‘I grew up angry,’ says Sir Don McCullin, as a new retrospective of his work – including some of his earliest photographs – goes on show at Tate Britain. He was born in Finsbury Park, north London, in 1935, and spent his childhood sleeping in the same room as his brothers, his mother and his chronically ill father. ‘The way I grew up shaped my life, because I can understand poverty,’ he explains.
His father died when he was 14, forcing McCullin to drop out of school and bring money in for the family. ‘I was angry about that,’ he says today. He spent his teenage life out on the streets of north London, still in partial ruin after the Second World War Blitz, and peopled by homelessness. He got his first camera – a Rolleicord – while on national service with the RAF in North Africa. ‘I was bound to be angry,’ he notes when recalling the poverty, misery and pain he saw through the viewfinder of that camera. ‘It would be wrong if I wasn’t angry.’
McCullin is now 83, and has been photographing consistently for more than 60 years. His new exhibition features over 250 of his photographs over the span of his long career, each of which has been hand-printed by the photojournalist in his darkroom at his home in Somerset. The exhibition is entirely in monochrome. McCullin actively seeks out dark images, and will process them as such. ‘I see darkness as my voice,’ he adds. ‘I sometimes almost believe myself that I am speaking for the victims and the casualties of war.’
Yet McCullin hates being categorised as just a war photographer – ‘a reductive term’ he says, when we speak on the phone. The exhibition reflects the many hours McCullin spent as a young man photographing the streets of London. Indeed, his first break with Fleet Street came when a newspaper published a photo of a local gang of street urchins known as the Guvnors, ordered together in a bombed-out house. They had grown boys notorious after the murder of a policeman, but McCullin would routinely knock about with them, and easily got insider access.
‘I started out in photography accidentally,’ he notes in the exhibition. ‘A policeman came to a stop at the end of my street and a guy knifed him. That’s how I became a photographer. I photographed the gangs I went to school with. I didn’t choose photography, it seemed to choose me, but I’ve been loyal by risking my life for 50 years.’
The exhibition is notable for the number of photographs taken in parts of London that now teem with restaurants and cafés and shops and new-build complexes: Shoreditch’s Old Spitalfields Market, Liverpool Street and Commercial Road, for example. When framing the many destitute people he captured in those early years, he remembers: ‘I would make myself unimportant in the presence of such people, to let my eyes meet their eyes, so I could become drawn into their vision.’
The exhibition includes a series of photos McCullin took of the Berlin Wall as it was first being built in 1961. McCullin was 26, and, in his own words, ‘a rank amateur’. The American and Soviet militaries were eyeball to eyeball in the centre of Berlin. ‘I was sat on the hottest story in the world.’
McCullin was straight off the flight from London with roughly £20 in his pocket. He had no knowledge of international affairs, nor had he experience of the aesthetic rigour needed to shoot a story of such calibre and significance. He simply persevered, shooting again and again from as many angles as he could find. The tension and division of the scene (and the Berliners attempts to carry on with their lives as usual) is still bitingly evident in his photographs, even in the serene calm of the Tate Britain.
The Berlin images launched his career in the heyday of the newspaper era. For the next few decades, the photographs of McCullin (and a few of his contemporaries) were often the only thing connecting the British people to the brutal realities of war in faraway places. Some of his images have since become iconic, like the Northern Irish youth in the black suit brandishing a bit of plywood against the occupying British army. Or, of course, the shell-shocked American GI in Hue, Vietnam – ‘he didn’t blink once.’
But there are other pictures in display that have never entered the public consciousness, and, indeed, were not noticed by McCullin until he revisited his contact sheets for this exhibition. One shows a senior Biafran soldier bent over the corpse of a dead comrade. ‘I saw the commander talking to one of the dead soldiers as if he were still alive,’ McCullin says. ‘He was praising the man’s courage and thanking him on behalf of the Biafran nation. It was moving and alarming at the same time.’
Some of the adjoining images, of starving women hopelessly trying to breastfeed their babies, are almost impossible to look at without feeling a deep sense of despair. McCullin says of the Biafra civil war and famine of 1968: ‘It was beyond war, it was beyond journalism, it was beyond photography, but not beyond politicians. We cannot – must not – be allowed to forget the appalling things we are all capable of doing to our fellow human beings.’
