“Well, there’s no question about it, that one does become a junkie, there are war junkies and they are around today. I know individuals, personally, and I can see what they’re suffering from…”
Transcript of the BBC John Tusa Interview with Don McCullin
It can’t be easy bearing the title of the world’s greatest war photographer, but that’s only one of the burdens that Don McCullin carries around with him. But after 20 years of confronting the world with unforgettable images of war, from Congo to Biafra, to Beirut , to Cambodia , and of course to Vietnam , and many, many more, he doesn’t have much alternative. It all used to be addictive too. By his own admission, McCullin used to be ‘a one-war-a-year man’, but then it grew to two, and then to three, until it had it stop; not, you understand because wars stopped, or killing stopped, or inhumanity stopped, but because there came a natural limit to ‘looking at what others can’t bear to see.’
In the 20 years or more that he lived with death, often those of his close friends and colleagues, or diced with death personally but cheated him, just, McCullin never lost his own humanity, his care for the people, the soldiers, the victims whom his lenses caught in the most agonising of extremities. He did it through possessing a mixture of qualities, summed up as: ‘the balls of a commando, the cunning of a rat, the eye of an artist, the anger of a man with his eyes open, so that anger finally threatened to consume him.’ John le Carré has said he would rather watch any amount of TV battle footage than have to leaf through one of McCullin’s albums of human suffering. Visitors to one of McCullin’s exhibitions have been seen to walk around in floods of tears; and he himself offers this explanation: Photography isn’t looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures. The legendary photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, came up to McCullin at one of his exhibitions and said simply, ‘I have one word to say to you: Goya’. Today there are no more wars for him. McCullin is content to photograph the Somerset landscape, still lives, and the victims of other tragedies, such as the Aids sufferers of Africa , and much else.
JT: Are you, in a way, at peace with yourself now?
DM: Not totally, but I’m trying to move in that direction because I… I need the freedom from those ghastly memories. I need to get away from that, and I need to go forward into a new direction, you know, one that offers sunlight in respect.
JT: What was the anger that nearly consumed you?
DM: Well, there’s no question about it, that one does become a junkie, there are war junkies and they are around today. I know individuals, personally, and I can see what they’re suffering from; and I thought well, you know, I used to be like that. And even when I was like that, I wasn’t suffering, in a way, I was excited about just looking for the next war… and it becomes obsessive. And also, it’s not very nice in a way, if you think, that’s all your mind can run to, is other people’s demise; it wasn’t right somehow.
JT: But was the anger about what you saw, rather than an ambiguous anger about what you were doing in these circumstances?
DM: Well, I think we have to go back slightly and put things into context. First of all, I grew up without no education. There were never any books in my house, because I grew up in a very poor background, and I came from a bigoted background, you know, people were, you know, racist; and long before black people came to England, you know, they were racist against Jewish people, so I grew up with the very worst possible start to life. And I had to, kind of, reinvent my life and shuffle around, and try and you know, find ways of trying to educate myself; and I got into photography, purely by chance, but based on the death of a policeman.
JT: That background was in Finsbury Park …
JT: … North London …
JT: … now a respectable part of London , but, I mean, really violent; a lot… most of your friends were members of gangs, weren’t they?
DM: They were. And it was because the policeman came to, you know, intervene in a gang dispute, at the bottom of my road in Finsbury Park; somebody knifed him in the back and he died, and the person who did that also, was hung for doing so.
JT: Was he a friend of yours; did you know him?
DM: No, I didn’t know him; I knew the people that were involved, and I’d been photographing them over a period of time in a very amateurish way; so, somebody encouraged me to take my photographs to The Observer newspaper.
JT: But there’s this photograph of these members of the gang, standing in… and it is a shell, of a ruined and vandalised building; and you just took that as a young man, on spec, because you liked taking photographs.
DM: Well, they said, why don’t you take some photographs of us? And in those days, everyone wore a suit on a Sunday; they were actually waiting to go to the cinema across the road; a cinema that became very famous: it was called The Rainbow Theatre, where all the great pop festivals took place. And so, I nipped up the road, because that vandalised building was in my street, and so, I nipped up the road and got my camera, which I’d brought back from the Air Force after my national service, and I took this one negative. I didn’t have an exposure meter or anything; I guessed the exposure. The negative was absolutely perfect, and I printed that picture; and a few months later the incident took place where the man… the policeman was killed, so…
US Marines Tormenting an Old Vietnamese Civilian @ Don McCullin
“There are many ways to connive in our professions; there’re many ways of twisting the truth and manipulating situations, by posing people, by arranging things. I’ve only ever arranged one photograph in my life, other than the still life things I do in my garden sheds at home, even they’re now described as religious statements.”
