Turkish woman, with her son, learning of the death of her husband killed by Greek militia, Gaziveren, Cyprus, 1964
“Peace is more elusive. It’s invisible and abstract as you said. As for war, it is in your face. You cannot see a dead person and walk around it as if it were not there. It’s there. It revolts you.”
The Confession of a War Photographer
A Conversation Between World-Renown War Photographer Don McCullin and Jiang Rong, May 19, 2006 at a Hotel in New York.
J: You have been regarded as one of the greatest war photographers and you have just been given the Cornell Capa Award by ICP. But you have also said that you don’t like to be regarded as a war photographer. Why?
M: It doesn’t have a nice ring to the name of war photographer. It makes me seem like a demented person. It makes me seem like all I can do is to photograph war. You can’t imagine how many things I can do photographically, including still life and landscape. I can still do advertising if I want and which I hate. I work on negatives in the darkroom. I am a wide-range person and hate to be categorized. Why do we need to have titles? Why can’t we just be photographers?
J: You have also said that it was easy to photograph war, but it would be much more difficult to photograph peace. Why is it more difficult to photograph peace? Is it because peace is more abstract?
M: Peace is more elusive. It’s invisible and abstract as you said. As for war, it is in your face. You cannot see a dead person and walk around it as if it were not there. It’s there. It revolts you.
But peace has many hidden layers. Behind the stone wall of these apartments here, there are people’s lives. It may not be so much here, because these are rich people’s apartments. If you go to Harlem, there are people suffering. There are sufferings in peace as well as in war.
“Darkness, to me, is energy. When I energize my prints in the darkroom, I inject more and more darkness into them. But I don’t consider it to be darkness. I consider it to be strength. I want my pictures to be strong. I want them to punch you in the face when you look at them.”
J: You have also said that you are constantly seeking darkness. And darkness is a key term to describe your photos.
M: Darkness, to me, is energy. When I energize my prints in the darkroom, I inject more and more darkness into them. But I don’t consider it to be darkness. I consider it to be strength. I want my pictures to be strong. I want them to punch you in the face when you look at them. I want you to be angry when you look at my pictures and be thinking whether we are living in a civilized world. Why am I looking at these terrible images like a child starving in a world where there is too much food in the West? We can share food without technology. So I make prints in the darkroom. I am making prints of anger and despair.
J: A Chinese poet once wrote a poem. It is very simple. It only has two lines. “Darkness has given me a pair of black eyes. I use them to seek brightness”.
A shell-shocked U.S. Marine after the 1968 Tet offensive in South Vietnam
As you know, Eugene Smith is one of the greatest war photographers of an earlier generation. He took photos of World War II. He also took photos of his children. That is the famous photo entitled “The Walk to Paradise Garden”. For you, how do you strike a balance between darkness and brightness?
M: You find a way to escape. For me, I walk in the country. I pick berries from the tree. I feel I am rewarded from my walk. I collect wild berries. I took them home and wash them and then put them in deep freeze. And I eat them six months later.
M: Because they are out of season. So I am feeling the celebration of these berries. It sounds very strange. A man like me is not going to have normal thoughts. I am always different from other people.
“In a way, every thing we are is in our head. But we get our message first from our eyes and then it goes to our head and then it goes straight out.”
J: The title of one of your books is “Hearts of Darkness”. Why did you borrow this title from Joseph Conrad?
M: Heart is the emotional part of our body. We believe our soul is near our heart and not a heart within our heart. Therefore, when you sometimes accuse someone, you would say he has got no heart. Heart is our soul. In a way, every thing we are is in our head. But we get our message first from our eyes and then it goes to our head and then it goes straight out.
A US Marine hurling a grenade in Hue, Vietnam, in February 1968
US Marine wounded in the legs, the Citadel, Tet Offensive, Hué, South Vietnam, February 1968
“So when I was in a war, my fear would show itself. I immediately needed to urinate twice and not once. And once that was finished, I was ready to show my courage.”
