“I saw 800 children dropping down dead in front of me. That turned me away from the gung-ho image of the war photographer”.
So says Don McCullin, a British photographer whose name many people have never even heard of, but his shots have been seen all over the world, in newspapers, magazines on TV, you name it. This also the man whose life was saved…by a camera; he still has his old Nikon with a bullet from an AK47 lodged in it, a bullet that was meant for him!
This is a man who has known hard times, right from the word go.
This is the man about whom Henri Cartier-Bresson said “I have one word to say to you: Goya”.
And another famous writer and journalist, John le Carré, who was in Beirut with McCullin, says about Don , “He has known all forms of fear, he’s an expert in it. He has come back from God knows how many brinks, all different. His experience in a Ugandan prison alone would be enough to unhinge another man – like myself, as a matter of fact – for good.”
“I’ve seen my own blood and broken a few bones…..I’ve been hit, which isn’t an entirely bad thing as at least you have a glimpse of the suffering endured by the people you are photographing. And in a sense, crumbling empires and war have been with me all my life. I’m from England, and like every other great empire who stole bits of the world, there is a price to pay. And I was born in 1935. So since I’ve been conscious of the world I’ve either been in, or been on the periphery of, a war zone.” McCullin says.
“I met an Englishwoman in Africa. She said she became a doctor because she saw one of my pictures. That’s all I want – just one doctor in Africa.”
Certainly he took huge risks in war zones, but even so, he has never down-played the risks he took, nor has he laughed in the face of impending death or danger. He knew full well what he was doing, and what the situations he was in, would lead to. Death.
Another journalist says about McCullin, “Don complained a lot, but I realised that was just his normal mode of speaking. He actually likes going to terrible places and is happy in miserable conditions. He works astoundingly well with people. On that trip, he had a way of charming the guerrillas and the sheep-herding families on the desert fringes. And I like to think I could tell a McCullin photograph a mile off. The way he frames the subjects, the way the light broods, the way people are caught off guard, all classic McCullin.”
And people say if he didn’t do it, somebody else would have done it. I find that argument a little hard to swallow, seeing as in almost all those tense situations where he found himself, there WAS nobody else to witness what was happening, nobody except him alone. If he hadn’t been there, we wouldn’t have known what happened at that time, or what atrocities occurred.
Don grew up in a poor area of London, in Finsbury Park. In his own words he says the area “oozed poverty, bigotry and all kinds of hatred and violence…..I grew up in total ignorance, poverty and bigotry, and this has been a burden for me throughout my life, there is still some poison that won’t go away, as much as I try to drive it out.”
His was a family of five, living in 2 basement rooms of an old block of flats, with no indoors washroom and no kitchen either, just 2 rooms (in many parts of Britain, even up until the late 60s, washrooms were located outside the main house, so going to the toilet in the middle of winter at midnight had it’s difficulties!).
His father was asthmatic and so had problems holding down jobs, finding himself more times out of employment than in. He well recalls the night his father died. That night, “my mother, myself and my brother climbed into bed together and cried ourselves to sleep. I was 13 and I’ve never got over it. It’s haunted me all my life. I had great love and respect for a man who was always in pain, but never complained. His example has stayed with me and when things have stacked up against me, I’ve thought, I’m not going to buckle – I’ll get through this”.
McCullin has no qualms about professing who he is, or wat he does or doesn’t believe in. “I am a professed atheist, until I find myself in serious circumstances. Then I quickly fall on my knees, in my mind if not literally, and I say : “Please God, save me from this”. Once I was taken to a prison in Uganda by Idi Amin’s soldiers, and beaten, another time I was under very heavy shellfire in Cambodia. I thought : “I will pray to God to get me out of this”. And I did get out. There is no doubt that my photographs have a very strong religious overtone, they are like twentieth century icons. When human beings are suffering, they tend to look up, as if hoping for salvation. And that’s when I press the button.”
His father’s early death ended his dreams of attending art school, as there was no breadwinner for the family, so Don left school at the tender age of 15 and began looking for work. “Even though my mother did her best, that sense of having nothing just flooded back”, he says, talking about times when, as an accomplished photographer many years later, he took shots of people living in poverty in areas in the north of England. A little must be said here about his performance at school, which was not very good due to his being dyslexic. He did however, excel at art and drawing and painting and had actually own a scholarship to attend an art school but of course with his father’s death, that never materialised.
