Don McCullin: darkness and light

At 84 Don McCullin has lived, and documented, an incredible life, his camera once taking a bullet for him. The photographer speaks as a major retrospective of his work opens in Liverpool

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In Unreasonable Behaviour, his 1990 autobiography, photographer Sir Don McCullin talks about working in a warzone, describing the experience as a “schizophrenic trip”.

“You cannot equate what is going on with anything else in life,” he writes. “If you have known white sheets, and comfort, and peace in the real world, and then you find yourself living like a sewer rat, not knowing day from night, you cannot put the two worlds together.”

Yet put those two worlds together is what he continually did. From the battles for Cyprus during 1964 until the Gulf Wars three decades later McCullin worked in every major combat zone across the globe, more often than not right on the frontline. For mere mortals, it’s difficult to fathom what would drive someone to so readily travel into the heart of darkness.

“I was young, I was ambitious and I was cocky,” he recalls with a laugh from the safety of his Somerset home. “I wanted to prove myself and did once foolishly state that I was going to be the best war photographer in the world. I mean, why would one make such a stupid statement?”

Stupid statement or not, McCullin is now regarded as one of the greatest. His domestic assignments – spotlighting the poor, the downtrodden and the unfortunate – have brought equal plaudits. Life on the edge has, you sense, felt like a life well lived for the man born into a working-class North London family during 1935.

“What you learn in wars is the knowledge of how to be sensible and how to stay alive. You’re forced to quickly gain all this knowhow but then that made things difficult when you came home because peace and silence and safety suddenly felt unnatural,” he explains.

His closest call came in Uganda during 1972 when he was imprisoned for four days and lined up to face a firing squad: “That was a bit of a wake-up call I wasn’t ready for,” McCullin recalls. “But immediately afterwards you just think, well, that’s another lesson I’ve learned.”

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Yet as if addicted to the entire experience, he continued to fly into danger. Even in his eighties a trip to Syria proved difficult to resist. “That was about four years ago when the war was still raging. We had to stop going when the danger of kidnap by ISIS became too great, but look – I’ve learned that once you go on these assignments there will be people trying to stop you and bully you and a lot of it’s about having the willpower to overcome that.

“I have become quite resilient. I think all this has made me like an old-time gun fighter.”

Tate Liverpool’s McCullin retrospective is set to include work from many of the conflicts covered during this remarkable career. Among the 250 images will also be photos from his domestic assignments, including those documenting working-class life in industrial northern England and London’s East End.

“Those two areas of work do have a lot in common and I get a lot of similar things from them,” says McCullin. “They share a lot of moral issues, a feeling of inequality perpetrated by governments, social issues that haven’t worked out… I do think a lot about injustice.”

And while the bulk of the work – including a selection of magazine spreads and contact sheets, plus the Nikon camera that took a bullet for McCullin in Cambodia – were exhibited at Tate Britain last year, there will be a special section of photographs shot locally.

“I have around 60,000 negatives at home and I looked through what I call my social documentary work and found several pictures of Liverpool never printed before. It’s always nice to think you can pull something new out of the collection.

“And I just hope that when people come to see the exhibition they understand I’m a man who has always had the considerations of the people of the north of England and I’ve always appreciated the fact that the people in the north haven’t had a fair amount of respect shown toward their efforts over the last 200 years. They’ve done all the hard work and they’re the people I trust and I hope the people who see this exhibition realise I have a feeling for their struggle in life.”

But this is not an epilogue. McCullin, now 84, is still working – “I’ve never stinted on giving as much as I can to my work” – though mainly in the less frantic world of landscape photography, both at home and abroad. Looking back he explains what a privilege it’s been to be part of what he refers to as “a very interesting chunk of history”.

“It’s been an incredible life really,” McCullin concludes. “And I hope it goes on for many more years.”

Don McCullin, Tate Liverpool, 16 Sept to 9 May 2021

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