‘I didn’t choose photography, it seemed to choose me, but I’ve been loyal by risking my life for 50 years.’
The Tate exhibition underpins what a brilliant war photographer McCullin undoubtably is. For he has an ability, amid the violence and the chaos and the endless churn of tragedy, to create imagery that seems elevated by a higher message. ‘I make it possible for you to look at them and try to come to terms with them,’ says McCullin.
Forcing himself to so consistently bear witness in such a way has wrought a great toll. ‘I wasn’t a great family man,’ he reflects. ‘My children were always waving goodbye to me. Would my children look at me and think “Is he not going to come back?” I can’t claim to have been a great father. I sacrificed their childhood for my photography.‘
McCullin has lived in Somerset with his third wife for 35 years. It’s only now, in his eighties, that he has found a degree of peace, and been able to experience his children’s lives, and married life, without the turmoil of knowing he would soon have to return to the frontline.
The exhibition ends with the very beautiful photographs McCullin routinely takes of the bucolic landscapes around his adopted home. ‘The landscapes became a process of healing,’ he explains. ‘It was a way to forget about wars and revolutions and dying children.’
He recalls the experience of re-entering the darkroom for this exhibition, where he developed new prints from the original negatives that pile up in the spare rooms of the house. ‘They actually talk to you,’ he says. ‘They remind you. I take those memories to bed with me, have terrible dreams and wake up in a sweat. They have contaminated that house.
When the photographer Giles Duley was 18 years old, he was given two presents by his godfather: a camera and a copy of Unreasonable Behaviour, Don McCullin’s autobiography about his life as a photojournalist in Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Biafra, Lebanon and London’s East End. The book was illustrated with McCullin’s acclaimed black-and-white photographs, images of war and human suffering that helped define the conflicts they described. It was a book that bowled Duley over. Today, the two men sit opposite each other in McCullin’s quiet cottage on the Somerset levels – as far removed from the horrors of war as can be imagined. The excuse for their meeting and for our conversation is a major retrospective of McCullin’s work at Tate Britain, opening next week. Not that any excuse is required because, as they reveal, they are friends already.
At 83, McCullin’s hale appearance and eloquence, after 60 years of taking pictures in war zones and elsewhere, cannot help but seem a death-defying fluke. He brushes aside any mention of the injuries he sustained falling off a roof in Cambodia (he broke several ribs and shattered his arm) and does not dwell on his hellish struggles in the city of Hue in Vietnam, which left him (as he reported in Jacqui and David Morris’s 2013 documentary McCullin) like a “tormented animal”. His restraint may partly be that he is a stoic but it is also, presumably, because of Duley’s presence. For Duley, as McCullin puts it, has “paid the price”.
On 7 February, 2011, while involved in a photographic project studying the impact of war on soldiers in Afghanistan, Duley was “embedded” with the 1st Squadron of the 75th Cavalry Regiment of the US army and blown up by a landmine. He became a triple amputee. Most soldiers with similar injuries do not survive. But one of the many astonishing things about Duley (who is at pains to point out that his subject is not war itself but its aftermath) was that his first thought when he realised he had retained his right arm was: “I can still work as a photographer.”
Our focus today is on the Tate’s McCullin retrospective, which begins in 1959 with The Guv’nors, the first McCullin photograph published in the Observer – of a north London gang (McCullin was born in rough Finsbury Park) theatrically posed, looking out from the timbers of a burned-out building, each occupying his own space, as if about to burst into song. It was the Observer that gave McCullin his start, though it was the Sunday Times that made his name. The show includes his most famous pictures – such as the albino boy in Biafra, clutching the corner of a corned beef tin. But it features less familiar photos too. In a BBC4 documentary to be aired on 4 February, Looking for England, McCullin says that whenever he is away, the longing for home exerts the strongest hold. His pictures of the Somerset levels are seen through a glass darkly: pewter, silver and black – anything but bucolic, potential battlefields. In McCullin’s work, darkness is always visible.
