At 81, Don McCullin says his legs aren’t what they used to be. Yet when I brought him home to do the interview, he raced up five flights of stairs (there was no electricity), leaving me far behind. This gave me an insight into the resourcefulness and energy of the man, who, in almost six decades, has taken extraordinary photographs, many of war, that have become a part of the often haunting visual landscape of generations of people. On the day after the interview, in early December 2016, McCullin flew to Iraq with journalist Charles Glass to cover the battle for Mosul. As he opened the door to leave, he said, mentioning his advancing age, “This is probably my last time in Beirut.” I wasn’t convinced.
MY: The Middle East has played a very significant role in your long and distinguished career. What does the region mean to you?
DM: In 1955 I was sent to do part of my military service in the Canal Zone in Egypt, near Ismailia. I spent a year there, where I was part of the photographic section. But because I was virtually a prisoner, it was pretty miserable for me. That was my first introduction to the Middle East. I then flew back home to England, returning to where I grew up as a boy. This didn’t hold too much prospect for my future because I grew up in a very poor working-class area, with a lot of crime. Had I not had a strong will to avoid being incarcerated, I might well have become a criminal.
I eventually became affiliated with journalism. I didn’t consider photography journalism because it wasn’t about writing. I was working for The Observer for a very poor wage, and they said to me one day: ‘Would you consider covering the civil war in Cyprus between the Greeks and Turks?’ The Greeks brought the eventual partition of the island upon themselves because Turks are not the kind who will let you abuse other Turks, and they came in and carved the island in half. But I took the side of the Turks because I’ve always taken the side of the oppressed and felt, coming from a poor working-class background, that in the English class system somebody was always treading on my windpipe. So I always took the loser’s side. It’s the same with the Palestinians.
After Cyprus I started going to Africa and covering the wars there, which I thought would go on for a hundred years really. But then the Middle East came again with the June 1967 war and I found myself in the battle for Jerusalem with the Israeli army. I was the only newspaper man there. I spent a day in the battle and the next day I flew back to London, which angered the Israelis because I didn’t put my film through the censor. So many years later during the Yom Kippur war, in 1973, a distinguished correspondent whom I was accompanying was killed on the Golan Heights. My editor, Harold Evans, said, ‘All my correspondents come back to London, I don’t need any more tragedies.’ And when I was at Tel Aviv airport I was taken into a room and made to strip naked and bend over, which angered me. I thought I hate these people and I’m never coming back to Israel.
MY: Your coverage of Lebanon was notable, with many memorable photographs of the 1975–1976 Lebanese civil war. How do you remember it?
DM: I came to Beirut in 1964, on my way to Ramallah. I was astounded by the beauty of the city. You got off the plane and the city felt as if you were in a volcanic basin with all the lights. It was a beautiful evening, very romantic and exotic. I was very impressed and my mind was open to anything. When I eventually came back in 1976, by which time the civil war had begun, I saw a totally different picture. I’ve never seen such cruelty. I was in the Holiday Inn with the Phalange, and then I left after a few days and came up to the Ashrafieh neighborhood, where the fighters were regrouping. Someone came up to me and put a blue ribbon around my neck. I asked, ‘What is this for?’ The person replied, ‘It’s to protect you from our own men because otherwise they’ll shoot you.’ There were no real battle lines.
It turned out they were about to storm and capture the Karantina [a slum, populated in its majority by Palestinians, who were fighting the Phalange]. It was a memorable day, a very bad day. It was a massacre, to be truthful. A man came up to me after I had witnessed the murder of two men. He warned me, ‘If you take any more pictures I’m going to kill you.’ Then he demanded I leave. I was with Martin Meredith, a correspondent for the Sunday Times. We were passing bodies, there was gunfire, everything was burning. There were Eucalyptus trees burning, and exploding because of their sap. To hear trees exploding was the same as hearing the cries of people begging for their lives. Was it a bad dream I was having or was it real? Of course it was real.
MY: There’s a famous photograph there that you took of a militiaman playing a oud, or lute, over the body of a victim.
DM: Yes they were playing the instrument that was stolen from a house. I was leaving and I heard strumming, and I thought ‘music?’ I saw this man playing a lute over the body of a young girl lying in the winter rain. And I told Meredith, ‘I’ve got to take this picture.’ And he said, ‘bloody well hurry up then.’ So I took one frame and I didn’t even use my exposure meter which I’m renowned for doing. I never photograph without a meter. There’s no point in dying and getting the exposure wrong.