So when I was in a war, my fear would show itself. I immediately needed to urinate twice and not once. And once that was finished, I was ready to show my courage. When I was approaching the front, I could hear the guns. I knew I was closer to the death of men and myself. It’s a strange thing to tell you. I have never told anybody about this, not to a journalist. That was my cure for fear.
J: One of your iconic photos is this American Marine who was shell-shocked. And you said that you don’t really like it right now. Is it natural for a soldier to be afraid first as you have just described it yourself?
M: It is not unnatural to be afraid, whether it is for a solider or for a man in the street. Fear is a companion of us. I would give you a much clarifying answer for the reason of getting sick of that photograph. My friend Eddie Adams took that famous picture of the execution in Saigon. He wound up hating that picture, because that was all people saw in his big portfolio.
J: It seems to me you mostly take black and white photos and I have never seen your color photos.
M: I have thousands of color photos in my house. I don’t talk about them. I have no interest or pleasure of them. None. I am a truly devoted follower of black and white photos. There are many other photographers who love color. Let them do it. Ernest Haas interprets color beautifully. And Jay Maisel here in the United States. People are very qualified to do what I don’t want to do. So it is no great loss for me.
J: Do you think color photos are not appropriate for war photos?
M: All the photos we have seen taken in Iraq now are in color. I don’t really need to see the glory of blood in color. I don’t need to see people’s environment in color. It doesn’t make much difference for me in color or in black and white really. But, frankly speaking, black and white is a much more holding and powerful image.
“I have a mirror in my darkroom so that I can see myself. So I am not alone.”
J: You also like darkroom. You have said, “The message doesn’t go directly from the negatives onto the paper, it journeys through me.”
M: Of course. The conception of the original work in the battlefield or in the landscape or anywhere is a constant procedure of thoughts. You don’t just go and bang your camera. I am not making sausages when I am making negatives. I am making statement concerning other people’s despair, their lives and their poverty. Everything has to be an intense thoughtful process. I then carry that image in my camera bag thousands of miles all the way back to England. I worry it when it is in the darkroom, because I want to make sure that my exposures are right. And then it comes the time for printing. The night before I was going to the darkroom, I lay awake in bed thinking about what I have seen and have made, and about making sure the definition would be sharp and the composition would be right. And I would be worrying whether I could burn the skies in and how I am going to burn this and dodge that.
As for this photo of the shell-shocked US Marine, every time when I put the negative in the enlarger, I have to hold these eyes back because it is complete darkness on the negative. I have to burn in this mouth. I have burned in the right size of the picture. I have to cut a mask. I have 15 or 20 prints of this image in my house so that when I die, my wife will be left with these images and will have money to bury me. So it is just as big a challenge as in the battlefield.
J: You have also compared the darkroom as a womb. And you said that there you are constantly searching and you are having a conversation with yourself.
M: I have a mirror in my darkroom so that I can see myself. So I am not alone.
US troops, West Berlin, West Germany, 1961
“When you take pictures, it is like picking berries. You go to the big ones and the best ones. Don’t be in a hurry to fill your bag with second-rate berries.”
J: You have also said that we have to respect photography and you use the film with utmost respect. Why?
M: Because they are valuable. When I was young, I had bad cameras and used to stay in the poorest hotel. I never took taxi. I walked miles and miles to get to the location. I was like that until I joined the Contact Press Images. Then my life changed. I got expenses paid.
Film and photo paper is a wonderful and magical scientific invention. When some photographers go on assignment, they shoot 80 rolls of film. Look at Winogrand. Young photographers use motor drives. It is overkill. When you take pictures, it is like picking berries. You go to the big ones and the best ones. Don’t be in a hurry to fill your bag with second-rate berries. The philosophy in photography is: Don’t overkill. Go slowly. Go with dignity to take images when you are dealing with pains and sufferings. Machine guns need victims of war, but photography doesn’t. It’s overkill. I only needed 20 rolls of film to do a major assignment.
J: You just used the word “dignity”. I think dignity is another key term of your photography. You said that dignity is what you try to show.
