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12 February 2012updated 06 Sep 2021 2:23pm

The NS Interview: Don McCullin, photojournalist

By New Statesman

What is the greatest success of your life?
The timing. I came in the early Sixties, like [David] Bailey and all those dress designers, all those clever working-class people. We came at the right time, when it was our time. There is a slight guilt problem about it, because you can’t really enjoy a reputation of success built on the failure of other people’s chances of survival and many of the people in my pictures didn’t survive. Particularly the hundreds of children in Biafra. So I don’t feel good about the word “success” around my name. It’s uncomfortable; it’s like wearing a crown of thorns.

Your “Shaped by War” exhibition at the Imperial War Museum was a retrospective spanning 50 years. Why now?
I’m 76 and I’m going to leave chaos behind when I die, because my family won’t totally understand all this work. The exhibition is putting it into perspective.

Did you print the photographs for the exhibition yourself?
Yes. I don’t want to lose control of the work that I risked my life for. Emotionally they still live with me, those images and memories.

Are there any images to which you feel particularly attached?
One or two of the bigger stories, like the Battle of Hué in 1968. I still think about it on a daily basis. It always comes back to visit me at night when I’m trying to get to sleep – those days when I slept on tables or I slept near corpses or I saw people run over by tanks, who looked like carpets.

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Have you ever sought counselling?
If I went to see a counsellor or a psychiatrist, I would make him pay me! There are some amazing human minds out there that have gone through all kinds of hell and suffering but I inflicted it upon myself by volunteering to go. It hasn’t destroyed me, but it’s messed up my life in some way or another.

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How do today’s conflicts make you feel, as someone who has reported on war?
It makes me feel disappointed that the world hasn’t cleaned up its act. The idea of seeing my photos framed on walls and in museums, would that make me comfortable? Not entirely.

Is the world suffering from image fatigue?
It’s not about fatigue. People are more aware of visual imagery now than they’ve ever been; you know, [with] mobile phones and stuff like that. It’s about the proprietors’ control over what they believe we are allowed to see. It’s terrible the way we have allowed the content of these newspapers to destroy our culture.

Your big break came with a photo of a gang in 1950s Finsbury Park, where you grew up. It looks like a fashion photograph; did you ever consider going into fashion?
I had no inclination whatsoever to that world, the beautiful women and the luxury. I was drawn to the tragic world of wars and famine and suffering.
Finsbury Park was an amazing kind of university for me, because my existence as a young child and teenager there was based entirely on ignorance and bigotry and violence. So may­be that’s why I understood that world of war and suffering.

If you hadn’t been a photographer, what job would you have liked to have done?
Where I grew up, most of the people gravitated to becoming criminals. I was surrounded by criminal elements and violence and things like that. And all the boys, they notched up quite a few years in prison, some of them for armed robbery, even murder. It was difficult to swim in that kind of pool without the infectious kind of necessity to prove yourself. And you had to prove yourself by fighting, stealing or doing something outrageous like armed robbery . . . So, you know, I grew up in an impossible place for me to graduate to where I am now.

Are you thinking of stopping?
No. I’m going off to Sudan to photograph pyramids. I’ve got this passion now for archaeology and history. I’m reading all the books I never had time to.

Do you vote?
When I vote, I feel ashamed of myself. Nothing seems to change.

Do you consider yourself religious?
No, because when I was a young boy and my father died, I turned my back on religion. It was totally unjust that my father would die at the age of 40 when I was 13. The only trouble, of course . . . is that when you’re in terrible battles, you say: “Please God, don’t let me die today.” It’s a terrible Judas kind of situation to be in, but we’re all guilty of it, really.

Are we all doomed?
I don’t think so, no. I’ve always been a pessimist, but I’m positive at the same time. My pessimism kicks in when I wonder if there will be future wars in Africa. Or if there will be poor people in this country multiplying instead of society giving a helping hand. But humanity has been going on three to five thousand years in one way or another, and it will continue to go on.

Defining moments

1935 Born in Finsbury Park, north London
1956 Works as an air force photographer’s assistant during National Service
1958 The Guv’nors, his picture of his own Finsbury Park gang, appears in the Observer
1966 Begins working for the Sunday Times Magazine; covers conflicts in Vietnam, Nigeria and Northern Ireland
1982 British government denies him press pass to cover the Falklands war
1993 First photojournalist to become a CBE