So I took this one frame and then I walked away and that is where it all went wrong. We got to the Green Line [separating Beirut during the war years] and there was a lot of hysteria because the survivors—women, children, and the elderly—had been allowed to leave. As we were crossing [into western Beirut], gunmen asked for our pass, so I gave them what I thought was a pass, because it was all in Arabic. It turned out to be a Phalange pass [the enemies of the gunmen.] So we were dragged out of the car and into a room. The men were going mad, saying, ‘We’re going to cut your throat,’ and I answered ‘Why?’ We were in this room for one hour, I felt like someone had emptied super glue into my mouth, it was totally locked with dryness. And then about an hour later a man came in, he had a leather jacket, was smoking a cigarette, and said, ‘You’ve been very foolish.’ When he asked if he could offer us a coffee, I knew at that point that I was safe. There are the moments in your life, as a correspondent or photographer, whatever the hell you are, when it’s as close as you can come to death. It only takes one person who can’t be controlled to murder you. This nice man came in, he saw the situation, and fixed it.
MY: In a documentary you said that the war in Lebanon had reached such a state of violence and hatred that it was a form of insanity. Surely the country was not unique in that regard?
DM: Compared to other wars? Of course not. War brings insanity and madness, it brings unreasonable behavior. When wars begin, they may be started by people looking for freedom and democracy, as happened in Syria. Then, after a while, the street boys usurp the cause to benefit themselves—the idea of having power for the first time in their lives, of becoming the pursuers when they were always the pursued. You lose the kind of serenity of democracy and you’re stuck with hooligans.
MY: In 1982 the British government didn’t allow you to cover the Falklands war, and you came to Lebanon instead to cover the Israeli invasion. You had a moment of personal crisis when you were taken to a hospital in Sabra and Shatila. Can you describe what happened?
DM: That particular day a man rang my room in the Commodore Hotel and asked me to go with him. Normally you would never have accepted an invitation like that in Beirut, but I went because, I thought, there’s a war on and he’s going to show me something. He took me to the Sabra and Shatila camp and the Israelis had shelled the mental hospital there, killing 21 people. I found a situation so different from everything else I had seen. There was one nurse who had stayed for five days and she had tied the insane children to beds. They were crawling around with no clothes on, cutting themselves on debris and broken glass. They were covered in flies, in their own excrement. It was a mad house while more madness was going on outside.
The rest of the people in the hotel got wind of this and they all started arriving. I had a good hour before they arrived and I like to work with dignity and I didn’t believe I had the right to take those pictures, but if I am going to have the opportunity to do so, I’m going to do it in the best way possible and in the most fundamentally honest way. And then hordes of television journalists had come, American television journalists. They behaved like monsters. They were kicking and knocking things over, looking at the children and saying, ‘Get out of my way, this is prime time.’ They were only there about ten minutes and then they were gone. You can’t do anything in 10 minutes that’s honest.
MY: Speaking of honesty, your former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans described you as ‘conscience with a camera.’ Your thoughts?
DM: That is quite a compliment coming from him. I’ve always lived my life under my own rules. I worked better alone because I didn’t have to apologize for the awful behavior of the gang of journalists that went around the world. I didn’t want to be a part of that. I wanted to be myself. However, there was one very bad day in Beirut in 1982 when I paid a price. There was a huge explosion after an Israeli bomb collapsed an apartment block like a club sandwich.
MY: I wasn’t far from where it happened, it was a vacuum bomb.
DM: Yes, that’s right. A women was coming around screaming. I lifted my camera because it was an automatic response. I took one frame, she saw me and started punching me. There were hundreds of people, but I was the sacrificial beast. I had to take the beating, there’s no way I could lift my hands against a woman, not in this part of the world. So I turned and took the beating. She was a big powerful woman, it was quite a beating. Looking back on it, I told myself, ‘Serves you right, you took advantage of that woman.’ I tried to leave the area and people were trying to punch me. One man had a 9 millimeter pistol, he was trying to take my camera away. I had broken my arm in a battle in Salvador only a few months earlier. He was pulling my arm and the pain was visible on my face. So I went back to the hotel and I was pretty shaken. I sat down and asked the waiter to bring me a coffee. And I thought: What kind of a day is this, why did I deserve this? All I wanted to be was a photographer. I was put in an impossible place by circumstances, but who could I blame for being there? I had hassled my editor to come to Lebanon. So who could I blame but myself?
MY: Was war becoming an addiction?
DM: Listen, I’d been doing photography a long time before 1982. So the addiction was on the wane. That incident helped take the addiction away. It was like suddenly I had gone to see a psychiatrist. That day was a turning point in my life. But I’m still very unhappy about not going to the Falklands.
