INTERVIEW

Trust and integrity: Sir Don McCullin on the values that shaped him

A Turkish woman mourns her dead husband, a victim of the Cyprus Civil War between Greek and Turkish Cypriotes that began the previous year. Ghaziveram, Cyprus, 1964. © Sir Don McCullin

Best known for his arresting reports on war, Sir Don McCullin has never shied away from confrontation. In this thought-provoking montage, he takes us through some of the values that have informed his illustrious career – and some of the shots he refused to take.

In the same conflict that gave the world Don's striking portrait of a shell-shocked American soldier, he also came across a man dying from catastrophic head wounds. "One day in Vietnam, I saw a soldier with two bullets in his face," he says. "I probably could have got one of the most extraordinary portraits ever seen, but I felt it wasn't the right thing to do. When I look at someone dying, I must trust that person. This man, with his agony, with his eyes – he couldn't use his mouth or anything – was saying, 'Don't do it,' and I didn't. Who cares about one of the best portraits in the world? Photography doesn't belong to you. Whatever opportunities come along, you've got to make sure that you can take them with conscience."

I probably could have got one of the most extraordinary portraits ever seen, but it wasn't the right thing to do.

For Don, who has travelled the globe creating everything from social documentary and war reportage through to portraiture and landscape, all photography comes down to something simple: "Integrity and honesty are the most important things that I think a photographer must maintain."

Don's conflict and catastrophe reporting has seen him covering the Vietnam War, the troubles in Northern Ireland and Cambodia, the Israel-Palestine conflict and the AIDS epidemic across Africa – capturing moments of untold suffering. Preserving an honest, sensitive approach is of even greater importance when photographing people at their lowest moments.

A shell-shocked US Marine gazes at the camera, dressed in army fatigues and clutching his rifle between his hands, in Sir Don McCullin's iconic shot of the Vietnam War.
Shell-shocked US Marine, The Battle of Hue. One of Don's most iconic portraits depicts a stunned soldier during the Vietnam War. Hue, Vietnam, 1968. © Sir Don McCullin
A homeless man from Ireland with bedraggled, grey hair sticking up in different directions, on the streets of the East End, London where he is living.
An Irish homeless man living on the streets of London, whose blue eyes and striking hair reminded Don of Neptune, god of the sea. East End, London, 1969. © Sir Don McCullin

For Don, creating photojournalism under such circumstances requires an emotional commitment. He believes it's up to each photographer to set their own parameters of acceptability amid the trauma, so that they are able to stand by their actions in retrospect. Throughout his years shooting in often devastating surroundings, Don has been "careful, even slightly evangelistic" about ensuring he captures suffering both sensitively and with a view to raising awareness of its existence – never with a view to sensationalise or profit from it.

"The most important thing in the world is to have sensitivity," he says. "If you don't have it, you shouldn't pick the camera up, you shouldn't get on the airplane, and you shouldn't stand in front of dying and injured people."

Such a sense of responsibility is reflected in the slow approach the photojournalist has taken in getting to know subjects – when time allows. "Years ago, I shot a set of pictures of homeless people in England," says Don. "But the first week I went and got near them, I didn't take my camera. And then a week later I took my camera, and I brought it out from under my overcoat and started gently taking pictures, and the people all started twitching and jerking. I thought any minute there was going to be some violence coming, but there wasn't."

A camel, with its rider perched on top, stands on a sand dune in Syria. Behind them the shapes of ancient buildings can be seen peeking out.
As well as gritty reportage, Don has turned his hand to landscape and travel photography, including work across the Middle East and Syria. © Sir Don McCullin

It is his belief that photography is a form of theft: "You must persuade yourself that you are stealing something that doesn't rightfully belong to you. You're stealing other people's images." Such ideology has informed his craft throughout the years, ensuring he takes nothing for granted – he understands where his personal line in the sand lies, and respecting the dying man's final wish in Vietnam is an example of it.

Photography has been an amazing love affair – but at the same time it has also tormented me.

Looking back over his 60-year career and "love affair" with photography, Don says he felt the craft chose him – creating a powerful and sometimes challenging force in his life. "Photography has been an amazing love affair," he says. "I fell in love with photography accidentally – it chose me, I didn't choose it. But, at the same time, photography has tormented me." And, given the high moral standards Britain’s most respected photojournalist holds himself to, this comes as no surprise.


To find out more about the latest EOS 5D camera, the EOS 5D Mark IV, which Sir Don shot with during his recent shoot in Kolkata, visit the product page. And to see the documentary Canon Ambassador Clive Booth made about Don’s trip, click here.

Written by Lucy Fulford


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