“Photography’s been an amazing, generous gift to me,” says Sir Don McCullin. “Using a camera comes very naturally. Instinctively, as soon as I pick up a camera, I get excited.” It’s a powerful statement coming from one of the world’s most acclaimed and respected photographers – despite his 60-year career, he still revels in his craft. He has produced work of an unusually broad range and high quality: social documentary, war reportage, portraiture, landscape and still-life. Many would say his photographs have been the gift.
Born into a working-class family in Finsbury Park, North London, Sir Don suffered from dyslexia and had a troubled school life. His father died when he was 14. He shot his first photographs while doing National Service in the Royal Air Force in the mid-1950s, and after returning to London he began photographing his local area. His first published picture, which appeared in the Observer newspaper in 1959, showed ‘the Guv’nors’, a gang whose members had been involved in the murder of a policeman.
That photograph effectively kicked off his career on national newspapers and further work followed for the Observer and, later, The Sunday Times. Initially, he focused on documenting life in Britain, particularly the situation of the poor and dispossessed. He went on to photograph the brutal reality of conflicts around the world, including those in Cyprus, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Northern Ireland, as well as humanitarian disasters such as famine in Biafra (now part of Nigeria).
His determination to be at the centre of events often put him in great danger. While working in Vietnam in 1968, he narrowly avoided death when a bullet hit the camera he was holding to his face. Two years later, while photographing the war in Cambodia, he was wounded by a mortar shell. In 1972, he was imprisoned for four days in a notorious jail in Idi Amin’s Uganda, where executions were commonplace at the time.
In 1984, he left the staff position he held at The Sunday Times, and went on to shoot a number of different freelance projects. Among them were photographing the AIDS crisis in Africa, indigenous tribes in Ethiopia and a refugee crisis in Darfur. He also shot a series of brooding, atmospheric landscapes near his Somerset home. More recently, he has made compelling studies of remains of the Roman Empire in North Africa and the Middle East.
Sir Don was knighted for services to photography in January 2017. At the age of 82, he remains devoted to photography and continues to work in a range of far-flung locations. Recently, we caught up with him to chat about his life and work, including his new documentary McCullin in Kolkata, shot in India on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.
“I was going to do something a long time ago about Roman cities in the Middle East and North Africa, but as a film it wouldn’t have had an edge to it. So I said, ‘Why don’t we go to Kolkata?’ I think it was very courageous of Canon to back a project without really knowing what was going to come out of it, but I think the film we made will show people what an extraordinary city it is.”
“It’s a city that has a very strong resonance for me. I first went there in 1965. In those days, tourism in India was in its infancy and you wouldn’t see any other western people around. It was extraordinary. I was also there during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. I’d begged The Sunday Times to send me there during the monsoon season because I knew it would be dramatic. I lost two cameras because the rain got into them and destroyed the prisms, but I managed to come back with 30 rolls of film I’d already exposed. It was one of the better stories I did in my photographic life.”
“It’s one of the last cities in India that still has that vibrant struggle for life. I’ve always described it as the most dramatic city in the whole world. It’s like being dropped into a boiling cauldron of life. It sounds arrogant, but I could go there blindfolded and shoot great pictures. There are extraordinary, amazing looking human beings in whatever direction you turn. So, photographically, going to Kolkata is like breaking into an Aladdin’s cave.”
“It’s changed, but not a lot. The first thing I noticed was how much cleaner it looked, which is to its merit, and there seems a little bit more affluence around. Some of the more run-down buildings have been ripped out or tidied up. As a city, it’s getting off its knees and making its way towards the 21st century. However, people still wash in the streets, there’s poverty and disease and it’s still a very overcrowded city, teeming with life. When you clean up and sanitise a city it becomes boring, but that doesn’t mean people who live in cities don’t deserve better and the people of Kolkata certainly do.”
“No, I don’t feel uncomfortable about it. When you’re roaming the streets, taking photographs of people, you’re actually stealing their image without their consent. Of course I understand all that. I’m aware what I’m doing is not wholesome. On the other hand, I don’t do it with any malice or cunning. I do it because I’m trying to create a record of human existence.”
“Having done it before in black and white, it would’ve been a crime not to shoot it in colour when using the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. These new cameras are extraordinary. In the old days, once it got dark you couldn’t shoot any pictures, but now you can go on into the night. Yet sometimes, you have to be careful that technical quality doesn’t overtake the picture and the drama itself. Too much quality has a kind of commercial look to it, so you have to make sure you’re not tidying it up with this quality. It’s a funny thing to say, but I know it’s true.”
