“I didn’t choose photography, it somehow chose me, and it chose me at a very difficult time in my life, because I had no education, no understanding of photography”.
If you haven’t heard of Sir Don McCullin (The Royal Photographic Society), perhaps now is the time to get familiar with his incredible war stories and photography. Each of his photos tells the story of a victim or a hero: the story of someone who has fought or has lost everything due to war.
Present during many wars, he has witnessed and captured in his photographs death, famine, poverty, and torture – every kind of human suffering that is possible – in Vietnam, Lebanon, DRC Congo, Germany and more.
Still exercising his passion at age 81, McCullin is one of the world’s best-known war photographers of the second half of the XXth Century. He gave a speech at The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva a month ago. In addition to the general public, the audience comprised of journalists, students, professors – all who came out to listen to some of his anecdotes and tales about his adventures.
At this occasion, the photographer gave a very personal and emotional speech about his life and professional career. He highlighted what his best work represented, explaining the most gruesome places where he took photos, the atrocities he had witnessed, but also where he has failed and what he has learnt from past mistakes throughout the past 50 years of his career.
“What I find unique, about Sir Don’s work, is his ability to immortalise the decisive moment, the moment when news, and composition merge”, said Davide Rodogno, history Professor at the Graduate Institute.
How he began his career
“I am not a poet, and I am not an artist”.
He grew up in violent surroundings, where gang violence and police brutality of youngsters was not uncommon. Even he, himself, was beaten and arrested, although he was never part of a gang.
When he entered the world of international conflict he said “I knew exactly how to deal with the violence, the brutality and the pain, which I was later to see over and over again, for decades, I knew how to handle it”.
He pinpointed the start of his career – at a young age – after taking pictures of a gang of children who were fighting with another gang in the streets of North London.
A policeman who intervened to stop the fighting was killed during the incident. McCullin managed to capture a photo of the scene, and soon after The Observer newspaper asked him to take more pictures which were published. Overnight, he received lots of job offers from the media, although at that time, he had little experience.
“I walk a fine line in my life, as if I was on a tight rope – one mistake and you’re dead you know! And I had my own philosophy in photography, I was dealing with human tragedy, but I was dealing with trespass too, I didn’t have the right to photograph other people’s deaths and injuries”.
The role of art in his work
“I studied a man called Alfred Stieglitz who lived in New-York and was a great curator of art. I detest the word art because it has become so commercialised, that it’s all about money, and it becomes rather unsavoury. I have always had an interest in composition. For some reason, I was composing my pictures”.
Most of his work is printed in black and white. He believes black and white photos give something authentic and nostalgic where “one wouldn’t want to look away so quickly” he said.
“When I look at people, I want them to look at me so I can draw them in. I want their thoughts from their eyes. All the words in the world do not come from the mouth, they come from the eyes. If I look at people’s eyes, they speak much louder to me than their voice”.
Wars in the Belgium Congo, now DRC; North Vietnam and Biafra, Nigeria were three of the deadliest wars that were covered by McCullin in his speech – where he highlighted some of his most graphic images.
“Life lives on at such a speed… and I’m astonished that I’m still on this journey… I slept with dead bodies under tables, and saw North Vietnamese soldiers being run over by tanks as if they were carpets.”
In spite of all the pain and suffering that he has captured in the different wars, he is astonished and humbled to still be part of this world, and not to have suffered any mental breakdowns in the process.