JT: But the framing of these figures, because there’s a cross-section of a house; which is what it is, and you placed the figures in… one in each section… one in each section. I think, that’s… that’s uncanny.
DM: I think in a way it was fate, kind of, you know, lining me up for a life, because I had the instinct to compose really, because I always had a… even as a young boy, I went to a junior art school, so there was the seeds of creativeness in me. So, I suppose I had some composition, you know; so, I just said you know, why don’t you stand here, why don’t you do this? So, they did that, and I took this picture and they all scarpered off and went to the cinema, and I went home with my camera. And then, the next day I processed the film, and here was this one beautiful, crystal-clear negative, and that negative was the total ticket for the rest of my life.
JT: And when you took it to The Observer, after the murder of the policeman had made all this topical, I think they didn’t quite believe that you’d taken it, did they?
DM: No, the picture editor, who was a very charming man; he was in a swivel chair, and he kept swivelling around; and he looked at me and he said, now, I’m going to ask you a question. And I said, well, carry on. He said, did you take this photograph? And I said, yeah, of course I did. And he said, would you like to do some more for us? And I said, yes, I would, so I went off and I took a few more photographs; and I actually got arrested while I was doing it, by the police, because they saw me with this rather beautiful camera and they couldn’t believe that somebody of my calibre could possibly own it…
JT: They thought you’d stolen it.
DM: They thought I’d stolen it, so I was put into the police car and taken to my house to find the receipt for it, which I’d luckily kept.
JT: This was an old Rolicord, a old twin lens one, which you looked down…
JT: … through the… Have you still got it?
DM: No, I haven’t actually. I’m very impressed by the knowledge that you have of my beginnings, my humble beginnings, because I loved that camera; and I paid 30 quid for it in Aden …
JT: A lot of money!
DM: Well, in those days, I suppose it was, but it was in pristine condition; and I wound up pawning that camera, and my mother redeemed the ticket; and if she hadn’t of done, I probably would have never of taken that picture, that day.
JT: And The Observer then sent you out of Finsbury Park . They said, photograph the rest of Britain , as it were, the condition of Britain , didn’t they?
DM: Well, they offered me a retainer of 15 guineas a week, which meant two days a week, Fridays and Saturdays. And I used to work for The Observer newspaper, which was a pretty honourable position for a young person like me, who had no knowledge or real formal training as a photographer. So, by going all over England , all the mining strikes and doing portraits of well-known writers and going to theatre and photographing theatre… I started acquiring a sense of pride. I felt really proud of myself, and I thought… you know, I knew that I was levitating away from the ground on some occasions; I was so excited about photography…
JT: You were actually high on the process, when you were doing it?
DM: I was. I was very excited. And then, I started meeting other young photographers, who were much more intelligent than I was, much more educated than I, and we exchanged ideas and we looked at each other’s work, and it was so exciting for me.
JT: Was that the time that you were doing the photographs of poverty in Bradford ?
DM: No, that came later on in my life, but I got very interested in the north of England , because I’d studied the work of a man called Bill Brandt. I rang him up and said, can I come and see you? And he invited me to go and see him, which I felt was very generous, because people do it to me all the time now, and it takes your time away, but he generously gave me an hour of his time. And he became one of the people that I studied. He was a very gentle and shy man, but a man from a good background; and it was interesting that he photographed the kind of, upper-class English lifestyle, and then he also switched and went up and did the north of England, with miners being scrubbed at night before they had their dinners, and it was interesting to be with a man like him because he never said very much, but he was radiating this kind of energy towards me, and I worshipped him in a way.
“I photographed a boy brushing flies off of his dead father’s face, and the father had only been dead a short while. And I thought to myself, I remember when my father died and his body was brought back to our humble little basement dwelling…”
JT: Why I asked about those Bradford photographs, is the whole question of your relationship with the subject comes in; and there’s one particular photograph – which I shall try to describe – which is of a room; family bedroom, three children in one bed and then I think, a fourth child in another bed, and they’re all looking at you, I think, with a smile on their faces, or generally… they’re not looking, terribly poor; but you can smell, at least I can, the damp, the cold, the poverty there. Now, it can’t have been comfortable taking the photograph, but what do you think they thought; or were they rather flattered that you were there photographing them?
DM: I think you’ve got the essence of all of it in one go. It’s very nice of you to say what you said about the damp and the smell, because if you felt that you could feel that in my photograph, then it meant that I’d achieved what I was setting out to persuade you to believe, because it was true. And firstly, I grew up in a room like that as a boy; my brother and I, my mother and father slept in a room together because of the circumstances of our way of life; you see, poverty to me, was nothing strange. I walked into those houses in Bradford , and mentally I’d been there before, a long time before, so I was possibly, the best possible person to go in there and record those scenes, because I knew what it was all about.