Listening to the two men talk, affinities and differences emerge. Both have courage, empathetic vision and resist being described as heroic. But while Duley stays positive, McCullin, who once described war as “madness… insanity… schizophrenia”, is restlessly self-questioning – and although he is a gent with a wicked sense of humour, he can tilt into gloom, not about to let himself off any moral hook. Their conversation veers from growing up (both were dyslexic children) to dilemmas about what it means to photograph suffering, and each has a stab at addressing the toughest question of all: what can a photograph change? KK
Kate Kellaway: My first question, in the spirit of setting off, is what do you both take when you go into the field? What are the practical things that you need? Don McCullin The right attitude really. You have to know why you’re going; are you committed to taking the risk? Particularly when one had a family, children, as I did. And then a lot of premeditation: “Will I be able to do this? Will I be able to do that?”
Giles Duley I always take Tabasco with me, because of the amount of terrible food I’ve had. And I always have a doorstop. In a lot of the places I work now, kidnapping’s become a big thing. So I always shove that in the door, then at least if somebody tries to kick it in, there’s a wedge on it. It’s funny how you have these little things from habit.
DMcC I used to take a crepe bandage in case I busted an ankle or something. And Ready Brek because I was always afraid of winding up with nothing to eat in the morning. There are all those niggling things.
Giles, you have spoken before about how reading Don’s memoir Unreasonable Behaviour as an 18 year old inspired you. Why was that? GD It’s interesting, because there was adventure and excitement, but what stayed with me were the photographs. There’s an image of a child soldier pointing a gun at other child soldiers [in Congo, 1964]. They are about 12 years old, fully kitted up with M16s and helmets. Growing up, I had actually wanted to be in the army, thinking it was glamorous, thinking war was exciting. And seeing images like that brought home what war was: an ugly, brutal thing. Every photograph I’d ever seen of war before that was about chaos, was about tanks, was about planes, explosions, people firing guns. But what stuck with me in Don’s pictures was the contact with people’s eyes. I think a lot of war photography, whether it’s accidental or deliberate, does glamorise war, but Don’s never has.
DMcC When you experience a calamitous day and see bullets flying over and shells coming and you survive that day, there’s no doubt, the adrenaline’s at full blast. But then this goes on for war after war until you come to the conclusion that you’ve been kidding yourself, thinking that war is exciting, and you forget that people are suffering and dying around you.
GD It’s interesting, hearing you say that. Obviously I was inspired by you when I was young, but I think what I do now, almost [follows on from] what you learned, what you hated about war. I set out not to document the war element but the consequences of war and what happens to civilians. So maybe I start from the point of understanding that you had reached. I learned from that and carried on. In my work, it’s always about that connection with the person’s eyes, or somebody holding hands, those little moments of intimacy, little gestures. That’s my continuation of Don’s work.
It seems like a simple question but is actually a very complicated one: what makes a good photograph?
DMcC A photograph should shout at you and tell you something’s wrong, that you’re not living in the right kind of world, something that words can’t explain to you. When I walked into a schoolhouse in 1969 in Biafra and saw 600 dying children, some of them collapsing and dying in front of me, I just cannot tell you what it was like, knowing I had my own children living in Hampstead at the time. When a picture like that is so bad, it’s easy to press the button, but it’s not easy to live with it. Morally, I’ve always had a terribly uncomfortable conscience about it. Trying to justify my work, in any statement, in any form or shape, is most difficult for me.
GD For me – and I’m sure it’s the same for Don – when you actually take a photograph, it’s not just etched on the camera, it’s etched in your mind. I can remember every photograph I’ve taken. And actually the photographs that really haunt me are the ones that nobody sees, the ones that for whatever reason don’t make the edit, don’t get published. Then you feel like you’ve let those people down, because they’ve entrusted you to take their photograph and it ends up in a folder somewhere.
But I think what I’m getting at here is are good photos found? Or made? Does the eye find the image? DMcC It’s about the emotional – we’re not just photographers, we gather emotionally. A camera doesn’t mean a toss to me. I just put it in front of me and transfer the image through that piece of glass and that film. But I’m using my emotion more than I’m using that piece of equipment. And at the same time there’s a thousand thoughts going through my brain saying: “Is it right do this?” I’ve seen men executed and I haven’t photographed it and I thought my God, if my editor knew that I hadn’t pressed this button he’d give me the boot. But it’s my moral duty not to take that picture because the man who’s about to be killed hasn’t given me his permission.
