Photographer Don McCullin on taking risks in war zones
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Don McCullin is having a spat with the photographer.
We are at the foot of his garden. Behind us, the pretty 1820s farmhouse, his home for more than three decades on the edge of a Somerset village in the west of England, basks in the sun. From the stone patio, hedges on either side take the eye down over the adjoining 20 acres of land — a couple of fields, an orchard giving ground to a narrow stream containing trout. Beyond, interlocking hills climb to a large Roman burial mound on the horizon.
McCullin is standing under an oak tree. It is old and good-looking, much like its owner. He feels it is an excellent backdrop for his portrait. The photographer’s assistant is holding up a white reflective screen.
McCullin: “There’s no point in that, is there? Sorry to be rude but . . . it’s a passport picture you want then, is it?”
The photographer stammers, politely.
McCullin: “Is that the best you can come up with?”
I have come prepared for some chippiness. McCullin’s was a tough London upbringing — a violent mother, frequent truancy, a youth of street fighting and local gangs. There followed 30-odd years of photographing war zones — Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon, Congo, Northern Ireland — and the destitution of London’s streets. I doubt he will take to being probed by me.
I am wrong. Moody and reluctant with the photographer, with me he is warm and effusive. There is a confessional candour to his answers, delivered through a steady, blue-eyed gaze beneath full grey eyebrows.
“The wisest decision of my life,” McCullin says of buying the house. It was 1982, he was approaching 50 and “skint”. He had left Christine, his wife of 22 years, and three children, for Laraine Ashton, founder of the model agency IMG. They had a child together — he has five in all now, and six grandchildren — but she refused to marry him. Before long, he was jobless, too. The Sunday Times Magazine had devoted page after page to his photo stories, but when Andrew Neil took over as the newspaper’s editor the magazine became more celebrity-oriented.
Among the trophies from McCullin’s foreign assignments is a Nikon camera. He was using it during a 1970 trip to Cambodia covering the rise of the Khmer Rouge. Accompanying a group of Cambodian soldiers one day, McCullin came under fire while crossing a waterlogged rice field. Only when he returned to his camp did he notice a hole in the camera casing where an AK-47 round had lodged. He keeps the camera as a memento of the good fortune that kept him alive through more than three decades of war reporting.
We are sat at a long wooden table in front of the house by the open back door that leads in to the kitchen. Behind us a grapevine spreads beneath McCullin’s bedroom window.
After Christine’s death, and his relationship with Ashton ended, he threw himself into his house and his work. Each time he had some money he did up another room. The rest of the time he explored the surrounding Somerset hills with his camera.
The house has seen two more marriages — he now lives with his third wife, travel editor Catherine Fairweather, and their 12-year-old son Max. The area has inspired much of his later work: barren landscapes under cloudy autumn and winter skies. Often these conjure the bombed-out streets of Beirut or Hanoi. But here, he says, he finally felt settled.
“I could relate to the countryside. [My work] brought it even closer to me. I know every bloody blade of grass around here.”
He started work on the kitchen, knocking down a wall and digging out the floor. Now there is a plush cooker and smart marble-topped island, and shelving for Fairweather’s cookbooks. In front and to one side is a large dining table, and there are lime-green cabinets either side of a log burner.
On the other, just inside the back door, is McCullin’s snug. Two armchairs are set facing each other between the window and a large dresser. It is decorated with painted plates, a few figurines from his travels, and an assortment of tea and coffee mugs hanging on hooks; a telephone and radio sit on the side. There is a sort of stylish, homely disorder to the room.
Country life, home improvements and landscape photography quelled the nagging sense of inadequacy that had plagued McCullin during his time in London. While he learnt much at The Sunday Times, his lack of university training and modest roots left him feeling out of place among his Oxbridge-educated colleagues.
“I never quite rubbed off my upbringing in Finsbury Park,” he says. Work compounded these insecurities with a gnawing sense of guilt. Chronicling death and suffering for a job never felt right. Sometimes his subjects — such as the starving albino child in Biafra in 1968 who had grabbed his hand — would be dead days or even hours later.
It bred a masochistic recklessness. “I used to combat that morally indefensible position by risking my life. I’d go further than anybody else. When you see your own blood, you feel that you’ve been exonerated. [It shows] you’re not a creep, you’re not leeching.”
He stayed away longer and longer, resisting the impulse to get out of harm’s way when he had a few good shots. During the fall of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, to the Khmer Rouge, he had been away for six weeks. Christine sent him a telegram. It read, simply: “Have you forgotten that we still exist?”
Now approaching 81, six decades of hard living, being shot at and inhaling darkroom chemicals has taken its toll. In recent years McCullin has undergone a quadruple bypass operation and suffered a stroke. Every day he reads the obituaries. “Before I start reading, I always find out how old they are when they die — it’s an obsession with me.” He reckons he has four or five years left, and is devoting them to his archive. He wants to ensure that the 5,000 or so prints he leaves behind are the ones he is happy with.
A footpath leads around to the back of the house, through a wooden latch door to a small outbuilding. It is, perhaps, 12ft by 6ft and connected to the house via a lean-to roof. Finally, and on condition the photographer is nowhere to be seen, we enter his darkroom.
Exposed pine framework supports plastic chemical baths — wide, shallow, discoloured white. A row of screw-top plastic containers sits on a shelf. At one end are two 1960s-era photo enlargers. At the other end, some negatives and a crumpled towel hang over a washing line. There are boxes of paper, bins brimful of discarded prints and absorbent paper roll. It looks like a chemistry lab in an underfunded 1980s secondary school. And it stinks.
In here his days stretch from 8am to 2pm without a break. With homely comfort next door, why would he spend hours on end in the acrid semi-darkness, I wonder?
Chuckling, he digs into the plastic bin for a screwed up, recently discarded print. It is from the Battle of Hue in 1968. For two weeks, McCullin was attached to a group of US marines getting “the most terrible pasting” from the North Vietnamese. The stint produced perhaps McCullin’s most famous image: a seated marine clutching his rifle barrel, his eyes trained out above the camera in the thousand-yard stare of the shell-shocked soldier.
The screwed-up image is of a group of South Vietnamese soldiers in a tank carrying their dead commander on its skirting, his body folded neatly in two from the hips. As he unravels it, the surfaces of the photographic paper stick to each other, making ugly white blotches on one side. He tosses it away.
“I don’t want to leave a legacy of crap when I’m gone, so that people say ‘Oh, he wasn’t good there’.” he says, gesturing to the crumpled print. “I’m still concerned about what they might say about me when I’m not around.”
More than three decades in his beloved Somerset farmhouse and still a few professional demons remain, it seems. At the end of the exchange with the photographer, McCullin turns the encounter into an allegory. “We don’t always win,” he tells his young peer. You feel he knows it.
Photographs: Tom Johnson
Letter in response to this article:
Admiration runs deep for a great photographer / From Narjit Gill