JT: You couldn’t possibly either have felt, or been seen, as a voyeur; it was actually your experience in a sense, that you were recording.
DM: Yes, another experience similar to that was when I went to a war. It was in Cyprus – a shepherd had been murdered, and I walked into this house and I photographed a boy brushing flies off of his dead father’s face, and the father had only been dead a short while. And I thought to myself, I remember when my father died and his body was brought back to our humble little basement dwelling in Finsbury Park , and I remember the smell of the coffin and the candle burning in the room, and my father’s face. And there have been so many parallels in my life, and I’ve used these, emotionally used them.
JT: But if a photographer had come in at that moment, when you were with your father’s coffin, what would you have felt?
DM: He wouldn’t have got in, would he, really? I mean, I have to say this because I don’t want to be a hypocrite, but I’ve been around the world photographing other peoples’ grief, but we come from a nation, that being Great Britain, where if somebody came and dared to tread on the door step of our grief, we would throw them out; we would certainly react in a very angry way.
JT: But despite that, and I’m thinking of another photograph from Cyprus, where somebody’s just been shot; they’re lying in the little vestibule of a house; the wife is keening over the husband, and it probably may only be a few minutes since he was shot; there are three other bystanders, and you are there. Question of intrusion; were you intruding when you took that?
DM: I think there’s no question of a doubt; I was. I was in somebody else’s home, who’d been murdered. And I’ll take your description even further; it was not a case of the wife, minutes before the death; it was a case of a few days before the death of her new husband. They’d not long been married and all their wedding presents were in a room behind me, and they’d all been smashed by the intruders who’d murdered the two men in that room, and their father in the room behind me. So, yes, you’re absolutely right; and these moral questions, later on, they came to haunt me.
JT: But at the time?
DM: At the time… I rolled the dice. I rolled the dice and said, I’m going to take a chance. I knocked on the door of this house, there was no answer. I knocked again, there was no answer; and a British soldier was outside and he said, you know, there’s two dead blokes in there, don’t you? And I said, well, I think I’m going to see if I can go and have a look inside. And he said, well, there’s no-one in there. But I still knocked. So, I gently let myself in, and I saw these two dead men; and I was in this room with this sickly, warm blood in this Mediterranean room; the heat of the blood had been trapped in this warm room. And suddenly, the door opened and I thought, my God! I’m in for it now, because here comes the owners. And they came in, and the woman, as you see in my photograph, is holding a towel because… I don’t know what the reason was for her holding that towel, anyway, I was in the corner, and I thought their wrath is going to really descend upon me now for being here. The irony is, that in the Middle East , people are actually… particularly certain religious types of people, like Arab people, they vent their unhappiness and loss and despair. They beat themselves sometimes, and women often flay their faces, so, they want to make a statement about their grief.
JT: And your presence was, from that point of view, just an aspect of the public nature of their grief.
DM: And also possibly, part of the events of their lives at that moment. You know, you’re just part of the wallpaper really. But it has to be said, that in those days, journalists didn’t go around in packs of 1,000 like they do now when there’s a great international story; you know, one could work alone in certain places. I’ve always attached a certain amount of dignity to my presence, by that I mean, I try to almost be invisible, and I’m very, very respectable when it comes to not doing things wrong. I try to be there, but not there…
JT: Do you carry a lot of gear around, I mean…
DM: Very little.
JT: … the association of… you know, the flack-jacket and the bags, and the rolls of film and the five cameras… .
DM: No, I’ve always denied myself that image. I’ve tried to be very, very low-key. I scale it all down; I’m not like Father Christmas, from Dixons, standing there, covered from head to foot in equipment.
JT: Another moment I want to take you to back to from one of your images from the Congo, and there are two or three in one book I’ve seen, where government soldiers have rounded up some young rebels fighting for Patrice Lumumba, and they’re stripped and the soldiers are goading them with rifles…
The Bogside, Londonderry, Northern Ireland, 1971 @ Don McCullin
“I kept saying, ‘please God, don’t let me die; just give me one more chance’; and I knew as I was saying it; I thought, God you know, what a Judas you are! But it’s just a natural human thing to do. You want to live, you don’t want to die, but there again, one was quite prepared to watch others die, you see.”
JT: … and I think your text says, soon after, they shot them; and the young lads are looking absolutey – and they’re quite… they’re close-up – and they’re looking straight into your eyes.
DM: The reason they’re doing that is because they’re making a plea for your assistance, of which there’s absolutely, nothing you can do. I’ve seen those eyes looking at me before. They are part of the contamination of my mind that will never leave me. It’s an indelible thing, I will never get rid of. It’s…
JT: They are saying, save me! Aren’t they?
