ARCHIVE: In Conversation with Don McCullin

Credit: Jeff Ascough
Credit: Jeff Ascough

I’m driving through Somerset on a grim, cold January morning to meet Don McCullin. Somerset is bleak and the trees are stripped bare of their leaves. The landscape lacks the mood and drama of McCullin’s photographs of Somerset, but still, it feels like I am driving through one of them. The roads get narrower, the buildings older and there is hardly a soul in sight. Besides the occasional car I pass, there is little evidence that the 20th century came and went. As I draw near to McCullin’s village, I stop to ask for directions. The elderly man has second guessed me. “You want Don McCullin” he says. I notice the local hunt gathering in a field nearby. We are a long way from Finsbury Park.

I am going to meet one of the most famous, respected and decorated war photographers in the world. During the 1960s and 70s, McCullin brought series after series of legendary images back from wars in Vietnam, the Congo and Northern Ireland, of famine victims in Biafra and of refugees in Bangladesh. His photographs and writings fill over 20 books. He was awarded the World Press Photo Award in 1964 for his coverage of the war in Cyprus as well as the Warsaw Gold Medal. In 1977, McCullin was made a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society. He was the first photojournalist to be granted the CBE in 1993. In 2006 McCullin was awarded the Cornell Capa Award, which celebrates the leading documentary photographer of their generation. In 2008, McCullin was also conferred with an Honorary Doctorate of Letters by the University of Gloucestershire in recognition of his lifetime achievements in photojournalism.

McCullin meets me with an open, affable smile. It is hard to believe that he is almost 75. He still has the rugged good looks and stature of his earlier years. I mention the hunt and McCullin tells me that he won’t have them on his land. “I’ve seen enough killing,” he adds. He burns with passion when he tells me about his love of the countryside. This passion turns to wrath when he talks of protecting the countryside from town planners. “We live on an overcrowded, sinking island, where cities are expanding and expanding, trying to swallow up the green belt. When I first started photography, I thought the one good thing is that you can point the camera and just take pictures. But it’s been everything other than that. Everything I have touched has been political… the wars, the famines and the tragedies.”

We sit in the spacious, open-plan kitchen of his large stone cottage. The view through the windows in front of us sweeps down the valley, then rises up to a line of trees on a hillside, beyond which lies an old Roman hill site. McCullin points to the gables of some newly built houses perched on top of the hill. “I’ve got really good eyesight for someone who has to take eye drops. I can see the gables of houses that should not be there. There was a man who owned a maggot farm up there who traded off against the council to build three million-pound houses. It’s a scandal, really.” I start by asking McCullin about his upcoming retrospective. “You mean the Manchester one?” he asks. He then tells me that he has just come back from Berlin where there has also been a retrospective of his work.

What was it that prepared you for your life as a photographer?
I grew up in a tough place, which prepared me for the world. It prepared me for life. I was an evacuee in the north of England where they used to beat me and shave my head and wouldn’t bath me for nine months. [He was nine years old at the time.] It was bloody hard up there. I came out of my childhood and teens ready for what I did in war. I knew about poverty and misery, pain and suffering…I was wearing the right body armour. I was the right person to stand in front of those suffering people because I had an affinity with their poverty, their pain and their unhappiness.

What it is like going back to places you photographed during war?
I went back to the city of Hue in south Vietnam. It was the biggest battle I had been in and it is where I did my best war work. I travelled with my son Claude, who is training to be a Marine and he was full of enthusiasm. He kept saying “Oh Dad, look at all those bullet holes in the wall”. I thought it was a bit of an anticlimax, really. I thought I would be torn with emotion, and in a way, I didn’t have any feeling. I was rather ashamed of myself, because I witnessed the most extraordinary things: men getting shot, men trying to run to their fallen comrades, men lying with blood coming out of their mouths because their lungs were shot up. I thought: Why am I not having a more emotional respect?

Why do you think you had no emotional response?
Because there were too many occasions like that… there were too many battles, too many days of tragedy, awful days of children dying, men being executed in front of me. You can only call it murder when men, in the jungles of Africa, take men aside and say: “Kill them!”

Do you consider yourself to be a casualty of war?
No. I’m not really a casualty because I’m too strong. I do have a storage cabinet full of unpleasant memories that occasionally try to bring me down. I wouldn’t be honest if I said it didn’t affect me, and I do have a strange way of dealing with it, which is probably why I came heavily onto the landscapes, because that’s the only way I’m going to get through it is to put it aside. Bear in mind that there are other people in my life. Believe it or not, I have a seven-year-old son who is the most delightful person you have ever met, and he brightens up my life. There have been three different families in my life and I think they have helped rejuvenate and heal me. War is not cheap. You talk about healing. What is the wound? The wound is disappointment. Disappointment in humanity. We should have learned by now.

