War photographer Don McCullin discusses the new documentary about his life
The 77-year-old photographer talks to us as he prepares to head out to Syria
The photographer Don McCullin has spent over five decades travelling the world and recording for magazines and newspapers the suffering inflicted upon ordinary people caught in civil war, conflict and humanitarian disasters. He has reported from the Middle East, South East Asia, India and South America, performing a valuable role which was described by the former Sunday Times editor Sir Harold Evans as ‘a conscience with a camera.’
Seventy-seven-year-old McCullin has travelled to London for the day from his beloved Somerset countryside, where he lives with his third wife and young son, in order to promote Jacqui and David Morris’ documentary McCullin, which revisits his remarkable career. A modest, dapperly dressed individual, he’s the complete antithesis of the gung-ho photographer you find in Hollywood films.
‘The photos of mine that you see in the film are meant to be disturbing,’ he replies when I tell him how genuinely powerful I found McCullin. ‘Those experiences don’t come cheap and I tried to be honest when I talked about how they came about in the film. I wanted to try and allow people to understand me and my work in those 90 minutes. Once I start talking about those experiences, I find it quite exhausting, because I relive them.’
The question he is always asked is what drove him throughout the decades to return time and again to such dangerous environments to take these photographs? ‘Well, firstly I didn’t like the sound of the alternative, which where I came from in Finsbury Park, was poverty, misery, ignorance and bigotry. Ever since I served as a photographer’s assistant in Egypt during my national service in the RAF in the mid-1950s, I developed a passion for photography. I don’t think it was difficult in a war situation to find victims and to take powerful photos. The hard thing was stomaching the sight of what I witnessed. Putting a camera up to things I saw sometimes felt like an indulgence, an unnecessary way of behaving.’
McCullin, who suffered a stroke a couple of years ago, shows no sign of completely retiring from the fray: he is preparing for an imminent work trip to Syria. He is acutely aware that, professionally speaking, his time is limited, and he resents being treated as a ‘public lending library who can always be borrowed from. Every day I get requests to come and do this and come and do that, and I receive letters from people who see war photography as a way of somehow becoming famous. I never had any interest in being a celebrity: I just wanted to be respected.’
Why then did he agree to be filmed for McCullin? ‘I really trusted Jacqui, who I’ve known for a long time, not to stitch me up. And I wanted people to see those pictures, because otherwise they will remain in boxes. The problem these days is newspapers aren’t interested in the type of photojournalism that I specialised in. I got sacked by The Sunday Times in 1982 because the new editor Andrew Neil didn’t want any more wars in the magazine – he wanted to turn it into a lifestyle supplement.’
McCullin is on selected release from Tue 1 Jan.