There is nothing Don McCullin does not know about war but there is plenty he’d like to forget. “I have a store full of thousands and thousands of images in my brain,” says the veteran photojournalist, whose images of death and destruction have hushed many a breakfast table down the years. “I’ve got this terrible feeling I’m like some abattoir boss: I know death, I know the cut pieces of the human body.”
Roused by the idea of one last assignment, McCullin set off for Aleppo in Syria last December, nine years after he had announced his retirement from war reporting. “It was like I’d chosen a cloth to make a suit from,” he says. “You know the material you like and you feel it, just as I know every feeling about war, the characteristics of it, the sounds of it, the smell of it.”
Though he was only there for five days there has not been a day since when he has stopped thinking about what he saw. “There was this lorry that pulled up at a hospital. It was full of injured people. There was this one man sitting up looking at everybody. He was quite handsome, had blazing dark eyes and a mass of curly hair. He was sitting there in this long, dark coat and I thought: ‘Why doesn’t he bloody get off the truck and help?’ He was dead and the reason he was dead was because his leg was hanging on by a thread. I thought to myself: ‘Why couldn’t you have chosen another life?’”
But McCullin was born for war. “I grew up as a boy with aggression,” he says. “All I knew where I lived in Finsbury Park [north London] was to try and ward off the blows that were coming in my face now and again, and sometimes I used to dish it out to somebody else.”
In McCullin, last year’s Bafta-nominated documentary by Jacqui and David Morris, the photographer – a stocky 77-year-old with a thatch of silvery hair and pale blue inquisitive eyes – recalls his younger self experiencing a moment close to “levitation” when the news editor of The Observer asked him to go and report on the civil war in Cyprus. Some of these early pictures, which were taken at the height of the Cypriot troubles in 1964, feature in the Visa pour l’Image photography festival in Perpignan, where an exhibition of McCullin’s work, entitled The Impossible Peace, is the headline event.
They show that, right from the beginning of his career as a war photographer, McCullin had his feet planted firmly in the victims’ camp. One famous shot of a grieving wife wringing her hands – eyes looking up towards the heavens, her face contorted by a rictus of agonised sadness – would not be out of place in Francisco Goya’s “Disasters of War”, an artist whose paintings McCullin’s work has often been compared to.
The Perpignan show, curated by Robert Pledge and held in a splendid Dominican church, is the largest in the festival’s 25-year history to be devoted to a single photographer. There are more than 100 images, all of them black and white and all printed by McCullin himself. Its scope is broad, showing not only McCullin’s ferocious pictures of war in Vietnam, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Lebanon, but also his gift for landscape photography and his empathetic pictures of down-and-outs in London and the north of England. There is also more recent pictorial work from India and the Meroe pyramids of Sudan, which he says were inspired by the paintings of the 19th-century Scottish artist David Roberts.
“In my photography I always lean towards the underprivileged because that’s where I came from,” says McCullin. “When I went to the wars I attempted to go and stand by those who were being trodden on. By that I mean people like the Palestinians. When I go to India I see really the poorest people and I tend to be drawn to them. You could say they are life’s losers but it’s society that has categorised them as such and made them be lost.”
McCullin, who was 13 when his father died at the age of 40 from chronic asthma, grew up in a two-bedroom slum dwelling which he also shared with his slap-happy mother and younger brother (his sister was fostered out). In the winters when he wasn’t at school struggling with his dyslexia, he was often out stealing coal to keep his ailing father warm. McCullin says, all too aware of the irony, that the coal yard he used to sneak into is now the site of the Hamilton Gallery, where he does all of his framing.
He fell into his career as a photojournalist purely by accident. It was 1959 and he had just returned to London after completing two years of compulsory military service in the air force, working overseas as a photographer’s assistant.
He had brought back with him a Rolleicord camera, which he used to take pictures of his friends. One of these images – a “happy snap”, as he calls it – was of a gang of north London hoodlums called The Guvnors, with whom McCullin used to hang out. Part of the Perpignan exhibition, it shows a bunch of spiffed-up teddy boys occupying two floors of a gutted building which they and McCullin occasionally set fire to when they found nothing better to do.
The picture came to the attention of The Observer newspaper, which wanted to do an exposé on London gangs after a policeman was killed by one of them. It was immediately published along with several other pictures McCullin took in the dank pubs of his London stamping ground. Soon he was in demand as a freelance photographer and his career took off when on a hunch he went to Berlin to photograph the wall going up.
After a brief stint as a staffer on The Observer, he landed a job at the Sunday Times Magazine, where he stayed for 18 years, mostly working as a war photographer, before getting fired in 1984 when the magazine took on a more celebrity-oriented direction under new editor Andrew Neil. “War photographer” is not a term that he is particularly comfortable with any more. “It’s a bloody awful thing to be known as,” he says. “In the end I would be quite pleased to be known as just a photographer.”
Apart from his photographs of down-and-outs, the work McCullin says he is most proud of was for a book he did recently on ruins of the Roman Empire, Southern Frontiers (2010). “I did it in Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, all these places that are absolutely on fire now,” he says. “I’ve fallen in love with the classical world of imagery and what I’d like to do now over the last bit of my life is to photograph some nudes.”
It is a surprising admission but one that starts to make sense when you consider that for the past 30 years McCullin has been obsessively photographing the countryside around his beloved Somerset home, which he shares with his third wife and 10-year-old son Max. All of these landscapes without exception are, in a word, naked.
“You know why?” he says huskily. “Because when you see trees in winter you see the real tree, you don’t see this over-decorative leafing. It’s normally against this harsh Wagnerian sky. I try to bring into my photography energy and power. I want it to talk to you. I don’t want you to say, ‘Oh that’s nice’ and move on.”
Visa Pour L’Image ends September 15