DM: They’re saying, please, don’t allow this; please help me! That’s what they’re saying, but their eyes are speaking, not their mouths. And you could also castigate me for actually standing there, taking the picture. I mean, I know exactly where I stand. I mean, I don’t stand on firm soil when I’m doing this work. The thing is, I’m not going to run away from the truth. I’m going to answer questions from myself, long before somebody else comes along and asks me these questions. I’m going to say, you know, should you be doing this, and at the same time I’m doing it. So, where does that leave me?
JT: Well, the truth of the matter is that if you’d intervened, the government soldiers would have shot you first.
DM: Well, I was there in a very tricky situation anyway, because I shouldn’t have been there because the ambitious Desire Mobutu who’d yet to claim the Presidential chair, had given a decree that no journalists were allowed to leave Leopoldville, which is Kinshasa in our terms today, to go to this place called Stanleyville , where the mercenaries were operating. And so, I actually disguised myself as a mercenary with the aid of a mercenary, and got there, and shortly after I took that photograph, I was arrested by the gendarmerie and I was in quite a lot of peril myself. And then, this man called Mike Hoare, intervened and…
JT: Colonel Mad Mike Hoare, leader of the mercenaries.
DM: Well, he was… He wasn’t totally mad, but he liked that dashing, kind of pimpernel, kind of… name. But they weren’t a great bunch to be with; too many of them enjoyed killing people.
JT: John le Carre has written of your ability to, this is in respect particularly to what we’re talking about, ‘to reach the moment of naked affinity, when he or she – the subject – sees him and forgives him at death’s edge; yes, take me; yes, show the world of our pain.’ I wonder in the light of what you’ve just said, whether that it isn’t a very elegant, rationalist construction of that exchange between you and the victims.
DM: If you look into many of the books that I have published; the books on the Palestinians and Beirut , and other books which contain Vietnam , and other sufferings, you know, Biafra … You’ll find many of the people in my pictures just looking at me, as if I’m the victim.
JT: You’re the victim?
DM: I know it sound irrational to say that, but I think they’re looking at me in a very tender way. I mean, I can only invite the viewer to judge for themselves, and say, well, hang on; why is this starving child looking at this photographer in such a tender way? Maybe, it’s because he’s incapable of looking any other way. I mean, starvation, after a while, what can it do to the body and the mind? All they think about is a crumb of something coming their way, but then suddenly out of nowhere, comes this rather well put together man, who looks as if he’s eaten quite a lot lately, and he’s got this camera and he’s photographing me. And then suddenly what questions must be going on in their minds when this person comes along – this person being myself. So, you look at my photographs of dying people, they are looking at me in a reasonably unforgiving way; they’re not looking at me with narrowed angered eyes, spiteful thoughts; they’re looking at me, equally in a tender way. I think it might be something to do with my approach to them, you know. I don’t stand there in a threatening way. I’m there, and I want my eyes to reach out to them, and let them know that I’m not there in any other capacity other than, a friend. Of course I know, when I press that button and I go away, I’m not going to save those people.
JT: But equally, you don’t photograph in a sentimental way, and that I’d have thought, would be very easy and a different kind of distortion.
DM: There are many ways to connive in our professions; there’re many ways of twisting the truth and manipulating situations, by posing people, by arranging things. I’ve only ever arranged one photograph in my life, other than the still life things I do in my garden sheds at home, even they’re now described as religious statements. But, the only photograph I ever arranged was, I was two American soldiers plundering the body of a North Vietnamese soldier; a young man of about 18/19 years of age; and they were rifling through this pockets, looking for souvenirs, and throwing all his personal belongings down. And even though I was with those soldiers, because I was in this great battle of the Citadel of Hue in 1968, the Tet, and when they went away I was angry; and I thought a man has fallen in an honourable fashion, fighting for the freedom of his country, the least you can do is to respect that and not vandalise his body for cheap souvenir hunting. And when they went away, I gathered together pictures of his family, and his little medical kit, and I just put them at the end of his extended hand; this dead man with a bullet through his mouth, and all of his brains hanging out of the back, and I made this statement. And I thought, you know, I’m not going to walk past a dead man if I can make a statement, without me being ghoulish, or without me treading on the respect of his sacrifice. So, one’s constantly asking questions about oneself, one’s rights and you know, I haven’t lived very easily on all these experiences.
“That’s when I became religious. I became religious when I was in terrible danger, in battles.”
JT: I want to pass another image past you, if I can re-create it for you adequately, and that is, one from Beirut . And there’s the body of a young Palestinian girl lying in the street, and behind, there’s a semi-circle of six Falange, that is right wing, nationalist Lebanese, serenading, doing a chorus over her dead body because she’s dead. Now, you see! It makes me angry to describe it; what did you feel?
