when you’re in this situation and you’re exercising this duty as a photographer or… reporter, is that it’s much better to be on the side of humanity.
McCullin is explicit about the changing climate for photojournalism since the late 1980s which has resulted in the almost complete disappearance of such work from newspapers and colour magazines. After Rupert Murdoch took over The Sunday Times, McCullin recalls a sense that the images of war were no longer a fit for the colour pages of a magazine that was ‘trying to sell you cars and luxury’. He compares Murdoch’s strictly business pursuit of profit with the ‘hands off’ approach of the previous owner, Lord Thompson, who took pride in the fact that he did not want commercial considerations to censor his editors’ from printing what they judged to be the truth. The pursuit of advertising revenue became paramount, companies did not want to see disturbing images presented alongside their adverts and the Sunday Times magazine became obsessed with fashion, status and celebrity. Harold Evans was an early casualty and by 1982, McCullin, too, was out.
Since his departure from the Sunday Times, McCullin has occasionally returned to photojournalism with trips to Africa, Iraq, and, most recently Syria. But most of his work is now dedicated to landscape photography – around his Somerset home, but also, in his most recent collection, the southern and far eastern fringes of the Roman Empire. Although he shot his recent pictures in Aleppo for the Times on a digital camera, most of his life’s work has been on film.
As he points out in McCullin, not all his work has been in war zones. He has shot assignments in Mississippi, in northern England, and among the homeless of the East End:
One of the best portraits I ever did was of this homeless man in Spitalfields Market; he was lying by the embers of an all night fire that homeless men used to congregate around. He just looked up and stared straight at me, full face. I held his stare and carefully bought my Nikon camera up to my eye and he never moved an eyelid. His hair was matted and he had the bluest eyes you’ve ever seen. I felt as if I was looking at one of these Neptune images of a man under the sea. I was so pleased with this picture. They’re all young now (the homeless people), not old like the this.
McCullin is still haunted by the terrible things he saw decades ago:
The sad thing is, about those days, is that they come back, on a regular basis, as fresh as they were that day, to haunt me. I’m nearly 75. I still have some energy left. I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to eradicate the things we’ve been talking about – I’m going to photograph the landscape – the English landscape is my form of heaven. When I hear a chainsaw I think a tree is dying, when I hear a gunshot I think a pheasant has died. When I hear gunfire it immediately switches on another party of my brain. As much as you try and run away from it, there’s always a reminder of what you used to do.
For me, McCullin’s finest image of recent years (not featured in the film) is this bleak but eloquent empty landscape. On the former battlefield of the Somme, under a brooding sky, the eye is led by a curving road towards light on a distant horizon.
- Don McCullin: Darkness Visible
- Don McCullin: the art of seeing (Guardian)
- Don McCullin on the key images discussed in the McCullin documentary: Guardian video
- Interview with Don McCullin by John Tusa: BBC Radio 3