Born in London, 9th October 1935.
Studies painting, then works in a restaurant-wagon.
1953-1955: photographer in the Royal Air Force.
1955: first reportage, about a juvenile gang in his neighbourhood.
From 1961: war photographer, mainly for the Observer and the Sunday Times
(Cyprus, Viet-nam, Cambodia, Congo, Biafra, Israel, Northern Ireland).
After a reportage about the massacre in Sabra and Shatila (Lebanon) decides to quit war photography and to photograph landscapes.
Lives in Somerset, England.
“It wasn’t my fault if in Sabra and Shatila the light was almost biblical, if what happened in front of my eyes was like a scene out of Goya.”
Frank Horvat : I must begin by telling you that I don’t feel qualified to talk about war photography, because I have never been in a war. Of course this is not something to complain about – but it means that there are things that I don’t know, things that I have missed. When I was ten years old, I was in one of those jewish situations that were typical at the time, where all one thought of was how to avoid getting hit. Actually we were comparatively safe, we had found refuge in Switzerland, which wasn’t occupied by the Germans. My main problem were the other boys in school, who harassed me because I was Jewish, and also because I was a fat, awkward kid, who didn’t speak their dialect and didn’t know how to hit back. I avoided confrontation as long as I could, but one day their gang surrounded me on my way home. In retrospect I must say that they were not unfair, only one came forward to fight me, and he was smaller than myself. But he knew how to use his fists, so I was me who got most of the beating. The reason why I am telling you this story is because, when it was all over and I was again alone, heading home and counting my bruises, I felt as happy as I hadn’t felt in a long time : now I had found out what it was like, and I knew that I could live through it. This is what I mean by saying, about war and suffering in war : “I have missed something”.
Photo Don McCullin
Don McCullin : It’s a good story. I have never avoided confrontations. I could stand up to the biggest man. Of course I may be afraid of him, but I wouldn’t show it, I wouldn’t let a soldier, who is hitting me, see that I am afraid. But you ought not to regret your upbringing, it probably gave you what my upbringing didn’t give me. Some people who have read my text in Homecoming think that I am articulate. But I didn’t actually write it, I spoke it into a tape recorder, and I had to struggle for each and every word. I grew up in total ignorance, poverty and bigotry, and this has been a burden for me throughout my life, there is still some poison that won’t go away, as much as I try to drive it out.
Frank Horvat : The first thing I thought of your photographs in Homecoming was : “they are self-portraits”. The most obvious self-portraits, in my opinion, are the Man with the Doves and Mister Britain. Did you ever think of them as self-portraits ?
Don McCullin : I was mocking Mister Britain, but I was paying a lot of respect to the Man with the Doves. He was a miner. I thought : “here is a man grown up in the ugliest landscape of the British Isles, caressing these symbols of beauty and freedom”. What I would consider my self-portrait, if I had to, would be the Irish tramp who looks like Neptune. Because of his melancholy, his dignity. It is difficult to associate the word “dignity” with conditions such as I photograph, yet dignity is what I try to show. I find it most in the people who suffer the most, they seem to marshal the energy of dignity, because they will not surrender. Like the Biafran mother with the child at her breast, you cannot imagine a more dignified human being.
Frank Horvat : The other thing that your photographs suggest to me is crucifictions.
Don McCullin : They are, in a way. I am a professed atheist, until I find myself in serious circumstances. Then I quickly fall on my knees, in my mind if not literally, and I say : “Please God, save me from this”. Once I was taken to a prison in Uganda by Idi Amin’s soldiers, and beaten, another time I was under very heavy shellfire in Cambodia. I thought : “I will pray to God to get me out of this”. And I did get out. There is no doubt that my photographs have a very strong religious overtone, they are like twentieth century icons. When human beings are suffering, they tend to look up, as if hoping for salvation. And that’s when I press the button.
Frank Horvat : We all carry the crucifiction within us, whether we are Christians or not. We have seen it in so many representations…
Photo Don McCullin
Don McCullin : But the representation that I operate seems unfair. I tend to use the crucifiction as a form of convenience. As you may have read in Homecoming, I grew up in a very harsh way, I was badly treated by the system in England, which was run by the last of the Victorian schoolmasters, who were bloody cruel. We had church assembly, in the morning, to sing hymns. Then the masters would come and beat us, for not cleaning our shoes or not doing this or that. I grew up bitter about religion, I don’t attend church – but in my mind there is doubt about whether I should. Because I am a compassionate person, and one cannot be compassionate and be divorced from religion at the same time. On the other hand, working for media involves manipulation. I have been manipulated, and I have in turn manipulated others, by recording their response to suffering and misery. So there is guilt in every direction : guilt because I don’t practice religion, guilt because I was able to walk away, while this man was dying of starvation or being murdered by another man with a gun. And I am tired of guilt, tired of saying to myself : “I didn’t kill that man on that photograph, I didn’t starve that child.” That’s why I want to photograph landscapes and flowers. I am sentencing myself to peace.