“I grew up in a very harsh way, I was badly treated by the system in England, which was run by the last of the Victorian schoolmasters, who were bloody cruel. We had church assembly, in the morning, to sing hymns. Then the masters would come and beat us, for not cleaning our shoes or not doing this or that. I grew up bitter about religion, I don’t attend church – but in my mind there is doubt about whether I should. Because I am a compassionate person, and one cannot be compassionate and be divorced from religion at the same time. On the other hand, working for media involves manipulation. I have been manipulated, and I have in turn manipulated others, by recording their response to suffering and misery. So there is guilt in every direction : guilt because I don’t practice religion, guilt because I was able to walk away, while this man was dying of starvation or being murdered by another man with a gun. And I am tired of guilt, tired of saying to myself : “I didn’t kill that man on that photograph, I didn’t starve that child.” That’s why I want to photograph landscapes and flowers now. I am sentencing myself to peace.”
Soon after his father’s death, war broke out and, together with thousands of other children living in and around London, they were all evacuated to remote areas of the countryside, having to stay with other families. He found himself living with a family in Lancashire, where says he had a “…hellish time. They didn’t bath me for 17 weeks. Then they put me in a dustbin full of water, gave me a bit of a scrub and sent me back on a night train. I was 9 years of age, but I suppose it was a bit of preparation for harshness to come.”
His sister had been sent to live with a wealthy family fortunately, in Somerset, who looked after her quite well, even sending her to boarding school and taking her on cruises to the Mediterranean. “So while I was languishing in Finsbury Park with yobbos and having an annual day out at Southend-on-Sea, she was going on a Mediterranean cruise every year.” His younger brother went escaped their slum life of poverty by joining up with the Foreign Legion.
There’s no doubt that his was a very hard life, and he has no pity on himself. He knows he has sacrificed the greater part of himself, his personality even, to bring the sordid truths of war and conflict back home so that we can see it first hand.
So, forced by circumstances to look for work, he found a job delivering film around the area called Soho, in central London. Later on, when he was to join the Royal Air Force as part of compulsory national service, he used this job description to tell them that he had photographic experience……”….in fact I’d never even picked up a camera, but my visual interest came out like a genie from a bottle, although I did fail my photographic exams in the RAF because my reading was still so poor.” Even though he failed the written exam, he was promoted to work in the darkroom.
At around this time, he saved up his money and purchased his first ever camera, a Rolleicord for a princely sum of $60, which in those days was a lot of money. He used that camera to take shots in and around the area he lived in, but only when he could save enough money to buy the film and have it processed.
After his national service, he again found himself back in Finsbury Park, and back to the same job working in a darkroom as well as delivering films in Soho. During that time, he joined up with a local gang of youths called The Guv’nors, going where they went, just being with them and taking a few photos of them here and there when he could. At one time, because he was so short of cash, he pawned his Rolleicord at a local shop for just $10, which luckily his mother retrieved for him again.
Very soon after this, the gang he used to go around with were involved in a fight with another local gang, and when a policeman tried to break up the altercation, he was stabbed to death. The murder received a lot of press coverage and while talking to some friends about his photos of the Guv’nors, he was told to take them to the local newspaper just in case they found them useful. He did, and they did, and the rest is history as they say.
They really liked his shots of the Guv’nors and what’s more paid him more than a $100, a lot of money in those days. He was given freelance work regularly after that and so began his work with the press. “It was like getting a passport to a new life. Where I was, no one was encouraged to do well for themselves. You were much more acclaimed for getting your collar felt by the police or battering someone. It was full of bigotry and it was like quicksand pulling me down to oblivion. And here was the Observer, a paper I’d never bought in my life – it had always been the News of the World in our house – not only putting my name under the pictures, but paying me 50 quid, which in 1958 was a king’s ransom.”
His name was soon solidly established on Fleet Street, the legendary road in London where all the major newspapers were, and still are, printed every day. But what changed his name was a trip to Berlin, which he paid for out of his own pocket. It was 1960 and the Berlin wall was being constructed. The shots he took here cemented his reputation in the world’s media. Soon he was covering the problems in Cyprus, Congo and of course, Vietnam.