DM: Well, first of all, I’d been expelled from the area. I was watching Falange executing groups of men in 10s and 20s, butchering them in front of me; stabbing them, kicking them in the face… and you know, building up,…you know, often people when they murder people like that in a genocide fashion, they have to build up hatred, and by doing so, they have to work themselves up and they have to become bestial; and they kick people, and punch people, and degrade people, because they have to bring on the courage and the excuse, and reason to murder. And I was watching this in doorways, and I could see men being shot down in cold blood in front of me; brains going all over the wall; I almost broke down. I saw some men standing there, and the next thing I know, they were dropping, and one of them was just saying, Allah, with the last breath from his lungs. And I went around into a stairwell, and I thought I was going to break down. I thought, God you know; this is not real! What’s going on? And I’d been with the Falange because we weren’t allowed to operate on the other side in what they called the green line in those days; that’s in West Beirut, so I was in East Beirut . But what shocked me before I end my story, was the fact that I was with people who call themselves Christians; that’s what really got me. And so they said, ‘you leave this area and you take no pictures’. And I was with a very nice journalist from The Sunday Times, who’s now a professor at a university in the north of England , and we were walking quite shakily away from this butchery, and I heard music. And I said to Martin, ‘do you hear music?’ And he said, ‘yes’, he said, ‘but let’s just get out of here; let’s get going’. And I said, I can music; it’s getting louder. And I passed a cross-roads, an intersection, and sure enough, I looked up and I saw this dead young Palestinian girl who could have been no more than 16 to 20 years of age, lying in this horrible, cold, damp road, because it had rained heavily the night before. And lo and behold! There was a group of young Christians; one with a Thompson machine gun and another with a Kalashnikov. One of them had a lute. And I said to Martin, ‘I’ve got to get this picture.’ And he said, ‘no, no, no; let’s go; we don’t want to make any problems’. And then, one of them, the man with the lute said, ‘hey mister! Come and take a photo’. And I said to Martin, ‘I’m going to do this’. And I went off, and I took two shots, didn’t even use my exposure meter, I guessed it; and then we fled. And it’s, in many respects, I think it’s more akin to a religious painting.
JT: Are you religious?
DM: No. I try to be. I got married in a church when I was young, but the moment my father died, I became angry and I became… I was just a very angry young man. I was 14 years of age. It was as if somebody stole my whole life without my consent.
JT: When you are in huge danger in battle…?
DM: That’s when I became religious. I became religious when I was in terrible danger, in battles. So, you see, here comes the hypocrisy creeping back into my make-up.
JT: But you knew it as hypocrisy. You knew it. I mean, everybody prays under those circumstances, don’t they?
DM: I know. I was in a terrible battle once in Cambodia , and I followed a group of men, which I was ill-advised to do by a Vietnamese commander, who was going to take the same route with these 600 marines. But they sent a probing patrol of Cambodians, and it was almost medieval. We splashed into the paddy fields to approach this small village, and in those days, the Cambodians used to always have a man carry a flag; well, he became the first victim you know, immediately. And this sort of a column, probing column got decimated, and I was in really bad trouble. And I was lying…I crawled away, and I was pushing bodies to get out of my way, and pulling them away from me to get passed them. I was up to my neck in mud and slime. And I got behind the radio operator because I thought his radio would protect my head, because that’s your most vulnerable part of your body when you’re in a war. And I managed to extricate myself from this mess; this blood and gore in this paddy field, and I ran. I laid down and I put my camera on the edge of the rice field, and a bullet struck it; and I was really losing it, and I kept saying, ‘please God, don’t let me die; just give me one more chance’; and I knew as I was saying it; I thought, God you know, what a Judas you are! But it’s just a natural human thing to do. You want to live, you don’t want to die, but there again, one was quite prepared to watch others die, you see.
JT: At the risk of suddenly being deeply, deeply banal, is photography an art or a science, or an instinct?
DM: Strangely enough, there’s an art of applying it. I’ve always assumed it was part of science, because it was science that discovered it really; you know, chemicals, paper, emulsions, film, technical cameras and things. I’m not very good technically, but…
JT: In what sense?
DM: Well, I don’t have a great brain on me really, and I suppose if I had a great brain on me, maybe the emotional side of my make-up wouldn’t be as sharp. You know, my emotions hurt me sometimes.
JT: Too bare; you’re too exposed.
“In fact, I think I used to go through a two yearly breakdown. It would only amount to me losing my nerve in a gun battle.”
DM: You know, I knew a very famous photographer once, his name was Eugene Smith, and he had a plate in his head because he got very badly injured at Iwo-Jiwa and he was a very human person; and I always described him to others, as a man who I thought had his nerve ends hanging out of his finger-tips.
