Arts feature

Don McCullin interview: ‘I take more than I bring. That’s not a role I’m proud of’

Jenny McCartney talks to the celebrated photojournalist about war, guilt and Aylan

26 September 2015

8:00 AM

26 September 2015

8:00 AM

The thing that the photojournalist Don McCullin likes best of all now, he tells me, is to stand on Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland in a blizzard. He made his name in conflicts in Vietnam, Cambodia, Biafra, Uganda — hot places full of fury, panic and death — but these days he finds his greatest solace in the English landscape. I can see why he is drawn to that wild part of Britain: its isolated beauty, the feeling of being roughed up by the elements but not destroyed by them. Clean air, too: you must get a cool, fresh lungful up there.

He’s 80 years old in October: talking to him at home in Somerset, I get the sense he’s been coming up for air all his life. There wasn’t much oxygen, either physically or intellectually, where he grew up, in a damp, two-room tenement home in London’s Finsbury Park. His father, a gentle man, was permanently invalided with chronic asthma exacerbated by the coal-fire smog of the era: ‘He couldn’t walk very far or breathe very well.’ He loved his father dearly — ‘he meant the world to me’ — and his death, when McCullin was 14, was a crushing blow. ‘It made me aggressive,’ he says. ‘I said, “I’m going to give up God.”’

He was left with his two younger siblings and his mother, a fiery, strong woman who was often primed for a scrap. ‘When she gave you a clout you knew what time of day it was.’ Was he close to her? ‘Too close. I found her oppressive, really.’ His dyslexia made learning difficult, and he used to play truant and go and hunt for grass snakes and birds’ eggs at the end of the Piccadilly line. He went to work on the railways at 15 to support his family.

He’s not nostalgic for post-war Finsbury Park, with its fug of ‘bigotry and ignorance …I always felt as if somebody was treading on my windpipe.’ Still, it gave him some ineradicable qualities. Toughness, certainly: on foreign assignments McCullin held his nerve in circumstances of unimaginable stress. It also taught him what he didn’t like: bullies, in and out of uniform.

It was Finsbury Park, too, that gave him his first big break, when his photograph of the street gang that he used to hang out with, the Guvnors, was accepted by the Observer. The picture hangs in his most recent exhibition, at Hamiltons Gallery in Mayfair. It is blown up big, the better to show its precocious sense of structure. The boys, elegantly boxed in the ruins of a bombed-out building, model delinquency in their Sunday suits: they had been caught up in a fight with a rival gang in which a policeman had been killed. The day after it was published, offers of work began flooding in.

When you look at the other photographs — the ones McCullin took in war zones — what still astonishes is not simply the fact that these pictures exist, ripped from the thick of the action, but also the sureness of their composition: the shellshocked US marine in the Battle of Hue in Vietnam, his haunted face perfectly symmetrical; the female Christian Phalange fighter sinuously pitching a grenade, framed by concrete and steel.

McCullin came to loathe the cruelty of war, even while the rush of it became addictive. How did it feel to be around people such as the Phalange, as they unleashed their frenzied massacres against Palestinians in Beirut? A look comes over his face like ice glazing a pond. ‘You despise their jokes and their bestial attitude to people.’ He hit a rough patch at 52, he says. ‘I didn’t go to the Falklands and that broke my spirit. Then my wife died.’ He left the Sunday Times when Rupert Murdoch took over, and human suffering was deemed old hat. It still infuriates him.

‘The tragedy is that all these images I’ve put up didn’t really work.’ Did he think, once, they might stop war? ‘I thought it might persuade people to understand a different version of what our lives on earth were meant to be.’ But photographs can still shift the debate, I say: look at the response to the heartbreaking picture of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned three-year-old boy washed up on a Turkish beach. ‘Yes, but there hasn’t been a debate before because for the last ten or 15 years they have avoided showing those pictures.’