McCullin is sharply aware of his critics, and often during our interview he pre-empts my questions with his own answers. “I’m quite well known for moaning about these times in my life. People say ‘Well, it’s served you well. You have become well known in the world of photography, and people give you gigantic opportunities to promote your work,’ but I do have a conscience.” McCullin is aware that photography helped him escape the poverty of his childhood. “Photography has not brought me enormous wealth, but it has brought me a confusion and at the same time an understanding that I’m much better off than where I started in Finsbury Park, living in two slum rooms below ground with no bathroom, and no indoor toilet. I know which side my bread has been buttered, but at the same time, I don’t always enjoy eating that slice of bread. If I did, I would be indulging myself at other people’s expense.”

In the early years you described yourself as a one-war-a-year man, then a two-war-a-year man, then a three-war-a-year-man. What was it that you were returning to?
It was bloody exciting. The whole world was glamorous. War is also an addiction.

What is the addiction?
Going to war and coming back knowing you got away with it and the man next to you got killed. It was a Russian roulette experience, really.

What would you hope that the people who see your retrospective at the Imperial War Museum North would take away with them?
Some understanding that more understanding is necessary. I’m a photographer. I want my photography to be special. I don’t want you to have a free ride thinking it’s anything to do with art, and I don’t want you to turn away from it because it’s horrible. I want you to look at it, get some message out of it and then do as you will. The nicest thing anyone ever said to me was that they met a doctor in Africa who said that she became a doctor because she saw one of my pictures. If one of my pictures was responsible for creating one doctor’s life who then gives life and saves the lives of others, then I have done my job.

Did you ever feel that you were intruding in these people’s lives?
Yeah many, many times. You can’t hide behind a 35mm camera.

Do you think your pictures helped the victim of war?
Not particularly. How can they? I don’t go to war with armfuls of penicillin, bandages and morphine. I go to war with a camera. I go with a sense of purpose, to try to persuade.

Do you think people who view your work try to project their discomfort back on to you?
They try! There is no way that I can deny that I took the pictures. What I can do is I can stand strongly side by side with my honesty and integrity. I have only once taken a war picture that I put together. It was a photograph of a dead north Vietnamese soldier with his possessions. I had just seen his body looted by American soldiers looking for souvenirs….. I saw them mocking his sacrifice. I thought: ‘Fuck you! You want to stay alive. This guy didn’t make it.’ This man was wearing rubber tyres for shoes and all he had was a little tin box for his bandages and family photos. He had a bullet through the teeth that took the back of his head out. I thought: ‘I’m going to be this man’s voice.’ Staged or not, I did it, and I don’t have anything to feel ashamed of.

Once again, McCullin becomes defensive. “Some people say that Don McCullin’s done well, but it’s been at the expense of other people’s lives in war.” He says he still needs to work to pay his bills. “I sell more landscape pictures these days than war pictures. I don’t want to sell my war pictures, they go into museums and books, but of course money is generated. It doesn’t make me a millionaire or comfortable. I don’t know each year if I am going to make enough money not to lose this house.” Throughout our interview, McCullin regularly refers back to his roots. He lived for most of his early years in a tenement house in Finsbury Park, then one of the worst areas in London. His father worked occasionally as a fishmonger, but due to chronic asthma, was invalided. His mother was a dominant and strong-willed woman. McCullin was the oldest child. During the Second World War, he was evacuated to Norton St Philip in Somerset, close to where he now lives. He was later moved to a farm in Lancashire where he describes life as very tough.

McCullin doesn’t talk about his early years with any warmth or passion for the times or the people he knew, yet he still holds those experiences close to him. He recognises the distance between the hardships of his childhood and the privilege of his later life. “I used to have a massive inferiority complex until about 20 years ago. Then I thought: ‘Why are you carrying around this cross that’s too heavy for you? Throw it away. You’ve done more than other people. You’ve risked your life. You don’t owe anyone the bill of playing the working-class snot-nosed boy.’ I’ve layered up in life. The place I came from was not the place I wanted to know anyway, because it was shit. Once the Observer published my picture [of a local gang implicated in the murder of a policeman] I kicked that door open and fled Finsbury Park.”

What was the turning point that made you stop going to war?
I got fired by the Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil …because he didn’t want any more wars in the magazine. He wanted more of a life and leisure magazine. Of course, it would be more beneficial because he would be associated with advertising garden furniture and barbecues…so it would have been me contaminating the waters by doing stories about starvation, war and blood and gore.