JT: But do you?
DM: I thought maybe … I’ve actually improved my sanity really. I’ve actually saved my sanity. I never ever thought I was going mad but I was on the very edge of breakdowns and that. In fact, I think I used to go through a two yearly breakdown. It would only amount to me losing my nerve in a gun battle.
JT: Pretty understandable, but that Cartier-Bresson quote; when he came up to you and said, ‘it’s Goya’s war sketches’. Now an extremely flattering of course of course but, do you recognise some truth in that?
DM: Well, we’re now getting into the tricky old subject of art, aren’t we really?
DM: And you know, before you even ask me the next question, because I think it’s going to come somewhere, when people say to me, do you think it’s right to have your photos of dying people in art galleries and museums ?
JT: I wasn’t going to ask that, but I don’t mind… but still answer the first one. [laughs]
DM: Well, I created the first one in some respects, by talking about art. My philosophy is this, that art would be an indulgence, wouldn’t it really? If you were dealing with the death of other people, the wounded, the suffering, how could I indulge my fantasy for a moment and believe what I’m doing is art? I mean, if you’re an American photographer, people are always talking about The Artist; well, I’m not an artist, I’m a photographer. You know, earlier… we go back to the war photographer title; that grates as well, because it reminds me of somehow being aligned as a mercenary, or somebody who works in an abattoir. I have to be careful how I view my journey through life. I want to go out of this world – as I will do – feet first, but I want to go out with some dignity really.
JT: But if you look at your current work, and your landscapes, and those still lives that you referred to; you said, somebody said, they have a religious quality; they’re very quiet; quietest. Chardin? Surely you have to ask the question even if it’s uncomfortable of, are these art; and indeed why shouldn’t they be; you’re not exploiting anybody, even risking exploiting anybody.
DM: No, I think that the reason that people possibly think they might be a little pretentious is because I collect Oriental bronzes, which are associated with Buddhism and all kinds of Indian gods and goddesses, and I mix them up with the fruits and berries from my gleaning of the countryside. I love being in England in the autumn. I love being in England during the winter, not on days like yesterday, but I like the crisp days of today, and I look forward to the evening light, and the naked trees when I go out; and I live in this Arthurian world of Somerset . And you know… I lay it on a bit thick, I know I do, but I really like working with angry clouds, and naked trees, and English hedgerows and things, and you know, I think I’m allowed to use this as a kind of herbal medicine for my mind; to love the environment where I live.
JT: There’s a very interesting thing you just said, where you admitted, I think very nicely, that the drama of your Somerset landscapes, you lay it on a bit thick.Now I think you’re perfectly entitled to it but it’s as if you’re using it in an almost expressionist way; is it that you’re avoiding doing the nice English landscape?.
DM: Yes, I am. I think John Fowles, who also kindly did an introduction in my book, talked about the tourist board being horrified at my images because they’re always shot in the winter time. I’ve also been accused by the way, of my English landscapes looking like war scenes. But I inject these dark skies, and obviously, the dark skies and the reflection of water in the Somerset Levels, the darkness in me is still there, really.
JT: But do you feel that the landscape itself is a dark presence. I mean, you clearly have a very strong sense of nature. Now, is that nature beneficent, benevolent, or is it storing up all sorts of awful cruelty?
DM: I like to think it’s benevolent really because I’m trying to also make a plea for the English countryside. This is one of my great passions. I hate the idea of swamping this country with shoe-box housing. People who buy up beautiful pieces of England , and turn them into homes; I’m not going to mention names because I don’t want to be in court. But I mean, the fact is, people need homes, but we also… we’re living in a country where the English countryside could be turned into one big theme park, if we don’t look out. We have to realise the precious moment now, that we have to pass on to our children and grandchildren, and so on and so on. I’m making a plea by… people are actually liking my English landscape photographs, despite the fact that they’re sometimes a bit gloomy… they’re saying, I really like your landscapes, and I hope you do more, so, I’m moving towards one thing and hopefully, miles away from the other thing which was war.
JT: And of course, India and other places like that have been a place of balm for you, haven’t they? And you’ve taken photographs of Kumbh Mela, this huge gathering of Indian believers. Now what was important about that gathering for you?
DM: Well, first of all, making some parallel to what was going on in Beirut with the lute player; you know, when you go to India you can’t help escaping the fact, that you’re in one, gigantic religious pageant and canvas. It’s bigger than your imagination could ever run to. And at the Kumbh Mela, over a period of several days, 14 million people come and bathe in the Ganges . And these people, in their shrouded kind of appearances, the Holy Men, I could shut my eyes at those gatherings and press my camera button, and still get great pictures.
