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. Initially based on projects in London, his commissions soon took him around the world, starting with the Cyprus War in 1964. This marked the start of his career as a photographer of war and other human disasters.
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. One reason was that McCullin’s sympathies were with the victims – the poor, the dispossessed, and ordinary soldiers on both sides. He is scathing about working as an ‘embedded’ journalist, “We spent years photographing dying soldiers in Vietnam, and they are not going to have that anymore... you have to bear witness. You cannot just look away.”
When he was refused permission to go to the Falklands in 1982, he assumed it was due to some kind of censorship. In fact, as he now knows, it was just down to bureaucracy – the Army had simply run out of press passes. Even so, an era was coming to an end. There has been no reporting from recent conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan comparable with that of McCullin in Vietnam.
McCullin took huge risks in order to take his photographs. He was threatened with a knife at a Muslim checkpoint in Beirut for having a Falangist press pass, blinded by CS gas during a riot in Derry, and wounded by fragments of 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 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.”
In 1981 Rupert Murdoch took over The Sunday Times; Harold Evans subsequently resigned citing differences over editorial independence in 1982. Soon after, replacement editor Andrew Neil dismissed McCullin after he’d complained about the newspaper’s lack of serious foreign and social coverage under the new regime.
In more recent years, McCullin has continued to travel internationally, photographing and printing new works from countries such as India, Syria and Africa, where he documented the AIDS crisis. One of his most ambitious journeys has been to explore the ruins in the southern fringes of the Roman Empire, a project that spanned over a number of years, and is documented in McCullin’s book Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across the Roman Empire (2010). His newer images include the British landscape, notably of Somerset, where he now lives with his third wife.
McCullin has been awarded numerous awards over the years, including two premier Awards from the World Press Photo and the 2006 Cornell Capa Award by the International Centre for Photography in New York for his lifetime contribution to photography. In 1993, he was the first photojournalist to be made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE). He is the author of more than a dozen books (mostly published by Jonathan Cape), including his acclaimed autobiography Unreasonable Behaviour (1990), and his 2001 Don McCullin retrospective. In 2011, alongside Hamiltons’ exposition of his platinum prints, the Tate Britain presented a solo exhibition comprising a wide selection of his subjects, and the Imperial War Museum displayed Shaped By War, featuring over 250 photographs, contact sheets and personal memorabilia. McCullin’s work has not only been exhibited in numerous exhibitions, but is held in various museum collections around the world. McCullin is today recognised as one of our greatest photographers.