Don McCullin – The Legend of War Photography

© Don McCullin
© Don McCullin

Don McCullin is an internationally famous photojournalist. He was born in 1935 in Finsbury Park in London, but left school at 15 without qualifications. During National Service in the RAF, he became a photographer. He later bought his own camera, but his mother had to buy it back after he pawned it. This was the camera with which he took his first published photo – of ‘The Guvners’, a local Finsbury Park gang, one of whose number had committed a murder – which appeared in The Observer in 1959.

He worked for The Observer for several years, and was delighted when they asked him to cover the Cypruswar in 1964. This was the beginning of his long career as a photographer of war and other human disasters.

Between 1966 and 1984, he worked for The Sunday Times Magazine. Pre-Murdoch, The Sunday Times was at the cutting edge of investigative, critical journalism. During the period of his finest magazine work, McCullin worked under Editor-in-Chief Harold Evans and Art Editor David King. His assignments included Biafra, the Belgian Congo, the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’, Bangladesh, the Lebanese civil war, El Salvador, and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. But he is most famous for his photos of Vietnam and Cambodia.

‘You have to bear witness’
McCullin faced no restrictions, yet his work, in projecting the realities of war into millions of living-rooms back home, contributed substantially to the growth of anti-war feeling. One reason was that McCullin’s sympathies were with the victims – the poor, the dispossessed, and ordinary soldiers on both sides.

© Don McCullin
© Don McCullin

McCullin is scathing about working as an ‘embedded’ journalist. ‘We spent years photographing dying soldiers in Vietnam, and they are not going to have that anymore… you have to bear witness. You cannot just look away.’

When he was refused permission to go to the Falklands in 1982, he assumed it was due to some kind of censorship. In fact, as he now knows, it was just down to bureaucracy: the Army had simply run out of press passes. Even so, an era was coming to an end. There has been no reporting from recent conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan comparable with that of McCullin in Vietnam.

‘Carrying pieces of human flesh’
McCullin took huge risks in order to take his photographs. He was threatened with a knife at a Muslim checkpoint in Beirut for having a Falangist press pass, blinded by CS gas during a riot in Derry, and wounded by fragments of mortar shell inCambodia. But he reports having been most frightened when arrested by Idi Amin’s thugs in Uganda and taken to a notorious prison where they were murdering hundreds of people every day with sledgehammers.

He survived; but damaged. He has a head full of demons, and bears a heavy burden of doubt and guilt. ‘Sometimes it felt like I was carrying pieces of human flesh back home with me, not negatives. It’s as if you are carrying the suffering of the people you have photographed.’

McCullin was dismissed from The Sunday Times shortly after it was taken over by Rupert Murdoch in 1981. Harold Evans resigned citing differences over editorial independence in 1982, and the photographer was then sacked by replacement editor Andrew Neil after he complained publicly about the newspaper’s lack of serious foreign and social coverage under the new regime.

Don McCullin now lives in Somerset with his third wife. He has five children by this and earlier marriages. These days, he spends much of his time taking landscape photos.

Don McCullin speaks exclusively with Military Times about his experiences at the Battle of Hue, as a major 50-year retrospective exhibition of his life and work opens at the Imperial War Museum London.