There is a great ambivalence within Don McCullin. On the one hand, his attraction to war; on the other, his guilt at what he believes is a career built at times on other people’s suffering. Let’s begin with the attraction. McCullin is 80 years old and when we met recently in New York, he had just returned from a trip to the Kurdish region of Iraq. Entering his ninth decade and having survived a stroke and come through quadruple bypass surgery, he is still following the siren call of battle, albeit at a slower pace. To sustain a career on the front line of conflicts for more than 50 years is remarkable. Wars are fought by the young and those who photograph it are, with very few exceptions, young too.
So where does this drive come from? “I love world affairs” McCullin told me, “and I don’t want to learn about it from the bullshit of an artful politician.” So bearing personal witness is important to him. Then there is his deep love of photography. “It’s a passion I cannot describe,” he disclosed.
For McCullin, these two motivating factors intersect in a war zone. There, lying in wait is the seductive exhilaration that comes from taking risks, often extreme, in search of a scoop laced with danger. A double shot of adrenalin as it were. A relentless drive to photograph conflict has seen him work in every major 20th-century war zone, the Falklands apart, since the Cyprus conflict of 1964. The addictive tug of war is perfectly captured in how a younger McCullin saw himself. “I used to be a war-a-year man, but now that is not enough. I need two a year now. When it gets to three or four, I’ll start to be worried.” To me he confided, “I treat my life as though I am on a tightrope.”
However, there is another element that has sustained McCullin’s longevity as a photographer and it is linked paradoxically to his guilt. I refer to his consummate, enduring skill for which he has been given numerous awards and honorary doctorates. But McCullin does not wear his laurels comfortably. “I feel I have won them at the expense of other people’s suffering, loss and pain” he revealed.
On receiving his CBE at Buckingham Palace, he remembers feeling like a fraud. It is a theme that he returns to time and again during the interview, circling back to berate his accomplishments. “Why should I make a name for myself at the expense of other people’s loss?” he challenges himself. He likens his work to stealing from the dead. His autobiography is entitled Unreasonable Behaviour.
By way of an example, McCullin tells me of an episode in the Biafran conflict that changed how he viewed himself and war in general. Starvation was widespread and being used as a weapon of war. More than three million people would die as a result. He recalls arriving at a school to photograph some children and finding them crawling around emaciated and fly-infested. One particular image stays with him, that of an albino boy holding an empty sardine tin, his stick-thin limbs and torso magnifying the size of his head. McCullin calls it “the greatest Lucifer shot that is still in my makeup.” To this day, the memory remains so upsetting he can no longer print the photograph in his darkroom.
McCullin’s powerlessness at that moment left him deeply unsettled and made him question his motives. As he explained it to me, the arrival of a white man at a school in Biafra at that time offered the promise of aid, a glimmer of hope. “But what did the children get from me?” he asks. “Not something to eat. A man with two Nikon cameras. How shameful.”
In my interviews with front-line journalists over the years, I have become aware of their concerns at being seen as voyeurs, intruding into the grief of others. For some this led to guilt, but not at the intensity displayed by McCullin. The language he uses to censure himself is harsh. Words like “charlatan” and “assassin” pepper his self-reproach.
I found this contrition perplexing, coming as it does from someone so successful and admired. I asked him to explain it and at first he could not. But in searching for an answer he told me about his childhood, growing up in Finsbury Park, London. It is a moving story, of how a boy born into poverty, struggling with dyslexia, exposed to cruelty, bigotry and the pain of loss at an early age, managed to extricate himself from this quagmire though his resilience and innate gifts as a photographer.
“I am an escapee from Devil’s Island,” McCullin informed me. But he is also aware that the stain of his childhood has dogged his steps and left a mark on his personality. Decades on he still speaks of “a cumulative weight” that hangs on him and “trying to get rid of the indelible shit of my childhood.”
It is a short hop from a childhood remembered like this to an adult life encumbered by self-doubt. Notwithstanding McCullin’s stature, at times the baggage left over from those hard early years in Finsbury Park gnaws at his self-esteem. By tracing the arc of his career backward, his contradictions and ambivalence become easier to understand.
McCullin believes his hard childhood, and being able to surmount it, made him the right man for the job. He regards himself as “being born to do what I did” and able “to handle all the psychological stuff.” It may also help explain why, despite his openly expressed guilt, he continues returning to war.
At one level, it is simply switching from one zone of conflict to another. There is however another reason that should be considered. And here we return to a theme mentioned earlier – for, upbringing apart, there remains the intoxicating allure of war itself.
Chris Hedges, in his book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, address this topic at length. Hedges was for a period a front-line correspondent and writes openly about his attraction to war, which he likens to an addiction. He does not shy away from describing the down side to this attraction: his erratic, aggressive and unpredictable behaviour: a facial twitch; sleep bedevilled by nightmares.
