Born on this Day / Sir Don McCullin

When thinking about famous photographers, the name Don McCullin is often among the first to appear in one’s mind. Born on this day in 1935, Mcullin is renowned for his expertise in photojournalism and ability to showcase the impoverished and forgotten members of London’s East End. He is able to capture the horrors of war whilst also accentuate the beauty of portraits, landscapes or still lives.

Don McCullin in conversation with Francis Hodgson at Photo London Somerset House on 20 May 2015
(Image: Heather Buckley, Creative Commons)

Growing up on the cusp of the Second World War, his experience living in the poor borough of North London amid the bombings of World War II gave his photographs the edge of experience. Early in his young adult life, McCullin signed up to the National Service to be a photographic assistant for the Royal Air Force. During his travels he acquired his first camera, a Rolliecord, which he carried with him upon his return to London. In 1959, a then 23 year old McCullin earned his first commission in The Observer for his photographs of London gang known as ‘the Guv’nors’. This commission kick-started his abundant and influential career.

“Photography for me is not looking, its 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.”

BBC Radio 3 – Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with Don McCullin

The next two decades of McCullin’s career focused on capturing the intricate and often gruesome details of war, the first of which being the Cyprus War in 1964. From 1966 to 1984 McCullin worked for The Sunday Times Magazine, for which he documented images of the Lebanese Civil War and Northern Irish ‘Troubles’. Even in the present day his photographs manage to grasp the emotional turmoil of what one must have experienced on the front line, and he made it possible for everyday citizens to know the realities of war. His work sympathises with victims of disaster and forces viewers to confront the horrors of our societies. For McCullin, photography was not about seeking to capture the stylised or staged moment on camera. Instead, it was about completely seeing and feeling what was in front of him. This gives his viewers permission to look at his work and truly empathise with the people in the image.

British photojournalist Don McCullin in the walled city of Hue, South Vietnam, February 1968. (Image: Nik Wheeler/Corbis via Getty Images)

The nature of McCullin’s war journalism meant he faced numerous threats to his life throughout his career. From being blinded by gas to being arrested in Uganda, taking photographs of the harsh realities of the world was no easy task. As Hamiltons, his gallery representation, writes, “he has a head full of demons, and bears a heavy burden of doubt and guilt”. He carries with him not only the suffering of those he encountered during his career but also his own torment from the trials and tribulations he himself has faced. Nevertheless, McCullin has continued to travel internationally to places such as India, Africa and Syria where he was at the forefront of the AIDs crisis. His photographs have continually linked the Western world to places that have long-felt far from it, bringing the societies from each closer together.

Don McCullin, Shell-Shocked US Marine, The Battle of Hue, 1968 (printed 2013), gelatin silver print on paper, 53.50 x 36 cm. (Image: Pierre Giovanetti, Creative Commons)

Most recently, McCullin documented a stream of poignant still lives, photographs of his home in Somerset, and other parts of the English countryside. The contrast between these images and those taken during his earlier career contrast greatly, and in 2015 McCullin was drawn back to the familiarity of war to capture Northern Iraq’s grapple with ISIS. The memories of war and the suffering of others have stayed with him, just as the emotions that his photographs unveil do with us.

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1 Comment

  1. Love this a i worshiped McCullins Vietnam work as it seemed so personal to the kids I knew I’m America at the time. Also John Tusa was th first arts journalist (and so much more) that I listened too

    Great article Jess, well done darling Xxx

    Sent from my iPhone



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