War photographer Don McCullin talks Syria, the new film about him, and ‘making money from others’ tragedy’

Don McCullin poses next to one of his photos. Picture: Getty
Don McCullin poses next to one of his photos. Picture: Getty
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Photojournalist Don McCullin, the subject of a new film, had retired from the battlefield but, he tells Chitra Ramaswamy, the pull was still strong enough to take him to Syria.

In an upcoming and often unbearably sad film documentary about photographer Don McCullin, he talks about how he is done with war. “I’m just going to photograph the English landscape,” he says, wandering his beloved Somerset, a lone septuagenarian treading through virgin snow with a tripod and camera. He only photographs here in winter. He has never liked the sun. Instead he captures brooding monochrome landscapes characterised by an atmosphere of quiet, questioning despair that makes you feel you’re not so far from his war photography after all. And neither is he. Even in gentle Somerset, where as a boy he was an evacuee from war-torn London, and where he returned some 30 years ago “to see out my days”, McCullin still finds himself hearing distant gunfire and expecting blood.

Anyway, it’s hard to believe. This is, after all, a man who once said he used to “chase wars like a drunk chasing a can of lager”. McCullin is probably the world’s most famous living war photographer, a man who has witnessed humanity at its very worst and preserved it in some of the most enduring and distressing images of our time: a shell-shocked soldier in Vietnam with a thousand-yard stare; a grieving woman crying out in horror while her son reaches out to her; a starving albino boy on the brink of death during the Biafran war. Apparently when the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson saw McCullin’s pictures he had just one word to say about them: Goya. It turns out that McCullin wasn’t finished with war after all. Perhaps he will never be. At the age of 77, he has just returned from Syria. He still doesn’t seem settled on why he went back.

“I suppose there’s always a nagging doubt in your mind,” he says, laughing uneasily. “Have I turned the light out on it all? Am I done? Well, you must never assume you’ve arrived. One is always insecure enough to say I’ve got to do this one more time.” He spent a week in Aleppo, sleeping on the floor of an abandoned building that was shelled through the night. He never changed his clothes or underwear, just like the old days.

“My god, nothing has changed,” he says. “Everything about that way of life is the same. You’re grubby. You’re hungry. You’re tired. You seem to age overnight. You’re obliged to wear body armour these days plus the helmet, so you’ve got all that on top of a 77-year-old pair of legs. On the first day I attempted to run over a road that was notorious for snipers and took some rounds over the top of my head. It’s a young man’s game.” When McCullin was “young, lean, and strong as a mule”, covering two wars a year for the Sunday Times, it was a thrill. It became an addiction, in fact. And now?

“I see a lot more shabbiness,” he says. “I felt shabby myself. I kept thinking, ‘Why did I come back?’ In the old days there was an adrenalin in war. But as soon as I get to these places now I go downhill.” He comes across as a sensitive and haunted man, someone who is unjustly hard on himself. He has the tough eloquence of a Hemingway hero, and the bluest and saddest of eyes. He seems to think people view him as some kind of mercenary, a man who has used other people’s suffering to bolster his own success. He can appear consumed by guilt. “You know, my life has been pressurised into a can,” he says at one point. “I live in a kind of tension all the time. All this stuff is trapped inside me. And I do worry about making a name in photography out of other people’s loss and tragedy.”

Does he think this is how people view him? “I think they say, ‘He’s a bit of a glory hunter.’ No-one will ever understand me.”

Might they not think he has courage? “No,” he says, appalled at the thought. “It’s the strength that counts. When I went into photography I thought, ‘This is going to be OK. All I have to do is press that button.’ Of course it has nothing to do with pressing buttons. It’s to do with staying power. The patience I have is incredible.”

McCullin grew up in Finsbury Park, north London. His childhood was nasty, brutish, and short, characterised by poverty and violence. He ran with gangs and tells me he would have ended up in prison if it wasn’t for photography. He was evacuated time and time again during the war, and treated terribly. Even his first memory is steeped in war.

“I’m on a train at Paddington station, five years old, with my sister. I’m being sent to Somerset with a label round my neck and a gas mask in a box. Out of the back I can see my mother standing and waving goodbye. She gets smaller and smaller as we get further and further away.” Back home, things were no easier. His mother would often beat him. His father suffered from chronic asthma and died when McCullin was just 14.