“War’s sickness had become mine,” he confessed. And yet, he too returned repeatedly to the fray no doubt in tune with the sentiment expressed by an unknown source: “Call war damnable – there is nothing too bad that can be said about it – and yet, it has a knack, which peace never learned, of uncovering the splendour in commonplace persons.”
Hedges’s point is that this attraction is not unique to front-line journalists. It permeates society at large and is one of the reasons why McCullin has such a large following. He has earned it the hard way, having been arrested and beaten by Idi Amin’s goons, gassed and struck by a rubber bullet in Northern Ireland, wounded by a shell in Cambodia (where in a separate incident, his camera was hit by an AK47 bullet), fallen from a rooftop in El Salvador sustaining multiple fractures, assaulted on the streets of Beirut, and detained by Mad Mike Hoare’s mercenaries in the Congo.
In one of his most disturbing moments, which occurred in the Vietnam War during the battle of Hue, he recalls running and jumping through a hole in the wall into a dugout, landing on something squishy and immediately becoming aware of an overpowering stench. Looking down, he saw he was sitting on the fly buttons of a dead Vietnamese soldier. “The ultimate place of darkness and horror” is how he remembers it.
All McCullin’s experiences, and there are many others too numerous to mention, have merged with the intense emotions that accompany them before passing through the filter of his rare talent to emerge in his photographs. War is ineffable. But McCullin has immersed himself in the vortex and his war photography brings viewers as close as a stills photograph can to the battlefield. Therein lies their powerful attraction.
McCullin, in yet another contradiction, resents being labelled a war photographer. He points out that the range of his subjects extends beyond the battlefield. Indeed, he currently derives his greatest pleasure from photographing a winter landscape around his home in Somerset. His protestations, however, are sure to fall on deaf ears for the very same reasons that have driven him back repeatedly to humanity’s darkest recesses. The damnable attraction of war simply trumps everything else.
This can also account for the extraordinary popularity of one of his iconic photographs, the shell-shocked U.S. Marine taken during the Tet offensive in Hue, Vietnam. Yet rather than take pride in this remarkable image, McCullin bemoans what he sees as the photograph’s unfortunate fate. “I have come to hate it,” he complained. “It is too famous, too symbolic. It has become a piece of artwork. People want to buy it.” These objections will again be ignored. Such is the power of war, destroyer of men. Coriolanus knew this. McCullin surely does too. In Hue, he captured that moment on film and the viewer simply cannot look away.
Despite his withering self-criticism, McCullin is able to take pride in his self-made journey from an impoverished childhood to the pinnacle of a demanding profession. And as much as he eschews honours, he does not dismiss the praise of another of photojournalism’s great talents, Henri Cartier-Bresson who referred to him as Goya with a camera.
The comparison is apt for a number of reasons. The most obvious are the similarities between McCullin’s war photography and Goya’s series of 83 etchings, The Disasters of War, depicting Napoleon’s suppression and occupation of Spain in the Peninsular Wars. Both Goya and McCullin lay bare the horrors of warfare, softened neither by heroic sacrifice nor nobility of suffering.
Two hundred years might separate the painter and photographer, but the behaviours they depict in unflinching detail have much in common. As such the captions that Goya gives each of his etchings may be applied fittingly to McCullin’s photographs as well. “This I saw.” “And this too.” ”This is too much!” “Bury them and be silent.” ”One cannot look at this.” “Was it for this that you were born?”
McCullin and Goya are similar in another way too. Goya completed his The Disasters of War when he was in his 60s, his Black Paintings in his 70s and he experimented with new techniques and materials in his 80s. McCullin travelled to Syria to photograph in the charnel house of Aleppo when he was 77 and in his 80th year visited northern Iraq. Both men have therefore defied age to keep their creativity well into late life.
I came away from my interview with McCullin struck by a number of things. He gives the impression of carrying a great burden, his memory a filing cabinet of innumerable traumas. Sleeping with Ghosts, the title of one of his books hints at what his dreams, and by extension his inner world, are like.
But in keeping with the paradox, he retains a sharp sense of humour, even if hidden behind that lugubrious exterior. And the singular thing is this: In spite of his relentless talk of life’s darker side and his own guilt at living off it, he retains a vibrancy that belies his age and the bleakness of his thoughts. All of which suggests to me that he is not done yet, that Don McCullin may not have seen his last war.
About Don McCullin
Don McCullin was born in 1935 in northern London. After serving as an aerial photographer for the RAF during his national service, from 1964 to 1984 he covered battlefields in Cyprus, the Congo, Biafra, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh, El Salvador, and the Middle East, becoming one of history’s great war photographers.
He is the author of more than a dozen books, including his acclaimed autobiography, Unreasonable Behaviour (1990), and 2001’s retrospective Don McCullin (both by Jonathan Cape). Irreconcilable Truths, a three-volume boxed set that is the definitive retrospective of the life and work of Don McCullin is due for release shortly.
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