M: If I find it, I will make sure that I will try to convey that dignity. When you are dealing with a war situation, soldiers are still human beings. They have been trained to kill other people. They have the means to kill other people. They have guns. But the women and starving children, these are just the victims of the stupidity and ambitions of politicians. The soldiers always have backup. They have medics and have ways to escape war. They know that if they are injured, they would be taken away for safety and will be cleared their pains. The civilians don’t.
J: After you had done your first book “Destruction Business”, you realized that you mostly concentrated on soldiers at the beginning in your war photography and you needed to shift your focus on civilians.
M: What a fool I would have been if I hadn’t. What a fool I would have been today if I hadn’t realized that I was going in the wrong direction. So when I went to Biafra, I saw the starving children. I quickly turned my attention to the priority of the imagery of those terrible days when I looked at those dying children. If I had not changed from the beginning of my life to what I am now, my whole life would have been wasted.
J: Talking about Biafra, I think you have made some of the most dignified photos over there. For example, that photo of a Biafran mother holding her child. I would like to talk about that sixteen-year old Biafran girl whose name was Patience. I know that you asked her to cover her private parts up with her hands before taking her photos.
M: You know I don’t have the greatest mind in the world and never will have. I had no education and came from a very poor family. But I have a sense of dignity. When this poor girl walked in and was dying from starvation. Each step she took would cause pains. I quickly insisted that she be allowed to sit down to take her weight off her legs. But she was completely naked. I thought everybody would have been shocked if I hadn’t offered a way out for her nakedness in the last hours of her life. So I said to a doctor, could you ask her to cover up?
I don’t manipulate my photographs normally. I am guilty of two manipulations in my images. One was that girl holding her hands to cover up. The other one is the dead North Vietnamese soldier with the photos.
J: How did you manipulate the latter photo?
M: Some American soldiers were looting his body looking for souvenirs. They were picking these things up and laughing and throwing them down. And then they went away. I stood there horrified by their behavior. One would normally respect the fall of a soldier. I felt I got to say something about this moment. I could see his pictures of a little girl and an adult, maybe her mother. I thought I got to make a statement for this man. He was a 19 or 18-year-old courageous, fallen North Vietnamese soldier fighting for his rights and for his country’s freedom.
No one was my enemy, by the way. There was no enemy in war for me. I was a totally neutral passing-through person. The American soldiers insulted his valor and his honor. And I hated them. So I brought these photos together and make sure the frame of that picture I took of him would last.
J: Have you ever walked away from an image if the person didn’t want you to take a photo of him?
M: I did something in Beirut which I paid for when a woman beat me. You have to have these experiences. I very rarely made that mistake I made that day. I am very cautious. You know the bird heron can catch a fish by his statuesque talent. I am like that. I wait. That day in Beirut, I made a mistake. The woman came and screamed at me. And I turned around. She spotted me. She wanted to take her vengeance out. I gave her the perfect excuse. I paid the price. I had to be singled out, because I foolishly overstepped the mark. It was clumsy. It was not a considered, smart move. And then she came, roaring and punching. And I had to turn around. She punched me very forcefully. The other people came and took her away.
Anti-war demonstration in London from the 1960s
Christian Phalangist gunmen sing beside the body of a Palestinian girl, Karantina, Beirut, January 1976
“It’s not about pictures. It’s about me. It’s about the person I photograph. It’s about circumstance. Photography is only a byword for me. It’s a means to an end. It has no part in my approach to a subject. My mind, my eyes and my emotions do. It’s an emotional experience for me, not photography.”
J: You have also mentioned that you don’t want to steal a photo. You don’t want to take a photo from a distance.
M: I don’t have a long lens. The longest lens I have 105mm. It’s a portraiture lens.
J: So you have said you always want to have eye contact with the person you are going to photograph and to get approval from the person.
M: Of course. I want to have approval, making the person happy, because I am not stealing or taking advantage. And when I get that approval, I almost like embracing the person. I don’t know about lenses. I don’t have the mathematical brain. And I just take pictures. It’s not about pictures. It’s about me. It’s about the person I photograph. It’s about circumstance. Photography is only a byword for me. It’s a means to an end. It has no part in my approach to a subject. My mind, my eyes and my emotions do. It’s an emotional experience for me, not photography.
