“I’m not an artist. I’ve been struggling against that word all my life. The American photographers all want to be called artists. I’m a photographer and I stand by it.” – Sir Donald McCullin CBE
Royal Air Force assistant
Don McCullin grew up in London’s war-ravaged Finsbury Park. During the early years of World War II, that area was hit with more than two dozen high explosive bombs dropped by German planes. At the age of 15 in 1950, he left school and joined the National Service as a photographic assistant in the Royal Air Force. He served postings in Cyprus, Kenya and Egypt.
Gang members & the Berlin wall
He returned to London with a Rolleicord twin lens camera. He photographed friends in 1959 from a local gang called ‘The Guv’nors,” who had been involved in a murder. His photograph of them (opening photo, first photo in the top row) appeared in The Observer.
By 1961 his self assigned pictures of the building of the Berlin wall earned him a contract with The Observer photographing around London.
War & disaster photographer
In 1964 an assignment to cover the Cyprus War established him as a war photographer. By 1966 McCullin was working for The Sunday Times Magazine, which was on the cutting edge of investigative journalism.
Assignments took him to Biafra, the Belgian Congo, the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, Bangladesh, the Lebanese civil war as well as to Vietnam and Cambodia. He worked for The Sunday Times Magazine until 1984.
Don McCullin was not restricted in his coverage of war and carnage. He sent images of war into millions of homes in the U.K. His work was a driver of the anti-war feelings at home. Later, he was denied a press pass for the Falklands war. It turned out that his not getting a pass was due to the bureaucracy of the Army which had simply run out of them.
The era of unrestricted coverage was over leaving recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan woefully under-reported. McCullin was scathing when he talked about “embedded” journalism, “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.”
Don McCullin has been threatened with a knife in Beirut, been blinded by gas during a riot in Derry, and in a town near Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where was wounded in his legs and crotch by a mortar round that also wounded another. Cullin and the man were loaded into a truck to travel to a hospital.
McCullin recalls, “Why sit here doing nothing? Why not take pictures, take my mind off it? He died after I took this” (opening photo, top row far right image).
McCullin admits to being the most frightened when he was in Uganda and arrested by Idi Amin’s thugs. He was taken to a prison where hundreds of people were murdered daily with sledgehammers. He survived. He was damaged, carrying doubt and guilt about the things he had witnessed. His mind was full of terrors and demons.
He remembers, “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.”
In 2017, Sir Donald McCullin was knighted in the New Year’s Honours list. From February 5-May 6, 2019, Tate Britan presented a solo retrospective of his work. One of the remarkable notes on the exhibition was that McCullin printed all 250 prints being shown in his home darkroom. Magazine spreads, contact sheets, his helmet and a Nikon that took a bullet for him in Cambodia were part of the exhibit too.
McCullin photography from the Tate Britan
Read more stories of inspirational photographers in On Photography.