Frank Horvat : When I look at your photographs I think : “He is compassionate, but in the first place he is compassionate about himself, all these crucified people are himself”. But of course one could say the same about Rembrandt or Goya.
Don McCullin : But are we not meant to be as Christ was on the cross ? Maybe human beings like crucifying themselves.
Frank Horvat : By their feeling of guilt ? But then, having witnessed all that suffering, and shared some of it, don’t you come to the conclusion that suffering is something that belongs to our life, that we all have to face at some point ? Which is not to say that the misery you witnessed should be accepted as inevitable.
Don McCullin : I agree. In fact I feel as if the last twenty years of my life had been a total waste. People will not change. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t fight to create a better climate, possibly by making statements about other subjects than death and misery. I didn’t want to be a war photographer in the first place, I wanted to show landscapes and peace, which is what I am doing now – and which I find much harder than photographing war. It doesn’t take much eyesight to photograph someone dying in front of you.
Frank Horvat : I am not sure of that. There have been many photographs of war and misery, but your work stands out. In most of your photographs the eye is drawn to a center, which is a center of suffering…
Photo Don McCullin
Don McCullin : Like the face of the child standing on a chair and waiting for dinner, in that house in Bradford.
Frank Horvat : …a center to which the other elements relate. Not always according to Cartier-Bresson’s geometry. Your composition is a geometry of feeling, where a suffering face is not just a surface, a circle or a triangle which has to relate to other cercles or triangles.
Don McCullin : You know why ? Because I feel that person’s pain and I transfer it onto myself. When people look at me as if to say : “Help me” and they can’t speak because their jaw is shattered, I try to respond with my eyes, I make my eyes say : “I hear you, I see you, I wish I could help you”. But at the same time I am photographing them and I feel shabby, I know that, instead of helping, I am an unnecessary burden to them. I also know that, more often than not, the people I photograph will die, because whatever help may come will be too late. So when I operate alone I try to approach them with dignity. But there is no way of being dignified with dozens of newsmen around, pushing and shoving and punching each other over one injured soldier, shouting to another : “you spoilt my picture”, while almost depriving the man from the oxygen around him. I look at them and think : “Who are these people ?” At night, in Beirut, they used to meet at the bar, talking about day-rates. Or someone would say to another one : “If you get the cover, you buy us champagne”.
Frank Horvat : Like the Roman soldiers playing dice under the cross.
Don McCullin : That’s our parallel. They made me feel unclean. Then one day a Palestinian woman hit me, and that blow made me understand that my time was up, that I had to get away from these situations.
Photo Don McCullin
Frank Horvat : I would like to define a dividing line. On one side are all these representations of suffering, that artists have held up to us over the centuries, as a mirror of our own pain and death. On the other side are the photographs of murder and war, published by cheap magazines. There is a similarity, in as much as these photographs affect the spectator for a similar reason : he understands that what they show could happen to him. But there is also a great difference. Could we define this difference ?
Don McCullin : Dont you think that some human beings are closer than others to the energies of the universe ? This may sound ridiculous, but I know that I have a perception of coincidences, which has allowed me to get close to certain situations and to come away alive.
Frank Horvat : Eugene Smith said that he had an uncanny foreknowledge of what was going to happen
Don McCullin : I was about to use the very same word. I have an uncanny way of being at the right place at the right time. And if the time is not right, I can be patient, stay in that place for hours, willing things to come. The other day I went to photograph the sea, in the West of England. I sat for two hours, looking into the water, willing the clouds to go where I wanted them, until they did just that, and I took one picture and I went home. Of course I don’t will other people’s death or misery, photographing that is easy, it doesn’t require any will. It’s much more difficult to photograph peace.
Frank Horvat : In many of your landscapes there is some water in the foreground, reflecting the sky, as if the sky was on earth as well as above. Is that your idea of peace ?
Don McCullin : To me the sky means energy. I want to bring energy into my peace pictures. On the other hand, my favourite time to photograph landscape is evening, I cannot avoid wanting everything to go dark, dark, dark. I also like wind and rain, it messes up my equipment, but I like being in the rain.
Frank Horvat : I would like to come back to that dividing line. What is the dividing line between a crucifiction by Rembrandt and a war photograph in the Daily Mirror ? You may not be putting it into those words, but don’t you ask yourself a question of this kind, when you have to select photographs that should represent your work ?
