Seeing through Don McCullin’s lens

By Simon Mills

“Everything you do with the camera is creative”

For the past six decades, Don McCullin has designed the way in which we see the world. A combination of sharp eye and hot shoe, nerve and audacity, instinct and curiosity has helped frame world events, inspire thought, form opinions and politicise minds. All of which outlines exactly why he’s this year’s winner of the Lifetime Achievement Medal.

Working on a simple premise – to convey “compassion and clarity” – McCullin’s images make ephemeral moments in history permanent, exposing humanity’s beauty via its brutality. His construct is always specific and direct; real life, not in full colour, but in retina-burning black and white. “I'm not particularly interested in colour,” says McCullin. “I always felt that black and white was the ultimate punch in the face when it comes to making a picture with real impact.”

How does he do it? “Instinctively I was attracted to places where things seemed to be happening. When I was at a war, or in a conflict situation, I'd take terrible risks and put myself in danger, just to be sure that when I did press that button, the composition was absolutely perfect and exactly the way I wanted it to be.”

Born in a London laid waste by Hitler’s Luftwaffe, McCullin got a job on the LMS railway (London, Midland and Scottish) aged 15. “The trains went from Euston and took me to some of the so-called satanic cities of the north.” Through coal-black skies, brick dust and concrete his visual language developed. “As a young boy, I saw destroyed Victorian and Art Deco buildings... So, I had a visual memory of destruction,” he says.

McCullin was then called up for National Service with the RAF and posted to Egypt,Kenya and Cyprus. Returning home with a twin reflex Rolleicord camera, he began photographing friends and bomb sites, earning his debut commission from The Observer in 1959. Two years later, he won the British Press Award for his essay on the construction of the Berlin Wall. In 1964, he went on his first assignment to Cyprus, covering the armed eruption of tension between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The startling images won McCullin a World Press Photo Award.

From 1966, he worked in close collaboration with The Sunday Times Magazine art director Michael Rand, honing his innate understanding of photography as an essential element of graphic design, journalism and communication. Rand encouraged McCullin to drive his own pictures and stories, never questioning the content or veracity of his work. “This is what war is like in pictures, Don told me,” says Rand. “I knew I was looking at the truth.”

“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”

More travels in the Congo, Biafra, Chad, Israel, Jordan, Iran, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland followed. He was shot and badly wounded in Cambodia, imprisoned in Uganda, expelled from Vietnam and had a bounty on his head in Lebanon. He braved bullets and bombs to help wounded soldiers and civilians – and, to get the perfect picture. “Everything you do with the camera is creative. It can be a lethal weapon, telling ugly truths, but it can also tell happy stories. Whatever I was doing, I always made sure I did it peacefully. Instead of a rifle, I took the camera.”

Now preferring to chronicle the English countryside near his Somerset home, he has also been “shooting a different kind of reportage” – a long-running commission for Alexander McQueen, turning his lens to the velvet trenches of fashion, behind the scenes at shows and fittings. “Photography for me is not looking,” says McCullin. “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.”