J: Have you also said that photographers are now too close to their subjects?
M: A lot of photographers now ring me up and send me their photos by mail. I don’t like email in my life. I don’t want to sit and look into a little box for hours after hours talking to another person from another country, who wants to communicate all the time. I do not want to communicate all the time other than through my images. That is my communication. Why would I want to waste my time sitting in front of a computer? I want to be facing into the world. I don’t want to be facing into an electric box despite the fact the computer is a marvelous and helpful instrument. I don’t want it right now in my life. I am too old to start learning computer and taking myself away from the last moment of photography.
J: I was asking whether photographers are too close to their subjects now. As you know, Robert Capa, another greatest war photographer once said, “If your photos are not good enough, it is because you are not close enough.” But David Burnett had a show in Perpignan last year. The title is “Too Close”. I think what David wanted to say is that photographers also need to step back and to show the context of their photography.
“I don’t have a gun. I am taking pictures of you in your hours of misery. And at the same time, I would help you if I can. But as a photographer, you are not there as a medic. You are there to take pictures.”
M: I think I have got the right distance most of the times. My distance is just about right. You don’t want to suffocate the victims. You want to tell a story. You want to let the victims breathe and give them horizon. They are suffering anyway. I keep the right distance.
Sometime you put the camera down. I took a picture of an American Marine who was against the wall with bullet wounds. Two other Marines were helping him. He looked like Jesus Christ on crucifixion looking up in pain. I took the picture and put the camera down. I said to them, “Bring him to me.” They came to me. I got him on my back. I was thirty one years old. I was a very strong young man. I ran him away from the battle, leaving my camera behind. He was in great misery and pain. I took him almost a hundred yard back to the command bunker. The colonel was an old man and he said to me, “Outstanding!” But I didn’t care about his remarks.
But you know what. For me, it was a gesture to share their danger and not just to share their food and their army rations. It was a way to share their respect. I was photographing these soldiers dying and being terribly wounded. And I wanted to show to these people that I am here with you. I don’t have a gun. I am taking pictures of you in your hours of misery. And at the same time, I would help you if I can. But as a photographer, you are not there as a medic. You are there to take pictures.
J: I will come back to the religious overtone of your photos later. But I would like to discuss with you the issue of independence or neutrality you mentioned a moment ago. If you are embedded with Israeli forces or Biafran forces, and they were protecting you, do you think you could still be an independent witness?
M: The embedded troops today are protecting you. When you were with all these soldiers in the old days, they wouldn’t protect you. There was no immunity from the shells that come down on you from all directions. No one can protect you. If you are on one of these Humvees like James Natchwey recently, he was being protected. The Time magazine writer who was with him lost his hand, because a grenade exploded as he grabbed it and threw it away and Natchwey was hit also. There is no ultimate protection. We did our own protection. But in Baghdad, if you are a Western journalist and go out into the street, you would die. You would be kidnapped and murdered.
U.S. Marines with a captured civilian, suspected of being a North Vietnamese sympathizer, Hué, Vietnam, February 1968
U.S. Marines, Hué, Vietnam, February 1968
J: When you work for the Observer or the Sunday Times magazine, which have their own points of view, did you really try to cater to their points of view?
M: No, I cater to my own point of view. I equate on the spot. I have to tell you something. Most people working in the media are liberal or left. Writers, journalists and photographers are inclined to be liberal. Of course, there are also some people who work for newspapers and are right-wing. They write about capital punishment and all kinds of terrible things. The truth about it is that I belong to myself. I make my own judgment and decisions. I am not owned by anybody. I own myself. Whatever I choose to do, I’ll do it. I never took any direction from anybody.
J: Then I believe that you have to be honest to yourself. You have to be honest to life and to the subject.
M: The moment you become dishonest, you have to find another lie to cover that one up. And then you cover each one lie up with another lie. It would be foolish to be dishonest, because you would be found out. Being dishonest is like being a traitor to yourself. I can walk with my head high and feel proud of my achievements, which I don’t talk about. I am vain in some way, but not with my photography. We all are slightly vain in our lives. But I don’t have anything to hide.