Don McCullin : One difference is that the pictures in the magazines involve exploitation. The reader is exploited, the people who are photographed are exploited, the photographer is exploited, as I was by the publishers who allowed me to risk my life. When I came back to the office and showed the pictures, they would say : “God, that’s terrible : make it a double page spread!” or : “That’s awful, it’s a good cover!”. And I didn’t mind, because it gave me an opportunity to go to the next war. I was like on a high.
Frank Horvat : But now that it’s over –
Photo Don McCullin
Don McCullin : It’s not over, it will never be. I will never get through one of my living days, without these flashes coming back into my mind. I cannot walk here in Belgravia, or into Harrod’s, or in Somerset, without it coming back constantly, like a television replay. Men in a doorway, crying, because these Christians in Beirut were loading their magazines to murder them, and did, in front of me, blew them away. I was with Gilles Caron when they executed two. We looked at each other and narrowed our eyes and didn’t say a word for the rest of the day.
Frank Horvat : What I wanted to ask was : now you are in your darkroom and you wonder : “should this photograph exist ?” How do you decide ?
Don McCullin : I can tell you which pictures seem to me more meaningful. One is the Biafran mother. Another one is the Indian family, with the woman lying on a stretcher. She had died of cholera, the children were crying and banging the ground, I was looking up to the sky, trying not to let them see that I was crying. I am very emotional, but people don’t know this, I am expected to be the big tough John Wayne of war photography – which I don’t want to be. The man kept saying : “What will I do, how will I feed my children ?” So I did something which to this day I don’t feel good about : I gave him a fistful of money from my pocket. I felt unclean after that, I thought that if he had thrown it back into my face, he would have been justified. This man had five children, the smallest being a baby in his arms, like my baby, and his dead wife was lying in front of him. To me these are documents. They don’t belong to the category of icons, they are not untouchable works of art, to be hung on a wall. Even if they look like an icon. It wasn’t my fault if in Sabra and Shatila the light was almost biblical, if what happened in front of my eyes was like a scene out of Goya. I wasn’t there to make icons. I had to bring back information, that could possibly prevent other such miseries. I don’t want to be called an artist, I don’t have the right to practice creativity at the expense of human suffering. Nevertheless I shoot my pictures to the best of my ability. But I am not going to any more battlefields. I may go into the streets again and photograph city people. But most probably this will draw me again to the derelict, I cannot keep away from derelict human beings.
Frank Horvat : There is something that I would like to say to you, though you may not be able to accept it – not today. I wonder whether you are not worrying about the wrong thing, by believing that the purpose of your work is to alert public opinion about certain problems, in the hope that this may bring some solution. The public’s reactions are blunted, and even if they weren’t, they wouldn’t carry much weight. But what photographs such as yours can do, is to help individual people cope with their own personal suffering. Which is what art has always done, whether you accept the word or not.
Don McCullin : Eugene Smith was in the icon business. There is no more classical icon than the dead man surrounded by those women, in the Spanish Village. One couldn’t come closer to a Goya..
Photo Don McCullin
Frank Horvat : And the Mother with the Sick Girl in Minamata.
Don McCullin : That was the last great thing he did, several years before he died. It must have tormented him, because after that photograph he had nowhere to go. He described the taking of it, the bath-house – of course it was all very set up, but that doesn’t matter. He said : “I just gave it the kiss of the strobe”. Because it was dark in the bath-house, and what was needed was “the kiss of the strobe”. He recognized this photograph as his arrival, which was also his end. But my own photographs don’t belong to the same league. All there is, is that I have become aware of a limited number of attitudes, by which human bodies manifest their sufferings – there are only so many things one can do with two arms and two legs – and that I know when to expect them. Like the attitude of women in the Middle East spreading their arms in distress, as in a Michelangelo. I did not have to be a Michelangelo to photograph them, in Sabra and Chatila, all the classical icons were happening in front of me, I could have photographed them with my eyes closed.
Frank Horvat : Except that the other photographers who where there didn’t get the same photographs. Just being there wasn’t enough.
Don McCullin : What was needed was to harness some dignity, in front of people who were making us look like mongrel dogs fighting over bones – unfortunately their bones. I tried, in my sincerest way, even by the way I held my camera, by the way I held my body, by my expression, to show them that I knew what their day had been. I didn’t wear fishing jackets, paparazzi jackets, or whatever. Just as when I photograph poor people in England I don’t come out of a hotel and go straight into a poor family’s home. Sometimes I talk them into letting me sleep in one of their dirty old beds, in some empty room. Also I wasn’t worrying about the seven o'clock plane, to make the Life deadline on Wednesday. I never airfreight my film, I travel back with it, as with a newborn child, that I wouldn’t entrust to anybody.