GD Unlike Don, I’ve always been on the edge of conflict, [concerned with] the consequences of it. But definitely, there are times when you choose not to take a photograph. There’s always a moment when you connect with somebody’s eye or something happens and when somebody doesn’t want you to, it’s quite clear.
DMcC When a man is standing in front of you about to die, you can’t help him. He’s crying and he’s looking at you. He’s looking up to where he thinks God is and he’s scrambling around like mad to this last chance to keep alive and you’re standing there, you can’t help him. You are ashamed of humanity.
So has doing the work changed your view of humanity over time? DMcC Absolutely. Absolutely. That’s why I live here. There’s hardly anyone around here. I don’t have to communicate with people. I need to get away. I need to hide. I need a sanctuary, and this [his home in Somerset] is it.
You have said, Don, that you feel in some way that you’ve failed to do what you would like to have done through photography, but you can’t surely have thought that photography would put an end to war or human misery? DMcC A lot of people wouldn’t understand what one means by “fail”. All I’m saying is that when one war’s cleared up, the next war is waiting in the wings and they seem to have got worse over the years. When I first started, there weren’t crazed 14-year-old boys in west Africa with machetes, lopping off the arms of people and babies and children. You thought it couldn’t get any worse than that and then along came Isis, setting fire to that Jordanian pilot in that cage. And if you think about the two most important pictures that came out of Vietnam, one was the girl running down the road, which was taken by Nick Ut (although everyone thinks I took that picture… I don’t know why) in 1972. The other picture was Eddie Adams’s 1968 picture of the police chief shooting the man in the head. It took several years after them for the war to end. So that’s what I’m getting at. Do we change anything? The pictures didn’t stop the war, did they?
GD People ask: can you change the world with your photograph and I would say, no, but maybe we can inspire the people who do. A couple of years ago, I got a letter from a man in Australia who had just got into medical school. He really struggled growing up, at home and at school, but he had a picture of mine on his wall, one I took in Afghanistan. “That’s what made me want to be a doctor,” he said. Every day, he would look at that photograph to remind himself. Honestly for me, if that’s the only impact my work’s had then it’s great. And Don says his work hasn’t changed anything, well it changed my life. It made me do what I do.
DMcC If I can just go back to Giles: if I had suffered what Giles has been through, I wouldn’t feel the way I do. He is justified in pressing that button more than me because he’s actually paid this appalling price. He knows the price of pain. If I’d been through what he’s been through then I wouldn’t have this guilt about pressing the button [while knowing] I can walk away, get on an aeroplane and go back to safety.
GD I always have that trump card! I was walking around Mosul in a hospital a couple of years ago and people had lost their legs. I was joking: “Well it’s only one leg, what are you fussing about?” I’m one of the few people who get away with that. But I remember before I got injured, photographing a boy in South Sudan who’d been shot in the stomach and kidneys and I was just alone in a little mud hut with him, because the doctors had left. I pointed my camera and took a photograph and almost vomited afterwards because I felt so sick at what I’d just done. You think you’re there for the right reasons because it’s important that the story is told. But pointing a camera at a dying person, if you did that in London in the street, people would think you’re the most vile person in the world. So why is OK to do it because we’re abroad? It’s not a human thing to do.
DMcC I think really where we pay the price, or me personally, is at night time. When I go to bed, if I allow the trigger to switch on, it all relives itself with such clarity. A lot of people say: “Oh, the picture you did of the albino boy starving” [must have been the worst moment], but it wasn’t the worst experience I ever had. I never even took a picture of the worst experience I had. I found a man once in Salvador, when the rebels had captured this small town, who’d lost the whole of the lower part of his face from his nostrils, all the jaw had gone, the whole lot. He’d been hit in the face with a couple of bullets and ripped all the rest of his face.
Giles, can I ask you an amazingly dangerous question? Well, it’s more personal than dangerous. But I can’t understand to this day why you got injured when you were in the hands of the American army – what do they call it? Embedded? GD Yes, embedded [attached to a military unit involved in armed conflict]. It’s interesting. You’re under fire and you have to go where you’re told. In South Sudan, and Congo, I was used to always being on my own. When you’re with a group of soldiers like that you actually lose some of your gut instincts and the way you normally work. I certainly wouldn’t blame them, but it’s interesting that the time I got injured was when I was not fully in control of what I was doing.
DMcC They were responsible for [your] injuries, in my opinion, not you.
