Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Don McClullin

'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'.

Don McCullin

at Tate Britain.

A must-see exhibition which left me totally depressed and overwhelmed: by the time we reached the Still Lifes I could hardly move or think.  And yet, we cannot afford not to know what goes on in our world, the atrocities, the pain and the suffering - it is only through knowledge and understanding that there is hope of avoiding the mistakes of the past. It is thanks to people like McCullin that we can start understanding what people inflict on each other and hope for a change.

Ban the Bomb march, Aldermarston, early 1960s

Finsbury Park, London, 1960


When the border between East and West Germany was officially closed in 1952, it was still possible for some to cross over in Berlin. In 1961 McCullin saw a photograph of an East German border guard jumping  over the border to West Berlin. He felt compelled to document the construction of the wall designed to prevent further defections Without being sent by a newspaper, McCullin was left to pay his own travel costs. The images he took capture the uneasy coexistence of military occupation and everyday life. McCullin's photographs won him a British Press Aware and a permanent contract with the Observer. 

'I went straight down to Friederichstrasse and started working with my Rolleicord. Of course, I was sitting on the biggest story in the world; I saw the East Germans drilling the foundations and building the Wall breeze block by breeze block'.

Near Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, 1961

Friedrichstrasse, Berlin, 1961

Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, 1961

Friedrichstrasse, Berlin, 1961

Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, 1961

American Troops Looking Across the Wall, Berlin, 1961

East Berlin, 1961

East German Guard, Berlin Wall, 1961

Looking into East Berlin, 1961

American and East German Guards, Friedrichstrasse, Berlin, 1961


In 1964 the Observer Magazine sent McCullin to Cyprus to cover the ongoing violence on the island. It was his first international assignment and the photographs he took were his first images of conflict. McCullin put himself at personal risk while taking these photographs. He credits the experience as giving him the beginnings of self-knowledge as a photographer, as well as the powerful sense of empathy for which his images are known.

The Cyprus Civil War, Limassol, Cyprus, 1964

Turkish Defenders Waiting for the Attack, Limassol, Cyprus, 1964

Turkish Village, 1964

'I was met with the warm blood of two men in front of me. The floor was completely saturated with the blood of one and I could see another in the background. In fact, there was a father and his two sons. I closed the door behind me and started taking pictures. Suddenly a group of distraught people came in... A woman entered screaming. One of the dead was her new husband... In the next room there was a pile of destroyed wedding gifts, and there was I, this very young person with a camera... I was really looking for their blessing to continue. I started quietly taking photographs with great respect'.

Murder in a Turkish Village, 1964

'When I realised I had been given the go-ahead to photograph, I started composing my pictures in a very serious and dignified way. It was the first time I had pictured something of this immense significance and I felt as if I had a canvas in front of me and I was, stroke by stroke, applying the composition to a story that was telling itself. I was, I realised later, trying to photograph in a way that Goya painted or did his sketches. Eventually the woman knelt down by the side of her young husband and cradled his head. I was very young then, and, and I knew that pain, and I found it hard not to burst into tears'.

Turks Trying to Retrieve Dead Body, Limassol, 1964

Cyprus, 1964

The Murder of a Turkish Shepherd, Cyprus Civil War, 1964

Republic of Congo:

Working as a freelance photojournalist for the German magazine Quick, in 1964 McCullin travelled to the Republic of Congo, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was tasked with photographing the rebellion which followed the murder of the country's first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. 'I went to the Congo in 1964... The fighting I encountered was cruel, and on the whole, evil men prevailed'.

Mercenary with Congolese Family, Paulus, Northern Congo, 1965

Murdered Man, Shot Through the Brain, Stanleyville, 1964

'I have never been able to switch off my feelings, nor do I think it would be right to do so. Few are equipped to remain unmoved by the spectacle of what war does to people. These are sights that should, and do, bring pain, and shame, and guilt. Some sights heighten the feelings to an unbearable pitch'.


'It was beyond war, it was beyond journalism, it was beyond photography, but not beyond politics... We cannot, must not be allowed to forget the appalling things we are all capable of doing of our fellow human beings'.

Biafran Soldier Rushing Wounded Comrade from the Front, 1962

Ibo Soldier During the Civil War, Biafra, Nigeria, 1967

Waiting for Food, 1970


McCullin visited Vietnam sixteen times over the course of his career. Working on assignment for the Sunday Times he covered both the Vietnam War and its aftermath. 'Seeing, looking at what others cannot bear to see, is what my life as a war reporter is all about'.

US Marines Tormenting an Old Vietnamese Civilian, the Battle for the City of Hue, 1968

US Marine with a Captured North Vietnamese Soldier, the Battle of Hue, 1968

Shell-Shocked US Marine, the Battle of Hue, 1968

This photograph is one of McCullin's most well-known works. The work focusses in on an American soldier, clutching onto his rifle in a state of trauma brought on by the horrors of the Battle of Hue which was one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the War. McCullin took several frames of this man and says that the soldier did not blink once. Each frame depicts the soldier in exactly the same pose, staring blankly into the distance, suffering from the effects of combat stress, known at the time as shell shock.

