by Roderick Conway Morris

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Unreasonable Behaviour

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 30 October 1997
Nick Wheeler
Don McCullin with the US Marines in Vietnam



For two decades Don McCullin photographed almost every major conflict in the world, from intercommunal violence in Cyprus and the Six Day War, Vietnam and Cambodia, to the Biafran catastrophe, Northern Ireland and El Salvador. His pictures - of Turkish-Cypriot families in the wake of massacres, of starving Biafran children, of brave, exhausted, and badly wounded Marines at Hue - were unmatched not only for their starkness and immediacy but also for their haunting depth of sympathy. And the courage and commitment of the man who took them were often as baffling to his colleagues in the field as to ordinary mortals thousands of miles away who found themselves, on opening a newspaper or magazine, abruptly transported to the front line.

McCullin's Nikon, with the hole punched in it from an AK-47 round in Cambodia, bears silent witness at 'Sleeping With Ghosts,' a panoramic retrospective of 250 photographs spanning McCullin's career at the Barbican Art Gallery (until Dec. 14), to the continual dangers he confronted to capture these unforgettable images.

A few days after McCullin's camera saved his life he was seriously wounded in another fire fight on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Several years later, after numerous scrapes with death, he broke his hip, arm and ribs sliding off a roof during a battle in El Salvador. In 1984, after Rupert Murdoch bought the Sunday Times, the photographer, who had worked for the paper for 18 years, dared to criticize what he saw as the paper's loss of direction under its new editor Andrew Neil - who promptly fired him.

McCullin was born in 1935 and raised in Finsbury Park, which then had the reputation of being the worst area in north London. His family was poor, he was dyslexic, though good at drawing, but his hopes of going on with his education at an art school came to an end when his father died when McCullin was 14, and he had to go to work.

Three times evacuated during the Blitz, McCullin was frequently hit and abused by other boys, his schoolteachers and his reluctant hosts. This, he notes in 'Unreasonable Behavior,' his vividly observed, often tragic but also sometimes mordantly funny autobiography, 'gave me a lifelong affinity with persecuted peoples. I know what it is like to branded uncivilized and unclean. Except that I was ostracized and ill-treated by my own people, not an alien race.'

McCullin's break came in 1958 when a policeman was stabbed to death intervening in a street brawl in Finsbury Park. McCullin had been taking pictures of the toughs he had grown up with, using a Rolleicord he bought while doing his national service with the RAF in Kenya. He managed to sell some of his 'snaps' to the Observer. One in particular of a gang in their sharp suits looking menacing amid the ruins of a bombed-out house, taken a few hundred yards from where the policeman was knifed, had an instant impact when it appeared in print - and still packs a punch today.

The next day McCullin woke up famous. Offers of work poured in - which was exhilarating but also terrifying, McCullin said in an interview. 'I really knew nothing about photography, and my dyslexia, which nobody understood in those days, made it terrifically difficult to read and digest the technical literature.' However, his extraordinary eye for the telling detail and his intuitive grasp of composition, and a determination born of adversity, carried him rapidly to the forefront of his calling. In 1966 he joined the Sunday Times, where appreciation of his gifts won him the freedom that was instrumental in allowing him to build up the magisterial body of work now on show in 'Sleeping With Ghosts' (and contained in a book of the same title).

'I had a wonderful experience at the Sunday Times,' McCullin said. 'I was given carte blanche to do anything I wanted. I'd say to the editor: 'There's something going on in such and such a place.' And he'd say: 'Well, what are you doing standing around here? Go and get a ticket and get out there.' So I'd go off for three or four weeks and never even phone the office. And when I appeared again, they'd say in mock surprise: 'Oh, look! Don's back. He's decided to come back.''

He always printed and edited his own pictures. The only time he parted with his rolls of film - 'And I felt really sick about it,' he said - was when he was ordered to air-freight them out of Phnom Penh and proceed to the fall of Saigon. 'I was on the blacklist in South Vietnam by then, and was kicked out of Saigon the moment I landed. So I managed to reach London before the films arrived, and get them back again.'

McCullin is still visibly grieving about being prevented by the British authorities from covering the Falklands War. 'I'd been with just about every army in the world, and I felt that to be there with the British Army, my own people, was what my whole career had been a preparation for. I'd earned it with my blood and sweat.' Even the Imperial War Museum's attempts to dispatch him as its official photographer were thwarted. 'The government wanted a cosmeticized image of the war, a Hollywood version in which people didn't really bleed and there was no pain.' His eventual sacking by the Sunday Times was inevitable, McCullin said, 'because they wanted to kill off photojournalism, and promote style pieces and garden furniture instead.'

'I don't do photojournalism any more because, frankly, nobody really wants it,' he said. But as the last sections of his retrospective reveal, he has now turned his hand to producing marvelous pictures of the English landscape and of India, and some powerfully atmospheric still lifes.

Two years ago, he married the American aerial photographer Marilyn Bridges. The happiness he has found with her has greatly intensified his passion for the new direction in his work. 'I suppose I'm trying to show her there's another me. There always was another me, but there wasn't time to bring it out when I was mixed up in all those wars.' The current retrospective was in some ways an attempt to exorcise the spirits of the past and mark his new beginning, he said. 'I hate being called a war photographer now. But some people say to me, 'That's what you're known for, and that's the name you'll die with.' We'll see. In the meantime, I'll at least try to confuse people a bit.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023