Frank Horvat : And when you are back in your darkroom – what happens there ?
Don McCullin : It’s the womb, really. I let the outside world in if I need it, I don’t let it in if I don’t. The energy inside that room, in terms of my own vibrations, of my thought patterns, my blood patterns, is such that my feet are hardly touching the ground. Every piece of paper that I put into the developer is magic to me, every time I waste a sheet I feel guilty. Do you know how many prints I do, in a whole day’s work ? Five, if I’m lucky. It’s the same with film, I may shoot only thirty rolls on a three weeks assignment. I don’t work with motor drives, I use film with the utmost respect. Recause I believe in the forces of willing and will-power. You can only demand respect from the energies around us if you practice respect yourself. You might think that this is a lot of bullshit, but I do practice it. Photography will screw you every time it gets a chance to screw you, every time you put a roll into the camera. Photography is there for the taking, it’s all out there – but it does not belong to me. I have to respect it, because it’s so much bigger than I am, it’s like the sea. Sometimes I come back and find that the film has been damaged or that the camera’s back has been leaking. I don’t get angry, I don’t smash the camera, I just laugh and think : “It didn’t respect me, I wasn’t meant to have it”.
Photo Don McCullin
Frank Horvat : I sometimes think of photography as some goddess, who gives her presents or doesn’t, according to a whim which has little to do with my deserving.
Don McCullin : But I am very good at seducing the goddess – or have been. Though I don’t believe that one is meant to do more than one really good picture a year – or maybe just one in a life-time. To be consumed by your work is not a bad thing, but it’s not always a good thing. Sometimes I brake off and go out and get raging blind drunk. I suppose that I can’t handle the peace process. In the course of a year I used to go to four or five different wars around the world. Now I find normality a bit of a problem.
Frank Horvat : When you say : “Only one good photograph a year” you are setting the standard pretty high. But isn’t this in contradiction with : “I don’t make icons” ?
Don McCullin : A lot of what I say are contradictions. I am not an intellectual. But you are right, I am striving for some form of perfection.
Frank Horvat : You recognize perfection as something that matters. Of course it cannot weigh up other people’s suffering. But couldn’t one imagine that in some miraculous way, on scales beyond our knowledge, the perfection of an icon does weigh up some of the suffering ? And some of the guilt ?
Don McCullin : That would be the equivalent of a biblical miracle. I have been a photographic leper for the last twentyfive years of my life, photographing poverty and misery. It would be as if miraculously I had been cured, as if I had received my features back. But wouldn’t that be a painful indulgence ? If I thought that I can pay off my guilt by taking a meaningful picture, I would be clearing myself at the expense of the victim. As things stand, I feel that all these negatives in my house, charged with all that misery, all that pain, don’t sit happily in their metal container. Their energy creates an uneasiness in the atmosphere, that doesn’t let me sit and read, that makes me fidgety, that pushes me to pick and wipe and clean. There is something not right about me, a nervous, uncontrolable energy. What I am saying is that by now I should really be raving mad. If I was a more intellectual person, if I had been to university, I would not have been able to withstand what I have seen, I would have broken like a dry twig. My rough beginning may have helped me keep the balance. I believe that I am really, basically, a reasonably sane person.
Frank Horvat : Don’t you think that what kept you from madness was also something that has to do with your work ?
Don McCullin : My work hasn’t been without pain. Once I was injured by a shell, in Cambodia. Not too badly, I got hit in the legs and in the crutch and my ear was blown out. But I had a very strong will to survive. I kept saying to myself : “I am not going to be caught, I’ll crawl away”. And for about six hundred yards I crawled on my stomach, to avoid getting encircled by the Khmer Rouges – Gilles Caron had been captured by them and butchered, a few days earlier. I thought : “I am not going to be captured by these people”. There was a big river, the Mekong. I thought : “If necessary, I’ll go into the water and swim away, but I am going to survive”. So I survived. I think that madness attacks some people more than others, like a virus, many of those that I have seen in mental institutions are people who have been persecuted. Actually a lot of Jewish people, I can’t help feeling that it has to do with the persecution of their history, don’t you believe ?
Frank Horvat : I tend to believe that what drives people mad is guilt. Guilt that they can’t live with. And of course Jews are great specialists in guilt.
Don McCullin : I do suffer from guilt, though I think that now it is easing a bit. Lorraine has been trying to tell me : “Don’t feel bad about being in a nice restaurant or in a nice hotel”. But I still resist going to such places.