The Battle for the City of Hue, South Vietnam, US Marine Inside Civilian House, 1968


'There are social war that are worthwhile. I don't want to encourage people to think photography is only necessary through the tragedy of war'.

Jean's Hands, 1980

Jean, London, 1980

Jean, Liverpool Street, London, 1980

Homeless Men, Early Morning n Spitalfields Market, London

Aldgate East, London, 1970

Homeless Men Sleeping While Standing, Whitechapel, London, 1970

Woman Sleeping in a Shop Doorway, Aldgate East, London, 1970

Chapel Market, Islington, London, 1962

Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London, 1970

Aldgate, London, 1970

Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London, 1970

Aldgate, London, 1962

Northern Ireland:

In 1971 the Sunday Times Magazine sent McCullin on one of many assignments to Northern Ireland. His photographs were published as part of a photo-story entitled 'War on the Home Front'. 'One day a sniper, hidden among the stone-throwers, killed a soldier with one bullet... Now it was serious. Returning to my hotel, I had to cross the military lines and suffer the hostile accusations of the British troops for aiding and abetting the rioters and ultimately the IRA terrorists. It was inconceivable at the time that the carnage would continue unabated for another twenty five years'.

Northern Ireland, 1971

The Bogside, Derry, Northern Ireland, 1971

Catholic Youths Attacking British Soldiers in the Bogside of Derry, 1971

The Bogside, Derry, 1971

British Soldiers Holding a Catholic Youth, Derry, Northern Ireland, 1971

Gangs of Boys Escaping CS Gas Fired by British Soldiers, Derry, Northern Ireland, 1971

A Jubilant Catholic Youth after Stoning British Soldiers, the Bogside, Derry, Northern Ireland, 1971

Bradford and the North:

McCullin was deeply affected by the trauma of reporting from some of the most violent conflict of the second half of the 20th century. When he returned home from conflict assignments, he often turned his attention to the tough lives of people in Britain. He photographed communities living in northern cities like Bradford and Liverpool, focusing on areas that had been neglected and left impoverished by policies of de-industrialisation. He saw similarities between their lives and his own childhood. Although he was indeed reporting on poverty and social crisis, he also identified deeply with his subjects, picturing the lives of others as a means of learning more about himself.

Bradford, Yorkshire, 1978

A Young Girl Taking the Family Laundry, Bradford, Yorkshire, 1970

Coal Miners Leaving their Shift, Doncaster, Yorkshire, 1967

Near Wigan, 1975


'... All I could do was to try and give the people caught up in this terrible disaster as much dignity as possible. There is a problem inside yourself, a sense of your own powerlessness, but it doesn't do to let it take hold, when your job is to stir the conscience of others who can help'.

Fleeing Refugees from the War in Bangladesh, 1971


In 1976, in the midst of vicious fighting between Christian and Muslim militias, McCullin travelled to Beirut. In January 1976 there had been massacres at Karantina, a mostly Muslim area, and Damour where PLO members attacked a Christian town. In 1982, McCullin returned to find similar scenes. Israeli troops had invaded southern Lebanon and surrounded Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, to prevent people from leaving.

A Young Lebanese Christian Woman Throwing a Hand Grenade from the Holiday Inn Hotel, 1976

Palestinian Refugees Fleeing East Beirut Massacre, 1976

An Old Palestinian Couple Allowed to Leave the Massacre, Karantina, East Beirut, 1976

Palestinian Family Whose Fathers were Murdered by Christian Phalange in Karantina, 1976

A Palestinian Mother in her Destroyed House, Sabra Camp, 1976

Destroyed Part of West Beirut due to Israeli Bombing, 1976

Dead Palestinian Woman, While in the Background Christian Phalange Fighters were Looting Palestinian Farmers, Beirut, 1976

Still Life:

Since the 1980s, McCullin has engaged with traditions of still life photography in order to escape his memories of war. He assembles these still life scenes in the peace of his garden. He uses bronzes collected on assignments abroad, as well as mushrooms and plums grown nearby. He has described the process of putting these together as being 'akin to receiving a transfusion'. The escapism of the process refreshes and renews him.

As Olga has commented in Threading Thoughts  even McCullin's still lifes are dark: 'It did overwhelm me; I was thoroughly depressed by the time I had reached the last room, where even the soul-salving landscapes are printed so dark that they pervade gloom.  The still lives are calming, but again McCullin who prints his photographs dark, seems to continue to see inhumanity leaking out everywhere'.

Don McCullin: Still life in my garden shed (From Threading Thoughts)

Don McCullin: Still life, tulips (image from here)  (from Threading Thoughts)


  1. Eirene, I'm glad that you got to see the exhibition. I just hope that all his harrowing witnessing is not forgotten - or brushed aside.

    1. I am very glad I went to see the exhibition, Olga. As to whether seeing images like this will make any difference, my view on this changes according to my mood. Self-interest and greed seem to be the order of the day, and I fear we are entering very dark times. Still very important to have witnesses to what is going on, though.