His job put bread on the table, but it must have been hard on Christine, his first wife of 22 years, negotiating domestic life alone with three children. ‘There’s something selfish about career,’ he says. ‘I always felt I had priority, but it’s obnoxious to think like that really.’ She died of a brain tumour at 48: a tragedy complicated by guilt, as McCullin still loved her but had left her for another woman. He says, ‘It was a bit of a cheek really, her life being stolen so quickly.’ I have noticed that he uses understatement for the memories that wound the most.

McCullin doesn’t think of himself as a writer, although he says he has enjoyed the company of some of the best: the novelist Chinua Achebe, James Fox, Bruce Chatwin. But he has the writer’s instinct for a phrase that can cut you to the quick. He describes the little albino boy in Biafra who crept up and took hold of his hand, one of 800 children he found dying in a makeshift orphanage in 1969. ‘You don’t think that was easy for me to look at that starving albino boy who had licked out the inside of this French corn-beef tin and made it look like a brand new Rolls-Royce. I know where I’m coming from; I know what I bring and what I take. I take more than I bring; I bring hope but I give nothing. That’s not the role I’m proud of.’

All McCullin had to give the boy was a barley sugar sweet. The memory still shocks and haunts him. ‘I haven’t printed his picture for years in my darkroom. It’s a terrible thing to be alone in the darkroom with that boy, as if he’s coming back. He wouldn’t have lasted for more than a few days after I took that picture.’ When he could help, he did: there’s a picture taken by another photographer of McCullin in Cyprus in 1964, carrying an elderly lady away from the fighting.

Age has landed unpredictable punches on him. It went for his heart — he had a quadruple bypass five years ago — but pretty much left his face alone. He looks much younger than his years, his cheeks almost unlined, light blue eyes quick, the mind hungry for fodder. Despite the accolades, he hasn’t drifted towards self-importance: he’s often very funny, a sharp mimic, a bit cheeky. His passion is for landscapes now, but he still has the twitchy reflexes of a news guy, alert to what Louis MacNeice meant when he wrote that the ‘world is crazier and more of it than we think’. Next up is a trip to Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan.

News sometimes seems to follow his footsteps: for his book Southern Frontiers in 2010, about Roman ruins, he took some beautiful, brooding black-and-white photographs of the temples at the historic site of Palmyra, now occupied and partially destroyed by Islamic State. ‘I absolutely fell in love with it. I met the director who was sadly beheaded, a wonderful man.’

Does he believe in the afterlife? ‘No I don’t. I believe that’s it. You go into the ether and that’s it.’ He sorely misses his friend and travelling companion, the conservationist Mark Shand, who died in New York last year: ‘I loved him.’ When he himself dies, he says, he wants to be cremated and scattered down by the river in the valley near his house. But for now, he says, ‘The barometer of joy is going up. Up and up.’ Why now? I ask. ‘Well, because of her really.’ He means Catherine Fairweather, his third wife, with whom he has a plainly beloved 13-year-old son, Max.

He drives me to the station and we pull up as the train is already at the platform. ‘You’ll have to hurry!’ he says, and I belt for it. I don’t think, then, about his past — full of the juddering promise of planes, close shaves and second chances — but I can see that, even in this sleepy Somerset station, something about just making it by the skin of your teeth has exhilarated him. When he suddenly reappears to shake my hand at the window just before the train moves off, he is beaming, his face lit up like a boy’s.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Don McCullin: Eighty is at Hamiltons Gallery until 3 October.

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Show comments
  • Gilbert White

    Jeez , I take more than I bring. Hippy days are over matey. Cue it was the usual suspects taken in by the choreographed child. This is the sort of ambigous tosh Charlie Manson laid upon his admiring groupiesin the Mojave. I tell you something if the true images of the middle east were broadcast to the nation there skuld be a new crusade going there of bibilical proportions. We are all photographers now was the real message.

