British photographer Don McCullin discusses his astounding career in war reportage, from his first commissioned image to ‘going digital’ on his 80th birthday
I never had an interest in photography. While I was in the air force I bought this camera called a Rolleicord, which was completely inappropriate for reportage. Despite that, I travelled around Nairobi with it for a couple of days and took a few pictures, but looking back, they were really amateurish.
When I came back I put the camera in a chest of drawers and never had any interest in it, so I decided to pawn it. It was in the pawn shop for months before my mother encouraged me to get it back again. I knew a gang of local boys who were involved with something quite violent: the murder of a policeman. During the build-up to the trial they said, “Why don’t you go and get your camera and take some pictures of us,” because they knew their story was all over the newspapers. I ended up taking this picture of them in a derelict building, which was at the bottom of the street where I grew up.
At the time, I had a job taking photos at an animation studio in Mayfair and the people I worked with said, “Why don’t you take that photo to the Observer newspaper?” Eventually I did – lo and behold, they commissioned more photos from me, which were all published. People started to phone me up at work and offer me every job in England: in television, newspapers and magazines. But the funny thing is, I wasn’t really a photographer.
The first work I made that had the inkling of war was during the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. I was in Paris with my wife on a slightly late honeymoon and I saw a photograph in the paper of an East German soldier. He was jumping over the barbed wire into the West, while wearing his full military regalia and Kalashnikov rifle. I asked my wife: “When you go back to England, would you mind if I went to Berlin?” So she said, “Of course not.”
I have always shot in black and white because I think it’s much more powerful than looking at colour. But I made the switch from shooting on film to digital because I’ve just passed my 80th birthday and I am not going to be standing in a dark room for much longer. I’ve been doing that for 60 years and I’m beginning to get chest wheezes and pains because of it. Can you imagine? Doing that for 60 years, I might as well have been smoking three packs of fags a day!
I think that if you are creating you should never follow the rules. Not working for another photographer has meant that I have always had my own identity. When you work for someone like David Bailey or Irving Penn, for example – who was a great photographer – you could potentially be stifled by their fearful reputation and alleged tantrums. I have made my own journey in life; I wasn’t relying upon other people.
I hate calling myself a war photographer because I don’t always want to be pigeonholed. I would like my legacy not to be seen as ‘war’, but as having a greater width that happened to be funnelled into war. Photography should be about discovery and it should be seen in a much more diverse way. But you can’t divorce yourself from seeing tragedy like I have seen. It’s impossible. If you do you shouldn’t be doing it…
Interview Joel Meadows
Photography Laurence Ellis