Photography has been good to me, but at the same time，there were also bad days which I am still carrying in my mind. So photography, like me, has to engage you philosophically.
“Look at Cartier-Bresson, he never went to the darkroom. His whole works were printed by a regular printer in Paris. It didn’t make less of him for his reputation.”
J: You mentioned computer just now. There are a lot of soft-wares like Adobe Photoshop which can let you create fake photos.
M: I know a great photographer who said to me, “I am so excited. I am doing new works now and would like to show you some of my photos.” He used to go to the museum of natural history and photograph stuffed animals.
And he tries to create a jungle with all these different animals and superimpose them. And he is like a child as if he were someone who had been given a paint-by-numbers set with a box of paint. He showed me his pictures and I thought, “Are you serious?” He is such an intellectual man. How can he be reduced to child-like behavior?
But you are right about what you said. I have spent 50 years in my darkroom making my pictures. Then I spend hours retouching. It’s a nightmare. Someone gave me a print yesterday. It is one of my Beatles pictures. He made it out of computer on a beautiful paper like watercolor paper.
J: So are you going to use digital papers for your prints also?
M: Well, I may. I have to give up darkroom. My chest is very bad. I have spent 50 years in the darkroom. It’s like smoking 60 cigarettes a day for the last 50 years. It is highly difficult to breath. And my legs are very arthritic. The darkroom will give me up. The timing is amazing. I try to buy a plastic apron yesterday so that I won’t ruin my clothing in the darkroom. But I couldn’t get one. I asked why. The shop assistant said darkrooms are dying. I am looking at the end of an era.
J: So do you think a good photographer has to work in the darkroom to be able to get the prints he or she wants?
M: Look at Cartier-Bresson, he never went to the darkroom. His whole works were printed by a regular printer in Paris. It didn’t make less of him for his reputation. But what Cartier-Bresson had lost out on this maybe is that his printer in the end was making sausages, not his prints. He just puts the negative on an enlarger and presses the button and turns the light on and takes it out. I don’t do that.
It takes 5 or 6 hours for me to make a print in the darkroom. I test the paper the way I test myself. It takes me 5 to 6 minutes in the developer to make a fine landscape print. I wash my prints for two hours. I use hyper elimination, which is a very dangerous chemical. They say if you put in the hyper elimination, you only need to wash for ten minutes. I still wash for two hours.
J: You have also said that you usually only make 5 prints a day.
M: Yes, I made three or four attempts to make a print. Sometime I tear some of them up and wind up maybe one or two.
J: How can you make your photos look so full of atmosphere? I know you also like taking your landscape photo before the evening comes.
M: For me, right now this overcast sky has a fantastic light. I take this light. I can put a filter on now in the camera. I can take it in the darkroom. I can put it onto another grade of paper which makes it very difficult for me to print. ‘But I am taking it up in grades, injecting dramas in it. It is nice for you to say that my pictures have atmosphere. I try to embrace you. I try to make you feel you coming down a tunnel and into my world. I want to trap you. I want you to be held by my visual imagery. I don’t want you to look at my pictures and say that is very nice and then look somewhere else. I want you to look at it and find it difficult to turn your head away.
J: We were talking about your photos having a very strong religious overtone. Sometimes you also had this Biblical light in your photos as you mentioned before, especially in Sabra, Beirut. And you said just now that the photo of that injured Marine looked like Jesus Christ on the Cross. But you have also claimed that you are an atheist.
M: I am. And I have also said that I am full of contradictions. When my father died, I was angry. And I used to get along with gangs and boys. We used to throw bricks into shop windows and do terrible things. We used to set the fire alarm off in the street and bring the fire engines when there was no fire. It was my anger of losing my father.
“I have a philosophy in photography. The day I think I have arrived in photography, that is the day when I have lost as a person. You must never arrive as a human being. You must constantly be journeying.”
J: You have said that when your father passed away, it was like your God had died.