GD But then in a lot of places that you have been, say, Vietnam, you might have been with American troops but you wouldn’t hold them responsible for your safety?
DMcC No. But in those days, you weren’t embedded. You got the rank of major, jumped on a helicopter and went where you wanted. They didn’t care if you got killed. I have to say, my son was in Afghanistan with the Marines, only for six months, but all the time he was there I was thinking of you and I thought, it’s such a selfish thing for me to say, I didn’t want him to come back horrendously injured the way you did. He came back and, he was fine, he’s happy. I was making out it didn’t worry me, but I was worried to death.
You were thinking like a father. Giles has paid a huge price, but also, you have to reflect on the part that luck plays… GD Well of course. I see myself as the luckiest man in the world. Only 20 people in this country have even survived being blown up and losing three limbs. Eighteen months later I was back in Afghanistan working. I’ve travelled to 14 countries in the last year on my own. I have everything I ever wanted in my life, plus a lot more experience, a lot more understanding of life and death, my empathy, my connection with people.
It’s clear from your autobiography, Don, that war photography is not a great career choice in terms of your private life? DMcC It can ruin you. That is what happened with my first marriage, although my children have come back to me in a very generous way and forgiven me. We’re a very close family but photography – it’s not all good.
GD No. And even if you are forgetting the dangers, it is just the amount you’re away. Something else might be planned and then you just go off… It is selfish. I mean there is no way around that.
DMcC It is a dangerous mistress, and it’s one of those love affairs that never ends, you know. It just never ends. You’re totally captive to photography once it gets a grip of you.
GD I don’t know if I’ve ever told you the story of when I flew back to Birmingham from Afghanistan, three days after I was injured. They wheeled me off the plane doped up on morphine and my sister said: “He’s trying to say something.” They took the oxygen mask off and she thought these were going to be my last words (they had said I wouldn’t make it through the night). My poor sister bent over and was expecting me to say” “I love you” or” “I’m sorry.” I whispered to her: “I’m still a photographer.”
You both do wonderful work in black and white – it’s almost a hallmark for you, Don. What does black and white have that colour lacks? DMcC I’ve done a few colour pictures, but I think in a way it starts kind of glamming it up a bit. You see colour, you think of Hollywood. But black and white is not truthful, is it? I mean, we don’t live in a black-and-white world. We use black and white as a weapon because it will shout and scream at you. You won’t miss the black and white, but you could walk past a colour picture.
GD For me, there is no truth in photography. It’s all our interpretation. If you stick me in a room and I look in one direction and take a picture, it’s different from what’s behind me. So in a way, black and white is saying it’s not true. It’s saying, this is an artistic statement of it. When I see a lot of colour photographs of conflicts…
DMcC … especially on digital…
GD Yes. It’s saying: “This is exactly the reality.” But it’s not. A photograph is still a fake thing. It’s one second I’ve taken out of the whole day; my version of reality. Black and white for me is honest, it’s saying, this is obviously not reality.
The pictures I find most powerful are a bit like hauntings. They hang around. DMcC They should. That’s what we try to bring. If I can haunt people with my pictures I have done my job.
Both of you had dyslexia as boys and I wonder whether your brilliance at photography was a way of finding a different, powerful way of communicating? DMcC I suffered for being dyslexic. The schoolmasters used to knock seven bells out of me because they thought I was skiving. I took some terrible hidings from sadistic, Victorian schoolmasters who were the last of that legacy.
GD When I was 13, I was held back a year at school. When you’re that age, to be told you’re stupid and have everyone make fun of you leaves a huge imprint. So when at 18 I discovered photography, found all these photographers’ work, it was like discovering poetry or literature.
DMcC That’s what makes us so different, Giles. You had this amazing kickstart into culture. At the age of 15, I was working on a steam train going up to the north of England, washing up in the dining car. I was living out a raw life. I was watching nude shows! I used to sleep in the sheds in the railway sidings outside of Liverpool – Edge Hill – and I met this boy there who took me to this shabby old theatre in Liverpool. The women were naked – only from the waist up in those days – and they were not allowed to move. It was all done in a tasteful tableau.
