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Don McCullins: Reporter of human suffering

  •   3 min reads
Don McCullins: Reporter of human suffering
"Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”

This son of a miner grew up under the German Blitz of World War II. Don Mccullin was born in 1935, in one of the poorest areas of North London. In 2005, he confided to The Guardian :

"Five of us lived in a two-room basement flat with no toilet. It was a world of ignorance, intolerance, poverty and violence."

Cyprus, Vietnam, Biafra, Mccullin has photographed most of the conflicts since the 60s. He wanted to illustrate our times with symbolic images, images of human suffering that could tear our hearts out because they were so hard and harsh to look at.

US Marine during the Tet Offensive in Hue, Vietnam 1968. Credit: Don McCullin

With his tight framing, he made it a point of honour to always be at the heart of the action. All in black and white, he developed his photos alone in his studio. Probably to better remember the physical and psychological wounds of his reports. He explained in 2013 to the New York Times :

"Because they are photographs, you can't pretend these events didn't happen."

Don Mccullin: The early days of the "Goya of photography"

The famous French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson gave him the nickname: The Goya of photography because of disconcerting sensitivity that his photos provoked. McCullin, who worked in a cartoon studio before doing his military service in the Royal Air Force, began photography in a self-taught way. He put all his savings into his first camera, and on a Sunday afternoon in 1958, one of his first photos became a cult and one of the emblems of photo journalism: The Guvnors.

The Guvnors in Their Sunday Suits, Finsbury Park, London, 1958. Credit: Don McCullin

It was at the age of 23 that he was hired as a photographer. He worked in Cyprus during the civil war, in Congo, Vietnam, Lebanon and many other countries, often at the risk of his life.

The ransom of glory: Guilt and deep wounds

He has been imprisoned in Uganda for several weeks, has a price on his head in Lebanon, has been shot at with guns, sometimes even with shells. He has suffered several injuries that almost cost  his life.

But the physical wounds were not the most complicated to heal for the photographer. The suffering that emanated from his photographs often haunted him. He explained on the Hamilton Gallery website :

"I sometimes had the impression that I was bringing back shreds of human flesh rather than negatives. As if I was bringing back with me the suffering of the people I had photographed."
Karo tribe, Omo Valley, southern Ethiopia, 2003-2004. Credit: Don McCullin.

Throughout his professional life, he was also torn by guilt. He said,

"Because 'no one has the right to take the images of people"

He was ennobled in 2017, and retired. He continues to take pictures, of lonely landscapes, in the early morning. Always in black and white.

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