Sir Don McCullin was born in 1935 in London’s Finsbury Park, a poor and rough area at the time. Leaving school at fifteen with no qualifications, McCullin signed up to National Service in the RAF as a photographic assistant. In 1959, McCullin took his first published photograph of The Guvnors, a London gang who had been involved in a murder. This inimitable image appeared in The Observer that same year. It was this, teamed with his decision based on nothing more than his own intuition to go to Berlin to photograph the start of the building of the Wall, which secured his contract with The Observer in 1961.
Today, Don McCullin is one of our greatest living photographers. Few have enjoyed a career so long; none one of such variety and critical acclaim. For the past 50 years, he has proved himself a photojournalist without equal, whether documenting the poverty of London’s East End, or the horrors of wars in Africa, Asia or the Middle East. Simultaneously he has proved an adroit artist capable of beautifully arranged still lifes, soulful portraits and moving landscapes.
Between 1966 and 1984, McCullin worked for The Sunday Times Magazine. At the time, The Sunday Times was at the cutting edge of investigative, critical journalism. During this period, McCullin’s assignments included Biafra, the Belgian Congo, the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’, Bangladesh and the Lebanese civil war.
It is his photographs of Vietnam and Cambodia that have become among the most famous and well recognised.
McCullin faced no restrictions, yet his work, in projecting the realities of war into millions of living rooms back home, contributed substantially to the growth of anti-war feeling.
McCullin took huge risks in order to take his photographs. He was blinded by CS gas during a riot in Derry and wounded by fragments of a mortar shell in Cambodia. But he reports having been most frightened when arrested by Idi Amin’s thugs in Uganda and taken to a notorious prison where they were murdering hundreds of people every day with sledgehammers. He survived but was damaged. He has a head full of demons, and bears a heavy burden of doubt and guilt,
“Sometimes it felt like I was carrying pieces of human flesh back home with me, not negatives. It’s as if you are carrying the suffering of the people you have photographed.”