MY: Many people said the British government didn’t allow you to go because your photographs are very stark, and the government didn’t want you to take stark photographs. Do you believe that?
DM: It sounds very convenient. I think that there may be some truth in that, but at the end of the day a woman who works at the Imperial War Museum in London as a curator said the navy, which was in charge of transportation, came up with the excuse there was no room on the ships. And I said, ‘Listen, I don’t believe that. I think there was a deeper motivation than keeping one single man away.’ Psychologically it really hurt because I had been with everyone else’s armies but not the British army in a moment of crisis.
MY: Did you have a deeper purpose when taking photographs, other than it was your job? Were you trying to express empathy with the victims?
DM: That came later in my work, after I had learned the power of the camera. But before that moment I was just indulging myself in a love for photography. But once I started doing the suffering of war, the images of children, the images of anguish and pain, and published these pictures, people started coming to me and saying, ‘Oh God, that’s amazing.’ I realized, for the first time, you know those street boys I told you about earlier, I became one of those street boys, but with an evangelistic turn of mind. Instead of having a Kalashnikov I had a camera. And I felt I was doing something useful, with purpose, whereas those boys, they just extended their criminality.
But I try and ward off any kind of sense that I’m a “Mr. Do-Good.” I just felt proud in a way that I had exchanged my ignorant background, which was not my fault growing up in a family sleeping in two rooms in a basement. So I had a kind of mental scar I needed to clear up. And I felt as though my scar was right across my face, and, through my work. I wanted to honor my father’s name. Chivalry doesn’t really get spoken about much these days but I came from a very poor, ignorant, bigoted background. I wanted to make the name of my father—who died when I was thirteen—mean something.
MY: How would your work have done so?
DM: By making a name for myself, which was his name. By elevating my name and my position. You know the trouble with England, believe it or not, is the stigma of class separation. It’s still there. There has always been that stigma for me to get over, and I think I’m over it now. I don’t have the slightest inferiority complex anymore which I suffered from for years and years.
One day, while I was covering a conference of Commonwealth prime ministers in London, I jumped the queue because there was a whole line of photographers waiting to take pictures. And I jumped the queue, because I thought I’m not going to wait for these guys who are lined up like sheep. I was told, ‘You should know your place,’ and I answered: ‘What the hell are you talking about? I don’t have a place!’ And it was my old chip on the shoulder coming back. So I fell out with my own kind. And then I became a bit of a maverick. I didn’t owe anything to these people. If they wanted to stand in that place, stand in that place, because then your life will always be standing in that place. I’m moving on boys.
But I have to tell you, for all of that attitude, I love and respect them. I know and understand photography and the history of photography. Photography has given me a life, a form of education. I’ve travelled more than most people can ever dream of. So I have my ethics, of which I am very proud really. I don’t just take atrocity pictures in war. Without sounding bombastic, I have a great knowledge and range of photography. I’m also quite well known because I print all my own work. What I did in the old days is that I kept all my negatives, I kept my copyright. So my involvement in photography isn’t one of those fly-by-night experiences. I’m incredibly committed.
MY: Are most photojournalists different today than you were? Is the profession today more cynical?
DM: Only cynical because no one sends these people to wars anymore or to do real stories. Newspapers proprietors are cutting budgets because they’re putting that money into their bank accounts. What they’re saying now is ‘hang on, we don’t want to show these horrible pictures, we want to show the successful celebrity film stars, footballers, Hollywood…’ It’s all about narcissism. They want narcissism, glamor, they don’t want people dying of AIDS. Having said that, they let their guard down when they published a picture [in 2016] of two little boys—one who was lying dead on a Turkish beach and one in Aleppo who was sitting traumatized. It’s the first time in years I’ve seen important pictures that moved people. But it hasn’t stopped the war, you noticed. I’ve spent my life photographing wars that were never stopped.
MY: But photography was often more powerful than words. For instance nothing will compete with some of the images from Vietnam.
DM: Yes that’s right, Vietnam was the university of the visual war. There were great pictures taken there—for example the one taken by a friend of mine, Eddie Adams, of the South Vietnamese police chief shooting a man in the head; or another taken by Nick Ut, of a running Vietnamese girl, which everybody in England thinks I took. I wish I had, I would be so honored. However, the thing is these photos provoked mixed feelings. Nick Ut, who was a local wire guy, once said to me, ‘That picture, I hate that picture, because it’s wiped out everything else I’ve ever done.’ I feel the same way about the picture of the staring Marine at Hue that I took. Everyone talks about that picture. It’s nothing, it’s just a portrait. I took five frames of that man and they’re all identical. So if one of the frames were damaged, I would have had four others to call upon.