The war in Cyprus was his first experience of death and destruction and human suffering. “I was learning a new trade. I was learning about the price of humanity and its suffering.” He took shots of the fighting in the streets and the victims of that fighting. “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 I remember the smell of the coffin and the candle burning in the room.”
Even though he was by then famous for his work, he still admits that “…not many people in the UK knew what photojournalism really was, including myself. The Americans were a long way ahead of us, and I had to educate myself.”
He was in Vietnam 3 times, and his most staggering work is from that time. During those 12 days, he lived and slept in the same clothes, working with American soldiers who were fighting the Vietcong in 1967. He himself says “…I left Vietnam with 30 rolls of the most powerful film I’ve ever taken in my life.”
What happened there was, he says ‘madness, insanity – a nightmare experience’ describing how the American and North Vietnamese forces were barely twenty yards apart, with grenades being thrown. ‘You’d dive for cover and discover that it was the man next to you that got it.’ He describes tanks that ran over bodies in the road, flattening them like oriental carpets.
And he is the first to admit that “these people, the Americans, were not my people. It wasn’t my war. The enemy was not my enemy. I was an observer in their uniform.”
He talks about the only time in his life he had to rearrange a scene before shooting it, and why……”I’ve only ever staged one picture in my life, in 1968, when I found a dead North Vietnamese soldier whose possessions had been rifled through by some American marines hunting for souvenirs. They walked away making derogatory remarks about this man, calling him a dead gook and so on. He could only have been 18 or 19. I hated them and yet I was part of them, I was sharing their food, their uniform, their daily lives.
I decided this wasn’t right. This man had sacrificed his life. He was an innocent young man fighting for national reunification. He had a bullet through his teeth and his brains were shot out of the back of his head. He deserved a voice. He couldn’t speak, so I was going to do it for him. I shovelled his possessions together – his pictures of his family, his pathetic little medical kit and his bag of bullets – and photographed them at the foot of his dead body. That’s the only contrived picture I’ve taken in a war. I know it was staged, but I did it as a statement.”
One after another, his assignments took him deeper and deeper into the abyss of despair and violence. Every time his conscience was left with the deepest scars that any human being has ever had to take.
At one time, he was captured by Idi Amin’s forces, imprisoned and beaten, and eventually expelled from the country. His wife was mistakenly informed he’d been killed.
In Beirut, he and another journalist hid in a doorway, watching while Christian Phalangists executed Palestinian civilians in the street. A few years later, that same journalist would be captured and killed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia around the same time McCullin was caught in an ambush a few miles away.
Although he has always been lucky to leave war scenes at the right time, sometimes he almost never made it. “In the beginning I used to shoot a few pictures and run away, thinking : “I’ve got the story”. In the Six Days war, I stayed the one day of the battle for Jerusalem and left the next day. Then I realized that I should never run away, until the thing was finished. And I stayed longer, and longer, and longer. In the citadel of Hue, in 1968, I stayed for two weeks. During the Kippur war I stayed to the end, though I didn’t make one good photograph, and I lost my colleague, who was killed on the Golan Heights. When eventually I got to the airport, I was stripped stark naked and searched, I was made to bend over while somebody looked into my ass, to check whether I was smuggling film. I’ve had every experience one can have, I have been bullied, beaten, threatened, accused of spying.”
During an ambush in Vietnam, McCullin, was forced to take cover in a rice field, keeping his body in the water while he held his Nikon in the air, shooting several photographs before the camera was hit by a round from an AK47.!
A few days later he was wounded during a firefight, ending up with shrapnel in his legs and crotch, and having his ear drum blown out. Knowing what had happened to that journalist a short time earlier, McCullin crawled nearly half a mile on his stomach to escape the Khmer Rouge. And in El Salvador, while scrambling over rooftops with rebel forces, he fell and broke his arm in five places.
Another of his most shocking day in his life was in Biafra… “one of the worst days of my life – seeing eight hundred children dropping down dead in front of me, crawling around on their stomachs with their insides hanging out…can you believe that?”
Also in Biafra, he witnessed a very traumatic incident, for him anyway. “I saw this one albino boy, who haunts me to this day, he was barely managing to stand on his spindly legs. He was clutching a corned beef tin, licked dry and I thought ‘I can’t bear to look at him’, so I walked away and talked to a doctor. Suddenly something touched my hand and I looked down and it was the albino boy, he was holding my hand. And I thought ‘Why are you doing this to me’ – he was making me feel so ashamed. So I gave him this barley sugar from my pocket, and he went away and licked it. This was worse than any inferno of insanity. I almost became paralysed, I was so shocked.”
