Don McCullin: Photos of a Life of War

Humanitarian photographer with tremendous technical skill amounting to genius in my opinion.

–Sir Harold Evans, Editor of the Sunday Times

The first photographer to receive a CBE for war photography, Don McCullin holds a special place in the world of photography. During his residency at the Sunday Times his iconic photos brought the gruesome price of war and its human cost to international attention. His powerful images regularly provoked public outrage and even led the UK government to deny him access to the Falklands for fear of him exposing failures and undermining morale.

Now he has retired from war photography and has concentrated his skill and effort on photographing landscapes. His most recent book, ‘Southern Frontiers, A Journey across the Roman Empire‘, offers a journey of landscapes and ruins from parts of the Middle East and Northern Africa.

Don’s work presents a combination of skill and mastery of photographic techniques. To capture images of such power requires an extraordinary sense of anticipation and vision as well as technical ability. But if we look at Don’s very first published photograph, this visualisation and compositional flair was there right from the beginning.

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This first picture of ‘The Gov’nors’ posing in a derelict building is a representation of his humble beginnings in Finsbury Park, amongst violence and the local teenage gangs. The composition is iconic and imposing, a strong indication of how much these rival gangs burdened the lives of young people in the area. Although Don took this as a series of photos for this teenage gang on an informal basis, it was this photo that brought Don’s talent to the Observer newspaper and from here that his career as a photojournalist was born.

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From here, Don invested his time into photography and it paid off. For him it started as a way of getting out of his local neighbourhood and would eventually take him to every corner of the globe.

The way Don talks about it suggests he feels there was a large amount of luck involved. For instance he openly admits that he did not take well to criticism and he would have lacked the necessary perseverance to continue if his early work had not been well received.

His next major step after ‘The Gov’nors’ series was to travel to Berlin at the height of the Cold War and the construction of the Berlin Wall. Again, when he describes his motivations for doing so, there is a hint of luck or coincidence about it. Following his intuition, he took his camera and a few rolls of film to what he later realised to be ‘sitting on top of the most important news story in the world’.

McCullin soon became what the French call a baroudeur, a man obsessively drawn to combat, but not in an exploitative, sensationalist way.

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After getting back and developing these pictures, they were entered into a news story photography competition, which he won. From here he had shown that he had not only the visualisation to make a great photographer but also an intuition and flair for recognising the significance of what he photographed — the same intuition that brought him to Berlin in the first place. It was this flair that was seized upon by the Observer newspaper that eventually led to a contract with them after his return from Berlin.

Although people may agree with Don’s submission that luck had taken him this far, once established with the Observer and then later the Sunday Times, he had his gateway to photographing some the worst conflicts of the 20th century. Of the many conflicts he visited, those in Cyprus, Congo, Biafra, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Cambodia and Lebanon produced the most vivid work.

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Like many war journalists, many of McCullin’s most striking anecdotes and images came from his experiences covering the Vietnam War. In 1968 his Nikon camera stopped a bullet intended for him. In that year, during the bloody Battle for Hue, McCullin took perhaps his most iconic photo.

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In 1982 the British Government refused to grant McCullin a press pass to cover the Falklands War. At the time he believed it was because the Thatcher government felt his images might be too politically disturbing. It later emerged that he was a victim of bureaucracy: he had been turned away simply because the Royal Navy had used up its quota of press passes.

In a BBC documentary Don describes his media as one distinguishable from art. He admits he is not a poet or an artist, but a photographer. His work has taken a huge personal toll and he openly detests the label of ‘war photographer’. Maybe it is this humble, human approach with which he looks back on his work that was the key to his success.

Alex Browne studied History at Kings College London and is an Assistant Editor at Made From History. He specializes in post-war history in the USA and Central America.