Frank Horvat : One thing you have never photographed – as far as I am aware – are beautiful women. Though I understand there have been some in your life.
Don McCullin : Lots of them. Many were coming to me for the wrong reasons, because they had seen my name in newspapers, as a war photographer. I always thought that was a very bad thing to be called, it had a ring of mercenary.
Frank Horvat : I wanted to point out that there has been physical beauty, even prettiness, in your life, but that for some reason you didn’t feel like showing it in your photographs.
Don McCullin : Yes, my kids are good-looking, my wife was very pretty when she was younger. I have been associated with a lot of beautiful ladies, they have been a very good balance. But I would rather photograph beautiful landscapes.
Frank Horvat : Except that you dont make them look like beautiful landscapes, you make them look like something else, maybe like something inside yourself – which brings us back to mental balance. Don’t you think that madness is the feeling of things getting out of shape ? And that what may keep us from madness is the ability of putting things into shape ? Which is what art is about.
Don McCullin : People are afraid of madness because they think it only brings bad things. But it doesn’t. Sometimes it brings happiness to a person who otherwise would be suffering. What has kept me from madness, really, is self-discipline. Staying in line, keeping myself in check, willing myself to common sense. I keep checking and checking and checking – which on the other hand would be enough to drive you stark raving mad in the first place! By the time you arrive on the other side of the globe you are physically and mentally exhausted. And that’s when you are expected to go straight into the action, right off the aeroplane. This was what I did best, the very first day I would rush into the battle, it was all I wanted.
Frank Horvat : But you had the right to leave the battle when you wanted – if you survived.
Don McCullin : In the beginning I used to shoot a few pictures and run away, thinking : “I’ve got the story”. In the Six Days war, I stayed the one day of the battle for Jerusalem and left the next day. Then I realized that I should never run away, until the thing was finished. And I stayed longer, and longer, and longer. In the citadel of Hue, in 1968, I stayed for two weeks. During the Kippur war I stayed to the end, though I didn’t make one good photograph, and I lost my colleague, who was killed on the Golan Heights. When eventually I got to the airport, I was stripped stark naked and searched, I was made to bend over while somebody looked into my ass, to check whether I was smuggling film. I’ve had every experience one can have, I have been bullied, beaten, threatened, accused of spying.
Frank Horvat : The other thing that may have kept the balance is the time you spent in that womb, the darkroom. You came back to it all the time, even when you were an active war photographer.
Don McCullin : All the time. But it’s also a very testing room – or womb, whatever you want to call it. The message doesn’t go directly from the negative onto the paper, it journeys through me. Sometimes I have to get out of bed at night and go downstairs and open the boxes and look at the prints again, to check whether there is not a mark on that top right hand side. It’s another obsession, if I can put up with that I shall probably never go mad. In the darkroom I am not only printing pictures. I am searching, I am having conversations with myself. But that is not madness, believe me, it’s being hand-in-glove with madness, without letting madness take over. Sometimes I don’t like going into the darkroom, I would rather be in my garden. If you saw my garden you would be amazed, it hangs on the side of a valley, you see cows outside. Lorraine and I lay that baby under the tree and think : “God, this is Paradise”. The darkroom can be cruel. You have to talk your way through your printing, alone, sometimes you turn the radio on and listen to trash music. When I finish, I wash everything meticulously, I dust everything, it’s like paying a homage to the spiritual power that could destroy me. And I won’t let it. Something else will destroy me – but it won’t be the darkroom, it won’t be photography. I am very strong, nearly ninety nine percent of me is strong and fortified all around. But I am sure there is a crack, somewhere behind me, in my make-up, where the damage will get in and destroy me.
Frank Horvat : What you are saying is the exact description of your photograph of Mister Britain.
Don McCullin : I don’t really think that’s a very good picture. I took it because I saw the funny side of it. You know, I am not without humour.
Frank Horvat : He is so vulnerable.
Don McCullin : I have made him vulnerable by making an ass of him. I’ve made him look feminine, and that may be the one thing he would kill me for. But I believe in logic, you have to respect logic, if you want to survive. Photography is like an unexploded mine, you must go around it, you must not thread on it, you must respect it – otherwise it will blow your legs off. I have to remain logical. I know of photographers who tip tables over, in restaurants. I don’t do things like that, but sometimes I argue with people, when someone comes up and says : “Who gave you permission to take this photograph ?” I say : “Who are you, anyway ?”. I won’t let people just walk over me, I fight back – which is not always logical, sometimes it makes life even more difficult. These are the little cracks in my make-up. I must keep control of myself and my work, and protect my patch – but then my patch is all over the world, I can’t protect that completely.
London, August 1987