In an interview with Nick Martin to coincide with an exhibition of his work, photographer Don McCullin talks about his life on the front line, his feelings about war, and digital photography.
The Imperial War Museum North in Manchester is presenting the largest ever UK exhibition about McCullin’s life and work to mark his 75th year.
For more than 50 years, McCullin’s images have shaped our awareness of modern conflict and its consequences. His courage and integrity, as well as the exceptional quality of his work, are a continuing inspiration and influence worldwide.
A unique collaboration between McCullin and the Imperial War Museum, this major new exhibition contains over 200 photographs, objects, magazines and personal memorabilia, and shows how war has shaped the life of this exceptional British photographer and those across the globe over the last half-century. A major new book published by Jonathan Cape: Don McCullin: Shaped by War accompanies the exhibition.
“Photography for me is not 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.” McCullin is one of Britain’s greatest photographers. For 50 years his photographs have shaped our awareness of modern conflict and its consequences. Today, despite leaving photojournalism to explore other photographic genres, his work continues to be influenced by his experiences. His life has been shaped by war.
This exhibition explores McCullin’s story and sets his work in context. It is arranged in five sections: early years, discovering photojournalism, the Sunday Times magazine, changing times and a new direction.
“Like all my generation in London, I am a product of Hitler. I was born in the 30s and bombed in the 40s.”
McCullin’s early years were difficult, at times violent and often turbulent. Born in Finsbury Park, north London in 1935, McCullin’s earliest memories are of the second World War and its consequences, air raids, evacuation, fear and deprivation.
For him, the disruption to family life and education had lasting consequences.After the war, McCullin returned home but life remained difficult.
His father died in 1950 and his mother remarried. McCullin, aged 15, quickly fell in with the violent gangs who dominated north London in the early 1950s. “I had a fascinating childhood, but it was not the childhood I would offer to a child of my own.?
National service with the Royal Air Force introduced him to new possibilities, including photography. Between 1954 and 1956, McCullin served as a photographic assistant processing aerial reconnaissance photographs in Suez, Kenya and Cyprus, all actual or potential war zones. His attempt to become a fully-trained RAF photographer was unsuccessful.
However, national service fostered his interest in photography, prompting him to buy his first semi-professional camera, a Rolleicord. After demob in 1956 McCullin returned to Finsbury Park and nearly left photography behind. Seeing no use for it, he pawned his camera. Fortunately, his mother retrieved it for him. Working first for The Observer and later the Sunday Times, McCullin was particularly drawn to the major conflicts of the day. His career developed rapidly from photographing Berlin in the 1960s without assignment to his award winning coverage of the civil war in Cyprus in 1964.
In 1965, he made his first of many visits to Vietnam. McCullin carried out his first assignment on the Vietnam war on behalf of the Illustrated London News in 1965. War was shaping his career as a photojournalist and his style as a photographer. Stark, uncompromising but perfectly exposed black and white photographs shot in the front line were attracting a growing audience.
“Occasionally I used colour. I can use it quite well if it comes to it but I thought that black and white images in war were much more powerful.” For the next 18 years, McCullin specialised in covering conflict and war.
All images courtesy Don McCullin