Looking to the future of photography now, we are a culture saturated in images: are mobile phones and Instagram a menace? DMcC Not a menace at all. Take the white helmets who risked their lives in Syria: phones were the only means of us getting information out. Photojournalism has had its day, though. When did you last see a really serious great set of pictures? Newspapers, even great newspapers, they’re almost running tabloid-type material of film stars and footballers and crap like that.
GD Photojournalism has died because the outlets are just not there, but photography has evolved into something else. Citizen journalism is great. It’s great that anyone can take a picture. “Image fatigue” is a phrase that gets used a lot, but I don’t think it’s true that people cannot still feel the impact of an image. You put me into a school, which I love, and I show one photograph and tell the story and you’ll see these 15-year-old kids in tears. It’s not that people have lost the ability to take imagery in, it’s that they see so much and out of context. But if you [look at] it in the right space, let people have that time, then a black-and-white photograph, with those eyes, somebody looking at you, it has the same impact it has always had.
What about the work you do when you’re not photographing terrible things abroad? I’m thinking of your cooking Instagram pictures, Giles, and your pictures of the Somerset fields around here, Don. GD I actually reached a point with the documentary, humanitarian work, I ended up photographing everything I hated in life. It sounds silly, but going back and starting to do some portraits again, I started enjoying photography in a different way.
DMcC I get a lot of letters – and you must get the same – saying: “I want to be a war photographer”. I say to people that’s fine, but there are just as many wars going on in our cities. If you want to be a war photographer, go out and help yourself. My best story wasn’t in a foreign war; my best story was the homeless story I did in the 1970s, in Aldgate, on the periphery of the great moneymaking part of this country, the City.
And that’s going to be in the Tate exhibition, isn’t it? DMcC Yes. I’m more proud of those pictures and I’m more proud of the social pictures I did of poverty in the north of England than I am any of my war pictures. I’m not proud of my war pictures at all.
How do you feel about the Tate show? DMcC It’s uncomfortable. We have to be careful what we do because if we do it too well we’re turning our work into icons. The word “art” – I absolutely hate it being associated with photography. Most American photographers now want to be called artists. I could come under a lot of fire for [being in Tate Britain] really, but I’m in an art gallery because I’m not in a newspaper. I have 60,000 negatives in this house and I have a really good collection of about 400 pictures I’m really proud of.
GD Yes, what’s the point in taking a photograph if nobody sees it? You have to find it, whether it be in a gallery, whether it be in a newspaper.
I can’t resist asking you, Don, about how the Observer became the paper to commission you? DMcC Yes, I started my career with the Observer, although the word “career” disturbs me, it’s a vocation. The paper published some pictures [of Finsbury Park gang the Guv’nors] that I sent on spec and then later the picture editor, Bryn Campbell, said: “Would you consider going to the civil war in Cyprus?” I [felt like] I was actually able to levitate; I thought I was really lifting off! I went with the Observer’s ecclesiastic correspondent, who was later killed in Swiss Cottage on a rainy night on his Vespa, to the city of Limassol. And that’s where I had my baptism of fire – I was in the Turkish quarter and there were all these bullets. I was just running around like a mad hare, I didn’t know what I was doing; I wasn’t focusing. And then I calmed down. That was my first time in war.
Finally, I wonder what it would actually mean for you both, to give up photography? DMcC It will be the day I die. That’s when photography will be stolen away from me. I don’t intend to die yet, by the way. My most exciting time in my life is coming up on Monday at my exhibition. I don’t know why, I’ve had lots of exhibitions and all of a sudden I can’t sleep at night thinking about this one.
GD I made that comment about the words I said when I was taken into hospital. If I hadn’t been able to take a photograph again then I would rather have died in Afghanistan. Photography, it’s me. It’s my voice. Simple as that.
“White” e “coloured”, bianchi e neri, due aggettivi apparentemente innocui ma che hanno il potere di rievocare con prepotenza la segregazione razziale che dilaniò gli Stati Uniti negli anni Cinquanta e Sessanta. Tanti gli episodi che hanno segnato quel periodo storico. Uno, nella sua cruda ed efficace semplicità, è stato immortalato nella fotografia scattata nel 1950 nella Carolina del Nord da Elliott Erwitt. Nello scatto due lavandini, uno destinato ai “bianchi”, l’altro alle persone “di colore”, assurgono a simbolo di una umanità che, ancora oggi, fatica a superare le divisioni.