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  • Damaris Tighe

    A photo ‘simply’ shows human suffering. It doesn’t show why that suffering happened, the process & actions, individual & collective, that brought it about. Therefore the photo can only generate a child’s response – ‘stop it right now, you’re hurting me!’ – rather than the adult response of understanding the big picture that no opportunist photo can depict.

    • Kennybhoy


  • Bonkim

    Why don’t people blame the irresponsible parents of Aylam Khurdi for taking their children on such a perilous journey? This chap appears to have gone back to his home town unimpeded for his son’s burial. So not in real danger.

  • Kennybhoy

    ” Still photographs are the most powerful weapons in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. … ”

    Eddie Adams – (Pulitzer prize winning photojournalist)ễn_Ngọc_Loan

  • Tony

    “How did it feel to be around people such as the Phalange, as they unleashed their frenzied massacres against Palestinians in Beirut?”

    What a nasty, biased man; a man with a clear agenda, a lot like the odious Robert Fisk. It was these left wing types of the 1970s and 80s who did so much to distort the Lebanese Civil War.

    From 1969 until the war broke out in 1975, the Palestinian Liberation Organization along with many other Palestinian/Communist militias were fighting Israel from South Lebanon. They proceded to set up base in Beirut and terrorized Lebanese civilians with check-points, rapes, extortion and murders. They focused their aggression on Lebanese Christians because they were the only ones who stood up against them. They downed Lebanese Army helicopters, they murder soldiers in cold blood. 500,000 Palestinians set up camp in Lebanon, a country that barely had a population of 3 million people. Palestinian militiamen numbered at least 30,000.

    When the war broke out in 1975, the Christian militias (the Phalange being only one militia) were composed of university students and professionals. Severly undertrained and underequiped. Once the Muslim soldiers in the Lebanese Army mutinied and formed their own militia the remaining Christian soldiers armed/joined the Christian militias which somewhat strengthened their ranks. They were still outnumbered and outgunned since Sunni and Muslim militias funded by the worst despots in the Arab world joined the Palestinians as did local and international communists, international Islamic Jihadis and mercenaries like Carlos the Jackal and his mates. The Muslims wanted to Islamify the country, the Paleatinians wanted to do what they failed to do in Jordan, namely create a Proxy Palestinian state from which they can wage their war against Israel.

    The Christian militias would have been anihilated had it not been for Baathist Syria intervening on their behalf followed by Israel later on. The militias were composed by many Saintly men who sacrificed their comfortable pre-war lives to defend their families, cities and villages. They were also composed of some bad apples and some who by the horror that they saw became bad apples.

    During the war the Paleatinians/Muslims/Communists carried out massacre after massacre of Chriatians e.g. the town of Damour in 1978 which was pretty much raized to the ground. Mass execution of civilians were common place. The Christian militias reacted and eventually responded with similar actions.

    Meanwhile the “Christian” West looked on. No funding, no arming. Instead the overwhelmingly leftist media portrayed Palestinians as downtrodden, poor, unarmed victims being victimized by Nazi Christian militias. Self-hatting, leftist useful idiots in Europe lapped up this narrative.

    In 1982, 7 years into the war and 13 years since the Palestinians started their campaign of terror, a specific Christian militia commited the Sabra and Shatila massacre (it’s victims numbered roughly the same as those of the Damour massacre, which remained unknown by the West). The West was outraged and overlooking 13 years of Palestinian/Muslim/Communist terror, cemented the image of Phalangists as Nazis. Israel was keen to maintain this narrative for selfish reasons to hide their involvment in the massacre.

    This photographer, Robert Fisk amd their ilk were uself idyits. Today, Europe is being invaded, cultural Marxism having already deatroyed its soul. The new generation of bien-pensant useful idjits with their faux-morality are committing the same mistakes as the previous generation of kafiya wearing, beret adorned, bearded Danish, British, German, French etc. idyits. Despite their faults God bless Orban and Putin.