M: Taking my father’s life was a social crime, because there was no medicine and no comfort for his misery. I was angry about the social implications of why my father died. I was thirteen years old. You can’t imagine how I grew up. There were families living on top of each other like you would find it in Harlem or somewhere. It’s all about violence. I used to fight with other boys. You never won all the times. I used to take beatings from other boys and beatings from the School Master. My mother used to beat me. I was an angry young man. And now I am calm down.
When I used to go to school in the morning, we used to have religious assembly. And I used to laugh my way through it. We would sing hymns and I would try to sing like a baritone. And the teacher would run down and said, “I am going to find out this boy”. He wanted it us to sing like angels. When he came up and down the line looking, he would never suspect me, because I have fair hair and my eyes are light. The religious thing annoyed me. I hated it.
When I was sent to the countryside during the Second World War, they sent me to morning service, afternoon and Sunday schools and evening service, just to keep me out of the house and people would look after me. So I grew up hating religion.
J: Then how come you could have this religious overtone in your photos?
M: I have been to many art galleries. I have seen many iconic images of battles by painters in the past, like Italian painters. When I looked at the human beings in trouble, I remember a man being murdered in the doorway in Beirut as he was dropping down after being hit by two bullets, the last word he said was “Allah”. When he was dropping, his last word was calling for God. And people always look up when they are about to die. Don’t ask me why. For example, the look of this Marine, who looked like Jesus Christ.
There are religious icons around. I don’t know whether you have noticed it or not. But I have. When I went to war, I saw these images of Jesus Christ suffering in this Biblical sense. The flogging, the scourging and the crucifixion. Everybody does that. So the photo I took of the men who came out of the cemetery, it was a classical religious icon. And my photo of the man in Kumbh Mela, India, with his shawl. You know the famous picture of Cartier-Bresson of the women standing in Kashmir. It’s like going back to the first century.
J: Also, you have said that we all carry crucifixion within us. So do you think that all your life you have carried crucifixion within you?
M: I feel I have been carrying that heavy cross and being scourged on the Mount Calvary for an awfully long years of my life. My wife said to me that you have to calm down and you have to give up. It’s so depressing to listen to your talk. I said to her I am trying to get away from it.
I am finding myself not as happy as Mr. Li Zhensheng, your Chinese photographer friend. It seems to me he is very happy. I don’t share his hope. Maybe he has seen a lot of changes in China. I have seen a lot of changes in my life. I have seen people who used to be called stupid and who are mentally-handicapped people. People have changed their attitudes towards these handicapped people. We have made special ramp ways so that people in wheelchair can walk. We are trying to behave better towards our fellow human beings. But it is still a long way from reaching the ultimate goal. So the religious side of life has been a problem for me. I personally try to find God when I am in trouble. When the bullets were clicking on top of my head, and I thought any moment I would be dead, I used to pray for God, because you got nobody else to turn to. It is called hypocrisy.
J: I think this is a matter of difference between Chinese philosophy and Western philosophy. For Eastern philosophy, when you get older and older, you really become more and more submissive to your Fate. And then you start to smile. But Westerners tend to fight to the end. It doesn’t mean the Chinese don’t want to fight, but they fight with a smile.
M: Of course, it is not all over. They are looking for a new beginning. The Buddhists believe at the end of the life there is hereafter. When I was young at school, I was convinced there is place called Heaven. But I want to find it now, not after 60 or 70 years. I want to be in Heaven at the age of 2 or 3. I don’t want to go through life, having to pay a heavy penalty only to be deceived at the end. Look at these suicide bombers, what do they say to the bombers now? “You would go to a place with many virgins”. They are talking to a man who has never known women and had sex with women. Why offer someone with something that has not been found before? It is terrible to convince someone to go and kill a whole lot of other people with a bomb. And then you would go out to Heaven where there will be 30 virgins waiting for you. It’s such a terrible problem.
J: You have also said that you are now sentencing yourself to peace. Do you think that by taking your landscape photos, which to me are very celestial, you are trying to redeem yourself?
M: Of course. I am looking for the Magic Carpet to arrive to waive my reputation. More and more people are talking about my landscape photos. I couldn’t be more thrilled about that. I want people to start enjoying my photography now and not see it as revulsion. I never sold my pictures but only my landscape pictures. People are buying my landscape pictures all the time. I could be in the darkroom making landscape pictures now. It helps my living.