“I used to sit and comb his hair at night. I wanted to make a fuss of him. I wanted to keep him alive.” He remembers sneaking over a fence with a sack to steal coal for his family. “The funny thing is it’s the very place where all the best picture framing is done,” he laughs. “That terrible place where I used to secretly steal to keep my poor father alive, where people threw dead cats, is where my pictures are framed today for major museums.”

His first professional picture was of a local gang, The Guv’nors, posturing in a derelict building at the bottom of his street. The gang was mixed up in the shooting of a policeman and the Observer bought the picture for £50. A career was born. “You could say it was violence and death that kickstarted my career. My life began because of the death of a policeman.”

Not long after he married his first wife, he decided to blow his savings, £70, on a flight to Berlin. He couldn’t get a commission but he saw the Wall was about to be erected and sensed it would be a big story. As usual, his intuition was spot on. He returned to win an award and a contract with the Observer.

But it was his years at the Sunday Times, under the editorship of Harold Evans, where he took his most iconic photographs. Each one has an incredible and shocking story behind it. Like the time he covered the civil war in Cyprus and entered a house to take photographs of two corpses.

“I did knock on the door, but there was no answer. When I opened it there were two men, brothers it turned out, lying in a pool of blood. I remember the family pictures on the hallway stand, tapped into the side of the glass. I went in the corner and shot quietly until suddenly the door opened and the family came in. I thought they were going to attack me. I was trespassing in their house, photographing dead members of their family. And there was another body, the father, in the room behind me. But they let out all this hysteria and I just carried on photographing. I felt I had their approval. At least they weren’t beating me. So I just stuck it out.”

He went undercover with mercenaries in Congo, photographing executions and watching in a daze of shock as gangs of boys were shot and kicked into the river. In Vietnam he stuck it out during the two-week battle for Hué, running around “like a mad, free, tormented animal”.

“I was living like a kind of rat. I was sleeping in destroyed houses under tables, lying next to dead bodies, seeing men run over by tanks who looked like Persian carpets. I could sleep anywhere and put up with anything. There wasn’t a place I pointed my camera where I didn’t get a reasonably powerful image of the tragedy of war. I came away with 30 rolls of the most powerful film I’ve ever shot.”

The Biafran war marked a turning point. McCullin found himself in front of 800 starving children, some of them dropping dead right there. “It was the beginning of my falling apart. The macho stuff went right to the back of the queue. I was dealing with children. I’ve still never been so shocked in all my life. All those children looking at me, thinking that I was going to give them food. Instead I stood in front of them with a Nikon camera around my neck. It was too much… I couldn’t…” he trails off.

“I should have come back, rejected it all, and become a homeless person,” he says eventually. “But I’m strong. I stuck at it for 15 years. It’s the kind of thing that would break most people, seeing what I saw that day.” He can no longer look at or develop the photograph of the albino boy. In the end it did break him. He left his wife and three young children for another woman. Two years later his first wife would die of a brain tumour on the day of their son’s wedding. “My first wife was always behind me. And I was always abandoning her. She was a special kind of woman and I didn’t bestow upon her the respect she deserved. But I’m afraid ambition can do that to people. You can sacrifice the people you love the most.”

He lives a quiet life now. The last photo he took was of his cat jumping on a Victorian urn in his garden. He has been married to the travel editor of Harper’s Bazaar for 11 years and they have a ten-year-old son together. “She is a lovely younger woman,” he says, rather raffishly. “Very talented, nice, and kind and I’m calming down a bit.” He adds that she is away at the moment and he has been having nightmares. “But don’t worry,” he reassures me. “She’ll be home soon.”

Three years ago McCullin had a quadruple heart bypass and ended up in hospital for three months. When he came out, it was winter. His favourite time for taking photographs. He set off for Hadrian’s Wall in the middle of a storm. “I like savage places,” he says, adding that the barren, almost lunar landscape of Rannoch Moor is his favourite place to photograph in Scotland. “I go up to Hadrian’s Wall in the winter during blizzards and stand there on my own. I love this defiance in me to be the only one there, standing on the wall in a blizzard. So after three months in hospital I came out and stood on Hadrian’s Wall and it was like sticking two fingers up to the elements. I loved it.” He laughs and laughs, relieved to have somehow survived it all.

“You’ve got to be like that. It’s no good sitting in wheelchairs. You just have to keep going. The longer you keep going, the longer you’ll be around.”

• McCullin is now on general release