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Don McCullin’s Wars and Peace

The great photojournalist Don McCullin talks to Maureen Freely of the darkness and light that have marked his life and his searingly truthful work

  • Left: Portrait of Don McCullin, by Monica Fritz. Right: Artemis, Antalya Museum, by Don McCullin

Don McCullin, the greatest photojournalist of our time, is soon to say goodbye to his camera, his archive and his darkroom. The book he calls his almost final statement was published in September. Its splendid images of Roman Asia Minor will form the end point of a retrospective at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome. With all that behind him, he hopes to make the most of the beautiful patch of Somerset that has been his home for some 40 years. Tending to his plum trees, he says. Freeing his mind. Picking blackberries, with thorns his only adversary. Or just sitting in his chair by the window that looks out over a flagstone terrace, an emerald lawn and rolling hills while he looks elsewhere.

“I don’t like outside light,” he tells me. “I love light coming inside. It can show you the moulding and the shape of things. It can give you drama.” Waving towards the rain-specked windowpanes, he explains why the blues, greens and greys of our English summers have never spoken to him. “They’re too chocolate-boxy. I prefer to photograph trees when they’ve lost all their leaves. That’s when they tell you what they are.”

From the very beginning, McCullin has brought a searching spirit to his work. A cruel childhood left him with no choice but to face life’s big questions. He grew up in a damp basement flat in Finsbury Park, then known as the toughest neighbourhood in London. His mother was a hard-drinking brawler who dropped cigarette ashes in his food and ruled the household with her fist. His schoolteachers were just as violent when he failed to learn to read on schedule. His father, a gentle soul who encouraged his interest in art, died when he was just 14. There was no more school after that. It was straight off to work. National Service gave him his first escape, and with it his first camera. Back in England, and back at work, he began to experiment with his camera, taking his inspiration from photographers like Bill Brandt and Alfred Stieglitz, but most of all from Caravaggio. This was a world he recognised: the petty thieves and punch-up artists he’d played with as a boy and still saw every weekend had by now graduated to serious crime.

Quite a few belonged to a gang called the Guvnors. One Sunday he got seven of them to pose for him in their Teddy-boy suits on the first-floor ledge of a burnt-out building. Days later, a policeman died at the end of his road after intervening in a scuffle between the Guvnors and another gang. Suddenly everyone was talking about delinquent youth. McCullin took his photograph to The Observer, which snapped it up, and not just because they knew a scoop when they saw one. They were as awed as I still am today by the beauty of its composition, and as troubled by its content. For it is impossible to meet the challenge in those seven pairs of eyes and remain complacent.

The same can be said of every image he published over the next three decades. These were the golden days of photojournalism, when editors like Harry Evans at The Sunday Times were prepared to go to great lengths to acquaint their readers with the realities of the Cold War. Reporters could remain at one remove, in McCullin’s view. But to grasp what was truly going on, a photographer needed to take himself into the heart of the conflict. From the beginning he always made his own way there, with or without an assignment. So he was in Berlin in 1962, to see the Wall go up, and in Cyprus in 1964, to witness the slaughter of Turkish villagers by Greek militias. Sent to the Congo in 1966, he found his way to the centre of its civil war by posing as a mercenary. In Vietnam in 1968, he witnessed the Tet Offensive. From there it was to Nigeria, Cambodia, Northern Ireland and Lebanon. Wherever he went, he took with him the traumas of his childhood, capturing both the drama of conflict and its human costs. He sent his images home to haunt the rest of us – though even now, so many decades later, they continue to haunt him most of all…

Click here to read the full illustrated article.

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Issue 66, December 2023 Turkey’s Centenary Issue
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Other Highlights from Cornucopia 66
  • The Treasured Shell

    Since the 1940s time has stood still under the pines and palms of this modest Art Deco villa on Istanbul’s Marmara shore. Berrin Torolsan meets Suna Erbil Demirağ, who has fiercely protected it as a tribute to her pioneering father, who carved out a thousand kilometres of Turkey’s railways before building this much-loved haven. Photographs by Monica Fritz

  • The Season Ticket

    In the dead of winter, the photographer and filmmaker Annette Louise Solakoğlu takes the long, slow train journey east from Ankara to the borderland where Turkey meets Armenia and Georgia, scanning the frozen vastness of the north Anatolian landscape

Buy the issue
Issue 66, December 2023 Turkey’s Centenary Issue
£15.00 / $19.10 / 621.95 TL
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