I was given a job by Swiss watch company to go to the edge of sea. The story of the company is “The Edge of Land”. I went to Spain, France and England to the very last tip of the land into Atlantic. I could not be more happy. I almost didn’t need the payment for it, because I was being paid by being there.
J: So after you left Sunday Times, you started to do advertising jobs. Do you think there is any contradiction between doing a commercial job and being a photojournalist?
M: There is nothing but contradiction. It was a terrible betrayal to myself. But I had no money. When you have no money, nobody is going to say, “Don, it’s ok. You can stay in your house and not pay for the bills. And by the way, we are not going to charge you the tax for living there.” I don’t want to lose my house and be nowhere to live and be miserable.
Where I live is a most beautiful place. It sits on a hill. I wake up in the morning with a great valley beneath me, which belongs to my house. The valley is a miniature valley. It stretches up and down with a river. I would go down there with my little boy. We would throw twig into river and watch the river taking it away. It’s tranquility and meditation there for me and my boy. I watch trout in the river. They are very clever trout. If you make a slightly strong move, they are gone and you see the mud in the river rising. I love the joy of that moment. I put some more fish in the river and I don’t like catching them.
J: I was also trying to ask you whether by taking landscape photos, you are trying to redeem yourself, because you said that in your profession as a photographer, you have guilt in all directions.
M: Why do you think that I need to have that Cornell Capa Award? That award makes me feel very uncomfortable, because they say you have done amazing war photos. I could have turned this award down. Cornell Capa is an old friend of mine. He is very close to death. What an insult it would have been if I have turned it down, because when they asked Cornell who he thought this award should be given, he said, “Don McCullin”. How could I not accept this award?
I have won many awards. But I put them in my garden shelf so that I don’t have to see them. When I go to my garden, I see my boots and helmet from Viet Nam and many awards scatter around. When I look for tools, I see these awards from the World Press Photo. I don’t really want to be rewarded. I want to be rewarded by people trying to look at my photographs. By don’t honor me for these photos. I have a lot of honors. I have two honorable doctor degrees from universities. I have this medal from the British government. I don’t look at this medal. I put it in a box.
J: So now you are going to be 71 years old, do you think you have made the picture of your life?
M: I have a little boy called Max. He is my God and my wife is my best friend. It takes me all these years to find this happiness.
J: When Eugene Smith took that photo of the mother with her sick daughter in Minamata, he said he gave it “the kiss of the strobe”.
M: I met Eugene Smith in Tokyo one night. He talked about Minamata. He said to me, he was in that room and it was dark, he gave it just a little kiss of the strobe. It is an important thing to say. Because you don’t expect Eugene to be using a strobe and he always shot great available-light pictures. He was a great hero of mine. I have always said this about Eugene Smith. I met him one night and we left. I felt as if I left a man whose nervines were hanging out of his skins. The ends of his nerve were hanging out when he embraced me and said good-buy to me that night in Tokyo. He died shortly after I left him. I love his energies. He was slightly crazy. When he was traveling, he used to travel with music. And his equipment would weight 600 pounds, but mostly his records. I need music too. I couldn’t stay in the darkroom without the classical music.
J: My question to you is whether you have also found the very photo of your life.
M: I am not going to arrive. When you have all these accolade and applause from people respecting you and saying I want to give you this medal or that award, I say thank you very much and then I go away. It will not affect me, the patting on my shoulder, “Well done, good man.” I have a philosophy in photography. The day I think I have arrived in photography, that is the day when I have lost as a person. You must never arrive as a human being. You must constantly be journeying. I have always looked upon myself as a student in photography. I still make mistakes in the darkroom. One must never arrive in life and you must never stop working as a person. The moment you retire from work, people talk about pension and retirement, that is the day to be careful, because you will fall from the branch philosophically speaking. I will never arrive. I will always humble myself in photography.
J: Thank you very much.
(All rights reserved. Text @ Jiang Rong and Images @ Don McCullin)