JT: But what do you feel about it as an individual?
DM: I was impressed by peoples’ devotion, because we live in a country where we’ve lost our beliefs and our devotion; and this is… the old hypocritical me is coming back here. I know that our churches are standing dank and empty on Sunday afternoons. I often get the shivers and think, my God; what’s going to happen to these churches when they need renovation; who’s going to pay for all that? So, when I went to India and I saw people rushing to the Ganges to be part of faith and their religion, I was very impressed by that, because if you’re living in a country like ours now, where we’ve got almost contempt for the church… not all of us of course; I mustn’t generalise.
But I was driven to church as a boy when I was evacuated, I went to morning service, they managed to get me into the Sunday afternoon service, church service, and then I was pushed off for the evening service because the people didn’t want me in their house. I was totally against church as a boy. Basically, I was totally against all forms of authority.
JT: But going back to the Indians, isn’t there a danger that what you’re doing, is being sentimental about it? After all you could, and lots of photographers do, go to India and say, look at the appalling conditions in which x hundred million people live – you’ve chosen to take a different cross section of that, which many people would quite understand – but it’s interesting that you should respond to that bit of India, rather than the grinding poverty.
DM: Well, if you looked through my last India book, you will see evidence of poverty, you will see lepers crawling on their kind of chest, begging for rice and anything that’s coming their way. There is evidence that I haven’t just seen India through a kind of kaleidoscope of pretty glass. I’ve actually… because it is like a kaleidoscope of beautiful colour, India , with all the clothes and things. The tragedy about India now, like everywhere else, when I first went to India, with a very distinguished travel writer called Eric Newby, he showed me Calcutta and Delhi; it looked like a snow storm, because everyone was wearing the national dress – it was called a dhoti, white you know, pristine white. And you go to India now, and people can’t wait to get into western clothes. India ‘s not was it was 30 years ago when I first went there.
JT: And it shouldn’t be.
DM: No, it shouldn’t be. If they feel comfortable in taking on the modern way of life, they should share the comforts of modern life. But, what I’m really saying is that when you exchange one thing for another, I think you lose more than you gain.
JT: Do you feel, looking at your work as a whole, that you have been cast, and all the people that I’ve quoted, myself included, cast you as a kind of sacrificial lamb, or scapegoat. That is that the burden of witnessing what you did, and witnessing it for us vicariously is something which we have been very happy that you should do for us, and that we can shed an easy tear over the results of your engagement and your suffering?
DM: I possibly think whatever I did, and whatever it did to me is totally unimportant, because many of my colleagues got killed in wars, and as much as I’m saddened for their families, things like that, we all went to war to profit, in some way or another really. We went because we wanted to enlighten ourselves, we wanted to create reputations for ourselves so that we’d be offered the other opportunities that go with reputation; and so, in many ways, I’ve always thought to myself, I went to war as a photographer. I went as a messenger, but at the same time I knew exactly where my feet were standing, so I was under no illusions that anyone was using me or I was using them; I’m talking about editors and organisations. So, I’ve been very level-headed about what my reasons for going were; they were to enlighten and enhance my life as a photographer.
JT: And what about the life of your audience and your viewers? You must have wanted to change things, so that people would look, some of the titles of your books suggest that; why isn’t somebody doing something?
DM: Well, naively, of course. When I first went to war, I went to war because I thought it was very exciting and adventurous, but then after a while, I discovered it was at the cost of terrible suffering and that. It wasn’t until I went to Biafra, and walked into those camps and saw dying children… then I got a shock, because I had children of my own; who lived comfortably in Hampstead, in London . So, I suddenly took on a totally different thought about what I was there for, the reasons I was going in the future; and then I became less and less enchanted by being with soldiers, and ducking and weaving as bullets went over my head, I started realising, this is not what we should be talking about; we should be talking about the innocent bystanders; who’re always the last people to be told when it’s coming.
“I possibly think whatever I did, and whatever it did to me is totally unimportant, because many of my colleagues got killed in wars, and as much as I’m saddened for their families, things like that, we all went to war to profit, in some way or another really.”
JT: But you also wanted people to look at your photographs here and say, this is so awful that we must do something about it and stop it. I mean, wasn’t that something which got you through some of the more difficult moments?
DM: There’s a knack was in what I was actually doing, I’d created a knack of making people look at the photographs. You know, when I was a boy and I saw pictures of the atrocities that the Nazis committed during the war because it came in the period, when the war was over, I was getting into my teens; and publications appeared, and I saw these terrible pictures; you didn’t want to look at them, you wanted to reject them out of hand. And what I wanted to do with my work was to show a sensitivity, even in the darkest, suffering moments of these peoples’ lives so that you were allowed to be drawn in; so that you would look and give those pictures more than a few seconds before you discarded them… Though I think, without boasting, because it’s not what I’m good at; boasting, I think I’ve succeeded. But what I didn’t understand was that one war becomes another war because you know, we as human beings are basically not the people that create these wars, they’re created by politicians and despots who want to make life for themselves more interesting.
