The stories behind Sir Don McCullin’s most iconic photographs

Coming out from behind the lens, Sir Don McCullin shares the story behind some of his most iconic and harrowing photographs

Baiji, Iraq 2015

Top image: Hashd al-Shaabi militia members after taking control of oilfields that were hit by a US air strike and seized from the Islamic State. This was only the second time I used a digital camera (Canon 5D Mark III) for a conflict commission.

Sir Don McCullin has documented the most brutal events of the past six decades, from Hue in Vietnam in 1968 to the atrocities taking place across the Middle East in recent months. Coming out from behind the lens, he shares the story behind some of his most iconic and harrowing photographs

Images and captions by Sir Don McCullin, words by Marc Carter. 

Don McCullin has long been recognised as the world’s greatest war and documentary photographer. So much so, in fact, that he was knighted in the latest New Year’s Honours list for services to photography.

The stories behind Sir Don McCullin’s most iconic photographs
Lebanon, East Beirut, 1976

This young boy is playing on a stolen lute. He is celebrating with his friends as if at a picnic in front of the dead body of a Palestinian girl in puddles of rain. Only minutes earlier I had been told to stop taking pictures or I would be killed. The boy called to me: “Hey Mistah! Mistah! Come take photo.” Frightened for my life, I shot off two frames. Soon afterwards I learned that the Christian Phalange had put out a death warrant for me for taking this photo.

The stories behind Sir Don McCullin’s most iconic photographs
The Guv’nors, Finsbury Park, London, 1958

These men were part of a North London gang known as the Guv’nors. I used to hang out with them sometimes and took this photo of them posing in a burned-out house on a street we called The Bunk. They  were on their way to the Astoria cinema. Shortly after, they were loosely implicated in the murder of a policeman and I was persuaded to take my photos to the picture desk of The Observer. They were published on 15 February 1959 when I was 23 years old. This one picture changed my life. People have told me that if I had not made a breakthrough with this photograph then I would have done so with another. I don’t think that would necessarily have been the case.

Returning home from National Service in the late 1950s with little more than a new twin lens Rolleicord he’d purchased for £30 (which he promptly pawned for £5, and which his mother just as quickly retrieved for him), McCullin started photographing his friends in Finsbury Park, London – still largely post-Blitz bombed-out buildings and youths with little to look forward to beyond a life of crime. The resulting images were picked up by the UK’s Observer newspaper, published with a title of ‘The Guv’nors’. This kickstarted Don’s remarkable career in photography.

From Germany to Biafra, Cyprus to DR Congo, Vietnam and on to the brutal complexities of Northern Ireland and conflicts across the Middle East, McCullin’s ability to shoot defining images is without parallel. And war is not a part of McCullin’s past. He has just returned from the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State, as well as experiencing the aftermath of a battle in Northern Iraq a few months earlier. He was in Aleppo in Syria just a few months before that. It would be a gruelling schedule even for someone in the full bloom of youth, let alone someone having just enjoyed their 81st birthday; however McCullin harbours a passion for photography that remains just as compelling today as all those years ago.

The stories behind Sir Don McCullin’s most iconic photographs
Cyprus, 1964

This photo was taken in a small village called Gaziveren. The woman is Turkish and is grieving the loss of her husband. Her young son is reaching up to console her. I discovered that Middle-Eastern people express their grief very vividly, a very outward display of mourning. I hoped that what I captured in my photographs would be an enduring image that would imprint itself on the world’s memory.

For the past two years, alongside returns to conflict and commercial commitments, McCullin has been revisiting the entirety of his archive, rediscovering images not looked at for decades, taking these negatives into the darkroom at his home in Somerset and calling on ghosts of wars past to be fixed in that moment forever. It has been an exhausting process of revisiting harrowing memories perhaps better left in a box, editing a sequence of photographs that McCullin himself sees as defining his career. Having stood by the printing press day after day to realise this vision, the result is a limited edition retrospective of his life’s work that spans three volumes, 1,500 pages and more than 600 images.

It would be wrong to categorise Don McCullin as just our greatest photographer of war or, studying his highly charged images of poverty in the UK, as a passionate and sensitive social documentarian. Alongside these better-known works, McCullin has also been an avid travel photographer, with substantial essays shot in Indonesia, Africa and India. Plus there’s 30 years or so of capturing the landscapes near his home in Somerset; a body of work that is particularly important to him, with the English countryside ever more under threat of development and the pervasive effects of modern agriculture.

The stories behind Sir Don McCullin’s most iconic photographs
Da Nang, Vietnam1969

The negative for this image has been so badly damaged that it has previously remained unpublished. This priest is hearing the confessions of the soldiers before they go into battle. Very early in the Battle of Hue, the fighting had been so intense that a US chaplain offered me the last rites. I didn’t accept. It had frightened me. 

With temperatures below freezing most days, and the landscapes glimpsed through swirling mist and fog, Don McCullin is out walking these flat wetlands, shooting photographs, still asking questions, still exploring irreconcilable truths.

McCullin’s boxed set, Irreconcilable Truths, is available at donmccullin.com

This article was taken from the March/April issue of Gentleman’s Journal, for the full article and all the images subscribe here.

All images were supplied to Gentleman’s Journal and are exclusively owned by Sir Don McCullin.

Further Reading