Don McCullin (1935-)

Don McCullin is one of Britain's greatest photographers and a well-known name world-wide.

Like James Nachtwey he almost seems to have been protected by a higher power while continuously putting his life on the line in order to witness the horrors of war, famine and disaster.

His photographs have witnessed the building of the Berlin Wall, the Six-Day War in Jerusalem, the wars in Cyprus and Vietnam, the genocide of the Brazilian Indians, refugees in Bangladesh, the civil war in Beirut, and the victims of AIDS in Africa.

During his 14 years of 'adventures' he has been hit by shrapnel four times, blasted in a mortar barrage, and caught in a hail of bullets from the Khmer Rouge from which he was lucky to live thanks to his Nikon camera which blocked a bullet.

Above: The Front Cover of In England by Don McCullin

McCullin was a working-class lad who failed his eleven-plus exam and by the age of 14 was working as a pantry boy in a railway dining carriage. Perhaps this is where he first began to 'see' the world from an artist's perspective as the landscape slowly wound past him.

He was given the job of painting numbers on film cans by the Royal Air Force and was a photographer's assistant in the Suez Crisis in 1956 when he was doing National Service but failed their written theory test to become a photographer himself. Most of his time was in fact spent in the darkroom.

Then in 1959 he began working for The Observer as the result of a photograph he had made of local London gangsters, and began covering catastrophes such as the Vietnam War and Biafra. Watch the video below to see some of these images in an interview with Don McCullin himself (best watched full screen by clicking on the icon at the bottom right of the frame).

In spite of these inauspicious beginnings, McCullin has received many awards including a C.B.E., an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Bradford, an Honorary Degree by the Open University, and the Dr. Erich Salomon Award in Germany.

His images are always in black and white, perhaps initiated by being colour blind, but McCullin he puts this 'defect' to good use and masters tonality in his pictures with consummate ease to express the emotions he wishes to convey. And for McCullin it is all about the emotion.

The burden of years of photographing horrors at close range took their toll on his health, both physical and mental and he began to take 'normal' photographs in the landscape of Somerset where he is currently living. This, he claims, has been his 'salvation'.

The images are sensitive and very poetic, almost dreamy at times but still have a broody dark quality to them reminiscent of the sombre lighting which often features in his documentary photographs. The above poster is one such example.

"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." Don McCullin

Recommended Reading

McCullin is the author of several books, including The Palestinians (with Jonathan Dimbleby, 1980), Beirut: A City in Crisis (1983), and Don McCullin in Africa.

His book, Shaped by War (2010), was published to accompany a major retrospective exhibition at the Imperial War Museum North, Salford, England in 2010. The most recent title from McCullin is Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across the Roman Empire , a poetic and contemplative study of selected Roman and pre-Roman ruins in North Africa and the Middle East.

You might also be interested in the articles I wrote on war photography and documentary photography - just follow the links.

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