What was that like for you?
I was cast adrift. My identity was in crisis. I suddenly had a middle age crisis because someone had taken the carpet from under my feet. I was in my late fifties. I was lost.

It was at this time that McCullin was introduced to his now agent Mark George as someone who could get McCullin some advertising work. “It was never the area I wanted to cross over into. I was incredibly snobbish about advertising. Suddenly I am out of work and the phone’s not ringing. I did some advertising for the Metropolitan Police, the very people I don’t particularly admire, and I twice won the Advertising of the Year Award. I think those awards are in my shed somewhere. All of a sudden I started earning some embarrassingly serious money – money I don’t have now because of a divorce.”

Do you miss war?
Not really. If I’m truthful, I would probably go to Afghanistan. I have been to all these wars around the world, but I would have liked for once to have been with my own nation’s soldiers. I’ve never had an enemy in any war I have been to, other than conscience.

Most of your famous photographs have featured death and dying. Have you thought about your own death?
Oh, all the time. I had a stroke last March while I was on a train with my wife and child. I knew what it was, but I thought I would sit it out until I reached my station. I drove my family home and called the doctor. I had a frozen mouth and a paralysed hand. He recommended I get to the hospital. He didn’t mention an ambulance, so I drove there. I had a blood clot on my brain. It was like someone had put their foot on my brakes. I’ve never thought so much about my time on Earth as I have in the past year. Everything is closing in on me. My physical energy has been stolen from me. I wouldn’t be much good in Afghanistan.

Did you ever feel fear?
All the time! I have a lot of bad dreams where I am running and not making any progress. My recurring theme used to be that I could fly, and I would suddenly find myself on the edge of a building and I had to make the decision as to whether this flying magic was going to work or not. I would never know. The dream would always end.

What sense do you make of that?
Analysts have made two things of that: it’s either sexual or ambition. I think it’s ambition. I’m going to take the ambition route; I’ve had enough of the sexual route. It’s ambition – ‘I know I can do it’, and it’s also about ‘Can I do it?’ – losing confidence. The other dream I get now is still about lacking confidence. I am on a job for the Sunday Times, and the job doesn’t work out. My biggest fear is coming back without the story. It means I’m losing my confidence. I’m not, but I am probably losing my confidence with the struggle for my life. This stroke has knocked my confidence.

McCullin still considers himself to be a student of photography. “Every night I go to bed with a book from a photographer who inspired me and I start from the beginning: Steichen, Stieglitz, Evans, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Eugene Smith, William Klein, Bill Brandt (whom he knew briefly) and Felix Mann. You can never stop learning.”

What do hope that you have passed on to photographers who look at your work?
I think I have passed on inspiration. I haven’t given them any knowledge that can last forever. Just be respectful to your fellow man. That’s all I can hope for, really. Don’t go out there with a camera thinking you have a licence to steal. You haven’t. You have an apprenticeship to learn which goes on forever, and like most apprenticeships, it pays badly.

What of the future? Is there anything left that you would like to photograph?
I’d like to do some nudes. I would then come the full circle. I have done the social documentary, war, still lives and landscapes. I think I could do some really beautiful nudes. I have never done any, but I have this terrible passion to do some.

How would you photograph the nude?
In very bad light. They would not be glamorous. It would not be an erotic nude. I would like to photograph in a shed or a barn somewhere. The nude as a form of sculpture, that’s how I would like to do it. They would be most un-sexual. I’ve been thinking about it for years. I’m not the kind of man who could say to a woman: “Can I take a picture of you with your clothes off?” I’m much too shy to say that. If I didn’t have to arrange the whole thing, if some woman just walked in here, and I had a camera, then I would do it. I wouldn’t like to ask.

Tell me about your new book.
Shaped by War [the book that accompanies his retrospective] is a narrative book about me. I am not particularly pleased by the thing being centred around me. It’s what I produce, that’s what I want people to be aware of. People want to know what goes on in here [McCullin points to his head]. That’s why you came here today. I want people to appreciate that there is a mind up here that is struggling to get away from what happened to me 70 years ago in my childhood. I’m looking for what every creative person is looking for: I’m looking for other people’s respect. I’m not looking for admiration; I’m looking for respect, for what I have taught myself about photography.

If you could speak to the young Don McCullin back through the years, what would you say to him?
I’d probably say: “Give up talking about the past. Just keep looking at the future. That’s where life is. It’s not behind you.” I think I’m one of lucky ones, really, even though I’m under threat. I’m still going to squeeze a bit more out of life.

© Geoff Langan 2016

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