I think that may be a bit unfair to some politicians, but that’s… that’s another conversation.
JT: Did you ever see yourself as a propagandist? Did you think, what I show people…
JT: … will change things?
DM: Yeah, I mean… absolutely. I think, what would be the purpose of me not being a propagandist if I went and leaned over some poor devil who was dying and starving, and what have you, and not making a statement for him. It’s like going back to the soldier. I wanted to make a statement. I wanted people to see. And you know, from a point of view as me as a person, who was not a sophisticated, educated, Oxbridge person who came away with all kinds of degrees; I was totally raw, from Finsbury Park . So, you know, I had to be careful not to be seen as a pretentious, kind of whippersnapper that was trying to make a big name for himself and yet couldn’t put two words together. It didn’t matter really. My eyes were my voice, and my eyes were the journeys that we, myself and my eyes and my feelings, travel through and we brought back these images. We put the images down, and that was my job done really. I didn’t have to make a statement about it.
JT: Makes me think that, perhaps in your case, maybe in others, the process of the English education – inverted commas – does knock the feeling out of people, and that if you kept your feelings, raw edges, as you clearly did, that was the best thing that could possibly have happened to you.
DM: I absolutely agree with you, because I’ve often given it thought, and I thought to myself, do you know, if I’d have been to one of the great universities in England and I had a great mind, would I have had the same sentiments; would I have had the same compassion for people; would I have picked up a child and taken it to a first aid clinic, like because I knew it was dying of cholera, as one has done in the past? Not very often, but you know, sometimes I felt terribly guilty about photographing people, and I would, because people do say do you ever do anything for anybody? Well, sometimes you can’t, because circumstances don’t allow you to suddenly take someone’s child to a clinic, because you know, mum might get left behind or separated and you can’t do that. But, you look at someone with a ghastly bullet wound; what can I do? I don’t know how to even administer morphine. I don’t know how to tie off a tourniquet and stop bleeding. I don’t know any of those things. So, it’s a dilemma that’s been awful for me sometimes.
“I wanted to make a statement. I wanted people to see. And you know, from a point of view as me as a person.”
JT: And now you want to find yourself in a different way, not just in India as we discussed, but in classical remains, Roman classical remains in Syria ; now, what’s driven you there?
DM: Of late, I’ve developed a great interest in art. This is art that other people have exercised and offered to me, and I’m getting more and more interested in the beautiful things of the world. I think it all stems from collecting my little bronzes, and doing my little you know, religious pictures; as they say. But also, when I’m in the English countryside, and I’m standing and I’m watching the clouds unfold, and I’m seeing that religious shafts of light coming through those wonderful January skies…I’m becoming more poetical; and of course, it’s got something to do with the fact that I’m looking at the horizon of the end of my journey. I’m looking at the infinity mark where I will finally wind up, but I still have energy; I still have excitement in me; there’s nothing more exciting for me than being in my darkroom and make the most beautiful print of one of my landscapes. But now, I’m saying, my landscapes shouldn’t just be Somerset you know. I’ve got this great interest in going to Syria now, and photographing the Roman antiquities there, and I should do it.
JT: When young photographers say, ‘I want to be the next Don McCullin’, how do you reply?
DM: Well, somebody said this only yesterday actually. Somebody said, that a very famous war photographer – an American – said it to him many years ago. He said, ‘I’m going to be the next Don McCullin.’ And quite honestly, he’s welcome to be where I was, he can’t be me; but anybody’s welcome to those laurels; they’re rather kind of worn out and faded, those laurels; they’ve gone.
JT: But you’re not rejecting them; you can’t.
DM: I’m trying to. I’m trying to reject them through my new work, and through the peaceful journey that I’ve now taken on. And quite honestly, my house is full of pictures of devastation, and pain and suffering. And I published a book a few years ago and I called it, Sleeping with Ghosts, because I know that when I’m in my house and I’m down one end of it asleep, down the other end there’s all these filing cabinets with this raucous noise going on down there. I mean, obviously it sounds to you as though I’m slightly barking, but I’m not. I’m totally in control of myself, and hopefully, I’ll try and play some part in my destiny. But I know that living in that house, there is some mischief going on, down where those filing cabinets lie. You can’t have that material, that energy in a house or in a place, without something going on down there.
JT: Don McCullin, thank you very much.
DM: It’s a pleasure.
Listen to the interview with Don McCullin
ASX CHANNEL: DON MCCULLIN