Don McCullin: 'I hate being known as a war photographer'

Watch the artist talk about a selection of his photographs

Don McCullin is recognised as one of the most important living war photographers. He has covered events of global importance, including the Vietnam and Biafran wars for the Observer, and other publications, since the 1960s.

In 2012 a display of 47 photographs by the artist opened at Tate Britain. The substantial selection was made by Tate’s curator of photography, Simon Baker, in collaboration with McCullin, and focuses on three diverse aspects of his practice: his first foreign assignment in divided Berlin in 1961; documentary work on homelessness in East London in the late 60s; and landscape works, both urban, and rural from the 1970s to the present day.


My name is Don McCullin. I’m a photographer. Of course Tate Gallery have very kindly invited me to show some of my work here which is a great honour for me. It’s slightly out of the ordinary because I’m sadly known as a war photographer which I really hate being spoken of in that light, but what’s happened here today is we have chosen, or the curator here, Simon Baker, has chosen a set of my pictures that doesn’t show any signs of war despite the fact there is a section on that building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, which in many people’s eyes thought was the outbreak of the Third World War or could have been.

When I was a very young photographer, I wasn’t even really a photographer, I had very little experience, I mean I had no experience of international affairs and a story of such a huge calibre, I went straight to Friedrichstrasse where the tension between the Americans and the Russians and the East Germans were really… the build-up was enormous and there were tanks and armoured vehicles from both sides facing each other, it was very serious.

I had a very, very close association with London having been born in London and having being born on the wrong side of the tracks as they say and I started seeing people sleeping in shop doorways and when I went to Third World countries people would refuse to believe there were poor people in England, but there were many, many untold truths about this country, we had poverty, we had unemployment, we had a class system that wasn’t convenient, all kinds of things that people who lived outside of England wouldn’t have understood, so when I started walking the streets of London and seeing people sleeping in shop doorways, even I was shocked. What I tried to do was I tried to draw those people into my vision, I tried to make myself unimportant in the presence of such people and I tried to let their eyes meet my eyes, which I think in many cases I’ve managed to succeed. I want them to see I am no harm, no threat to them; I want them to see that I am looking at them through a pair of eyes that have enormous compassion and understanding.

There is a section on the industrial North of England and these pictures show the cost of being a great powerful industrial nation but at the same time someone had to suffer and that was the English countryside. So when you look at some of these industrial landscapes, they are rather harsh and brutal because the industrial demands on landscapes was wicked, I mean it turned beautiful countryside into mud pits and slurry pits and places like that.

Eventually I moved out of London because I couldn’t stand being around too many people, I needed to isolate myself from people. I was always, I went to the wars and saw the suffering and then I came back and I felt I couldn’t share that suffering just with my photography, the landscape became a kind of process of healing so that I could forget about wars and revolutions of dying children because I was beginning to take those memories to bed with me at night and having terrible dreams and terrible nightmares and feeling guilty and waking up in a sweat and that’s wasn’t doing me any good so, to stand in the English countryside with my camera I’m harming nobody.

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