Again in Beirut, one day he heard people shouting to him, saying, “Hey, mister, take a photo of this!”. They were singing and laughing over the body of a dead Palestinian girl.
“Everywhere I went I could see another person being murdered. Eventually I got this shot of the man playing a lute over the dead Palestinian girl’s body. They were celebrating over the body of a dead Palestinian girl lying in the winter rain. She was on her back, dead. She could have been sleeping but she was on the road in all this filth. They were laughing. They were so angry about this photograph, that they said if they ever caught the man who took the photograph they’d kill him. In a way it was almost an honour that they wanted to kill me for taking that picture.”
And asked what shots shocked him the most, McCullin says “I can tell you which pictures seem to me more meaningful. One is the Biafran mother (a mother with a suckling baby at her shrivelled breasts). Another one is the Indian family, with the woman lying on a stretcher. She had died of cholera, the children were crying and banging the ground, I was looking up to the sky, trying not to let them see that I was crying. I am very emotional, but people don’t know this, I am expected to be the big tough John Wayne of war photography – which I don’t want to be. The man kept saying : “What will I do, how will I feed my children ?” So I did something which to this day I don’t feel good about : I gave him a fistful of money from my pocket. I felt unclean after that, I thought that if he had thrown it back into my face, he would have been justified. This man had five children, the smallest being a baby in his arms, like my baby, and his dead wife was lying in front of him. To me these are documents. They don’t belong to the category of icons, they are not untouchable works of art, to be hung on a wall. Even if they look like an icon. It wasn’t my fault if in Sabra and Shatila the light was almost biblical, if what happened in front of my eyes was like a scene out of Goya. I wasn’t there to make icons. I had to bring back information, that could possibly prevent other such miseries. I don’t want to be called an artist, I don’t have the right to practice creativity at the expense of human suffering. Nevertheless I shoot my pictures to the best of my ability. But I am not going to any more battlefields. I may go into the streets again and photograph city people. But most probably this will draw me again to the derelict, I cannot keep away from derelict human beings.” But he says the deciding moment for him was when, in Lebanon, he was attacked by a woman, who had seen him taking photos of people being killed. At that time, he says, he knew his time was up….he had to quit that work.
And it seems that his work still follows him around wherever he goes.
“My house is full of pictures of devastation and pain and suffering. 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 at 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 like I’m barking mad, but I’m not…there is some mischief going on down where those filing cabinets lie. You can’t have that material, that energy in a house without something going on down there.”
Even in these days of digicams, he still likes to work in his darkroom. “It’s (like) the womb, really. I let the outside world in if I need it, I don’t let it in if I don’t. The energy inside that room, in terms of my own vibrations, of my thought patterns, my blood patterns, is such that my feet are hardly touching the ground. Every piece of paper that I put into the developer is magic to me, every time I waste a sheet I feel guilty. Do you know how many prints I do, in a whole day’s work ? Five, if I’m lucky. It’s the same with film, I may shoot only thirty rolls on a three weeks assignment. I don’t work with motor drives, I use film with the utmost respect. Because I believe in the forces of willing and will-power. You can only demand respect from the energies around us if you practice respect yourself. You might think that this is a lot of bullshit, but I do practice it. Photography will screw you every time it gets a chance to screw you, every time you put a roll into the camera. Photography is there for the taking, it’s all out there – but it does not belong to me. I have to respect it, because it’s so much bigger than I am, it’s like the sea. Sometimes I come back and find that the film has been damaged or that the camera’s back has been leaking. I don’t get angry, I don’t smash the camera, I just laugh and think : “It didn’t respect me, I wasn’t meant to have it”.
In closing, anybody reading about McCullin cannot fail to be moved. Moved at what he has done with his life, and what life has done to him. To this day, everyday things that make us laugh or give us pleasure, fail to affect him. That’s what his work has done to him.
The public has gained images of stark horror, unbearable suffering, monstrous inhumanity, and intense compassion. It’s horrible, but important. And there is more, much, much more to hear of his life, his experiences, than can be said here.
But what of the man himself? Where will he go to staunch the fires that still burn ceaselessly in his memories?