The majority of the last 50 years of my life has been wasted photographing wars.
What good have I done, showing these pictures of suffering?
War is completely out of your control, of course. But when a person is dying or injured badly. When he's in shock and that. Does he need you looking over him with a camera?
You're the last person he wants to see. He wants to see medical people rushing towards him. Not me.
It was hard coming away and seeing children dying of starvation and then coming back to where I lived in London. And seeing my children refusing their Sunday lunch, or something like that.
You had to not lose the plot and start shouting. It's very difficult.
But isn't being a human being difficult?
Who is Don McCullin?
Sir Don McCullin is best known for his iconic war photographs – including images from Vietnam, Northern Ireland and more recently Syria.
Born in 1935, McCullin grew up in a deprived area of north London. From the 1960s he forged a career as probably the UK’s foremost war photographer, primarily working for the Sunday Times Magazine.
Throughout his career, McCullin also recorded scenes of poverty and working class life in London’s East End and the industrial north, as well as meditative landscapes of his beloved Somerset.
The futility of war
What I'm trying to express is a kind of silent protest about the futility of war, but I don't know how people percieve it
Don McCullin travelled to Germany in 1961 to photograph the building of the Berlin Wall. Over the course of 60 years he has photographed various conflicts around the world. But the photographer has never been content with the impact made by the images he has produced.
In this interview – filmed in Tate Modern's 2014 Conflict, Time, Photography exhibition – McCullin remembers the people and places that feature in some of his most powerful images.
Well, these photographs were taken in 1961. It was the actual beginning of the building of the Berlin Wall. I arrived at Tempelhof Airport and went straight to Friedrichstrasse, where the tension was at its most intense. So here I was in Berlin with one camera, basically looking at the hottest new story in the world.
And so I had to make that camera do everything. I tried every way of using that camera to get a different angle. The Russians and the Americans were facing each other with armoured vehicles and, you know, you look into these photographs, and we’re looking…a lot of them, you’re looking into East Berlin, and if you look at the uniforms of the East Berlin police and soldiers, they are very reminiscent of Nazi uniforms that you would have seen in the Second World War. I was using that kind of atmosphere to show tension, really, and division.
And this was a shell-shocked soldier from the Fifth Marine Battalion, and I just found him sitting on a wall. He’d got to a point in the battle that he couldn’t take any more of it. I just took five simple frames with my 35mm camera, and this man didn’t blink an eyelid. I suppose, in a way, that’s what I’m trying to express; a kind of silent protest about the futility of war, but I don’t know how people perceive it, because it has a slightly iconic value to it, which could be a slightly defeating part of the object of me taking it in the first place.
The big final photograph as you leave this exhibition is a simple landscape. I was sent to make a commemorative stamp of the First World War for the Post Office, but I happened to be having a lunch one day in a simple little bistro, and I finished my lunch and I drove down the road. There’d been a heavy rainstorm, and I suddenly, as I was driving, saw this road, this silver road going into infinity, and I stopped the car and I got out and I felt immediately that this road was a voice that was, you know, telling me something about history. It’s just a simple road, but it was the most dangerous road in the world to many soldiers who went down it. When I printed the picture I injected a lot of my own thoughts into that picture, you know. I see darkness as my voice, really. I sometimes almost believe, myself, that I’m speaking for the victims and the casualties of war.
And when I see an image which is related to war, I don’t give you a free ride.
Not just a war photographer
Eventually I moved out of London because I couldn’t stand being around too many people... the landscape became a kind of process of healing so that I could forget about wars and revolutions
Although known to many as a war photographer, Don McCullin has also captured subjects including urban London, the Industrial North and the English countryside.
In this film, McCullin discusses this diversity of subject matter and reflects on his photographs displayed at Tate Britain in 2012.
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.