“You can do anything you want digitally, with today’s cameras. You can certainly tell the most appalling lies and photography becomes a kind of magic show if you don’t look out. It’s useful if you are working for a commercial organisation that demands a certain kind of image. But I’m very strict and old-fashioned when it comes to my photojournalism. I keep to the original rule book and stick totally to what I see when I press that button.”
“I’d have to honestly say no. I know I’ve probably got several hundred opportunities in a memory card, so there’s a tendency to be extravagant and wasteful. In the old days, because I knew the limitations of exposures on a 35mm roll of film, I used to think consciously every time I pressed the button. Without boasting, I have great discipline in my photography. I was never one who squandered film. When motor-winders came into the fray and I was in a place like Vietnam, where they would have been very useful, I never used them. I was always hand-cranking my frames.”
You have to have an emotional commitment to serious photojournalism, when people are suffering.
“I think you have to have an emotional commitment to serious photojournalism, when people are suffering and their lives are at stake. You have to be 100% emotionally aware. I try to work on my own so I can exercise my own guidelines – you’re walking on a very thin tightrope when you’re wandering among death and destruction. One doesn’t want to be criticised after the event for using other people’s lives to give you a life or a reputation. Whatever I’ve done in my life, I’ve always been very careful about that, even slightly evangelistic about it.”
“That’s the most important question anyone’s asked me lately, because photojournalism is dying. When I was at The Sunday Times, I went off to Cuba. When I came back, one of my colleagues laid out 18 pages of my Cuban story. Then I had 10-12 pages on my Vietnam stories and others. I was very fortunate to have that privilege, but it’s never going to happen again. Young people are being encouraged to go into photojournalism and there’s no outlet for it – the newspapers and magazines are much more interested in the wealthy, the glamorous and that hateful word ‘celebrities’, where the underlying factor is narcissism. They don’t want suffering people in their newspapers. It doesn’t make money for proprietors. Photojournalism hasn’t lost its way but it’s been conveniently pushed aside.”
“Young people often write me letters and ring me up, saying they want to do this or that, and the thing that most annoys me is when they say they want to be a war photographer. I say, OK, if you want to be a war photographer, go to the inner cities in England. You don’t have to get on a plane to the Middle East or wherever. There are social wars in our cities: homeless people, poor people, people begging outside of banks. You will find the most incredible poverty and that is a war as big as any other.”
“Photography’s been an amazing, generous gift to me. Using a camera comes very naturally to me. I know what I’m looking for and I know how to compose very quickly. Instinctively, as soon as I pick up a camera, I get excited. But I haven’t got many years left. I’m 82 and you don’t get much further down the road than that. I wake up every day and my body feels stiff, my legs are weaker, my eyes are dodgy and my hearing’s going. But I’ll fight it all the way. I’ll never give up photography, literally until the day I’m gone. I’ve been working like hell all my life to better myself and I never think what I’ve done is satisfactory, so I have to keep going.”
I don’t really feel I should have been honoured for the work I’ve done... it’s often been about the suffering of other people.
“Yes, it’s being made by Working Title. The idea came from my manager Mark George, and he brought Tom Hardy on board to star as me. He wants to star in it. The film has already been in the pipeline a couple of years. It’s amusing, really, to think that one of the most famous actors in the world wants to play me, but I don’t give it too much energy. If it happens, which they’re now saying it might do next year, it will happen, but I won’t be the first in the queue to go and see it.”
“It was very strange really. I don’t really feel I should have been honoured for the work I’ve done because it’s often been about the suffering of other people. But I’m very dedicated to my photography, I do landscapes, I do still-life, so if the knighthood is for photography then that’s fine. But it would have been nicer if they had given it to a surgeon who works to save lives in Great Ormond Street Hospital, or someone like that. These are the people who should be recognised. When I hear people calling me ‘Sir’ I kind of cringe. I’ve been rewarded by just taking some pictures that I’m proud of. Also, I’m treated very nicely by my fellow photographers. That respect is a huge reward for me.”
“I’ll be up at dawn tomorrow because I’m off to Paris to photograph behind the scenes at a fashion show for the Alexander McQueen company. I’ll be showing how the preparation of a big important show, worth millions of pounds, is put together by lots of talented people. Next Sunday, I’m flying to Beirut and the following day I’ll cross the border into Syria – I’m going to Palmyra to photograph all the damage done to temples I photographed a dozen years ago. I’m really looking forward to it. I’m so excited about going that I can’t sleep at night.”