MY: In looking at your photographs, I’m struck by how your composition is perfect in situations of great stress. How does one do this?
DM: There is a danger though isn’t it? That the photographs become iconic, that they become Caravaggios. Who are you doing this for, and are you doing it in the name of art? I don’t want to be near that kind of thinking. I cannot indulge other people’s suffering to elevate me as an artist, it’s ridiculous. I don’t want to be called an artist. I’m very happy with the title of photographer. Being a photographer is what I am and it’s what I stand for.
I was with a battalion of Marines that was being wiped out by the North Vietnamese army in the imperial city of Hue [in February 1968]. In the company I was with, about 60 men were lost. I’m now getting letters from some of the Marines I photographed. You know with the internet now, it makes it possible to reach out and communicate information, so we’re now receiving messages from these men. And we had one the other day. I photographed an injured Marine who was up against a wall and I call it ‘my crucifixion,’ but it was his crucifixion. He had a bullet in his hip, and was being held by two men, and he looked like Jesus Christ. And when I was taking the picture I was saying, ‘Bring him over, bring him over,’ and they ran with him and fell, adding to his pain. So when they got to me, eventually, luckily, I put him on my shoulders and carried him away from the battle. And the other soldiers they couldn’t believe it, it was an impulse of anger that I’d made him suffer, and I thought, ‘Oh s--t I’ve got to do something.’ So I put down my cameras and told a guy ‘watch these cameras,’ and I took him away from the battle. And his wife wrote to my wife the other day to say, ‘My husband will never forget the day that Don carried him away, but he had one fear, that he would fall with him.’ I wanted to show him was that while I took something from him, the photograph, I wanted to give something back—his life.
MY: In this context, I know you have said that you don’t want to exploit the victims, but there is a very striking series of photographs you took in the Congo, where you show young boys being tormented before their execution. In a sense I was surprised. They could be seen as exploitative.
DM: I think it’s a very worthy question on your part. I’m not going to dress up my answer to make me feel comfortable. It is a bad thing. Because sometimes when you’re there, I’ve seen men executed, they look at me and they think, ‘Please God help me, don’t let this happen.’ But those boys, before I got there, they had been captured, they were dragging them behind trucks, skinning them alive on the trucks, and taking them down to the river and shooting them in the head. I came upon that scene, I had come all the way there and I was forbidden to be there in the first place and I thought: I’m going to get this picture. You know, you don’t think. You can’t be a moral god every minute of every day. And maybe you could judge me for that, and I think you would have every right to do so. It’s questionable, and I selfishly thought to myself: I can’t stop this, I’m going to photograph it because this is what happens in life and people have got to know. So I was in a very bad place.
Another picture I took was of a dead North Vietnamese soldier and all his possessions lying around him. American soldiers came and they were looking for souvenirs. They wanted the belts of North Vietnamese soldiers because they had a star [in the buckle]. So they went through all his possessions, throwing them down, laughing, and I thought: How can you do this? This guy has paid the ultimate sacrifice to fight for his country. He’s nineteen. He has a lot less equipment than you guys have. He walked a thousand kilometers from Hanoi and died down here. Don’t do this to him.
I didn’t tell them this because they would have kicked my teeth in. They were Marines, thick as planks. So when they were walking away they were laughing, talking about the dead “gook” and how the “gook” got his share. I stood there and it was a singular moment of madness on my part. I almost was talking to this soldier because I felt like I belonged to him more than I belonged to those other guys because of their desecration. I put his pathetic possessions together and made this photograph. Last year in Perpignan, in France, I ran into a group of North Vietnamese photographers with whom I had lunch. A friend I was with showed them this picture. They went mad, they were photographing it and saying, ‘We’re going to find this man, he’s one of our heroes and we’re going to find this man.’
I thought how strange, here we are having a nice lunch in a nice town in France and we’re talking about a man who lost his life who was only on the first step in the journey of life. It’s so complicated the way we are. I carry a heavy burden. I said to somebody, ‘I do not wear my morals comfortably.’ I went to Dubai the other day and I picked up an award. You know what I did with it? I left it behind the television in my hotel room. Why do I want these awards? I have a shed in my garden that’s full of these awards I don’t want to see them in the house. It’s as if they’re contaminating the house.
MY: Other than war, a photograph that impressed me personally, because it’s very beautiful, is one you took in England. It shows a man walking in the early morning, with a factory in the background. It’s quite extraordinary.
DM: You know what I thought when I saw the factory, when I saw the smoke burning? I thought Auschwitz. It looked like Birkenau, the extermination camp of Auschwitz. I’d slept in my car that night because I couldn’t afford a hotel. I’d driven 500 kilometers, it was the worst winter in England for generations. When I woke up I couldn’t move my legs and it was viciously cold. My eldest son had been born that week and I saw him in the hospital with my wife and said, ‘Do you mind if I go now?’ I saw that scene and thought, I need somebody in the shot. Sure enough a man came around the corner and I took the photograph. The negative is very thin because I didn’t have the exposure meter. I got in my car and drove all the way back. I took one roll of film, and the negatives were all thin. But I made a print and everyone likes the picture.
MY: It’s perfectly framed, you can call yourself an artist there.
DM: Yes, but I don’t want to be called an artist. I want to be called a photographer.
MY: Yet how does one frame a picture so perfectly? Or do you take a number of photographs and there’s one that looks better than the others?
DM: It’s not about luck to start with. But I look at life in a very intense way. A photograph is about composition, that’s the key word. You know a thing that people ask that is really stupid, is, ‘Do you ever hide behind your camera?’ My answer is, ‘Don’t be silly, how can I hide behind a thing only that big?’ But I know what they’re saying, it’s psychological. But I never hide from anybody. I come straight up. I’m obsessed with composition. In the war in Vietnam I took a photograph of an American Marine throwing a hand grenade. I stood up, and by doing so became the perfect target. You know, I risked my life in all those wars, I didn’t go to wars to steal or to enhance my reputation. I took the same risks. I never even had a helmet, I never had a flak jacket, all these years I never had either of those pieces of equipment.
MY: A lot of your photographs are in black and white. Why?
DM: All of them. All of my best pictures.
MY: Why that choice?
DM: When you see a black and white photograph it’s haunting. We do not live in a black and white world, we live in a world that has seven colors of the spectrum. I know all the colors. But for some reason, when I go into my dark room and grab a sheet of paper and print that picture, I’m going to say to myself in that dark room: ‘Whoever looks at this picture is not going to forget it.’ Because I’m going to inject as much of a fist into it as I can. That’s what I want people to see in my work. I’m not going to give you a free ride because someone is suffering and you are not. You’re going to feel their pain when you look at my picture. It sounds a bit crazy but …
MY: Would editors not ask you to do color?
DM: Yes, particularly at the Sunday Times, it was a color magazine. And they would say when I went away: ‘Well Don. Do some color, please do some color for us.’ I would come back, walk into the office, and throw the photographs down and stand there as they started laying them out. And they’d say ‘Don, why don’t you go and get a cup of coffee.’ And I’d reply, ‘No, I’m going to watch you do this. I was the man who was there, I know how the story should go.’ But the man who did it, the art editor at the Sunday Times, was an amazing man. His name was David King. And when he left the paper, I thought my world was going to collapse. He was the man who laid out my work and he was brilliant. You can be the best photographer in the world, but if you don’t have someone laying your pictures out properly, you might as well go talk to that wall. It doesn’t matter how good you are, one always needs a champion in life, one who will push you, develop you, and announce you.
MY: What about digital? Do you use digital cameras?
DM: I’m off to Mosul tomorrow and that’s what I’m going to use. I’m still flaky about them because there are extraordinary digital cameras. When I was in Vietnam, at 6:00 pm it was dark and we were finished. But with a digital camera you can go into a semi-lit room and use them and get good quality. So photography goes on forever now. You can shoot in almost total darkness. It’s like night vision. They are remarkable, but they offer too much information, so they’re complicated. I’m not very adaptable to that kind of technology. I’m very bad actually. I don’t use a computer. I don’t even know how to use my mobile phone.
MY: Whom do you admire among the photographers you worked with in the 1960s and 1970s?
DM: There was Larry Burrows, who died in Vietnam in a helicopter crash. There is also James Nachtwey, he’s quite good as well… but with Nachtwey’s work, there’s no feeling of… there is a kind of… a brilliant photographer… I also have great friend, Sebastiao Salgado, who doesn’t particularly do war even though he went to see the genocide in Rwanda. But I started before these people. I don’t own photography, I never did. It belongs to the universe. So anyone can practice photography, and they’re very welcome. I don’t see it as trespassing on my emotional life. Of course, if somebody does something you haven’t done you admire it. You don’t hate it because you are jealous. I don’t suffer from jealousy, never have. I don’t suffer from envy.