I’ve written about Don McCullin before and not because he may be ‘Britain’s greatest ever war photographer’. I’ve written about him because he is a man who is unreachable. His life has been lived firmly on the opposite side of a line to our own, in the half constituting the unimaginable and unrecognisable. He hasn’t just seen war and photographed it, he has done so innumerable times and at scarcely imaginable cost to himself. Much of his work is of course combat footage, but there is so much that touches upon ordinary life and otherwise ordinary people. His photographs, combined with verbal and written insights by the man himself, provide an unparalleled commentary on the darkness that lurks within humankind. This is his contribution.
It was with great pleasure that I first read that 81 year old Don McCullin had been included in the New Year Honours list. He is to be knighted for his services to photography. In interviews (such as the one above) he often talks about his legacy and of making prints of Somerset. I feel, however, that the most poignant aspect of his legacy is not strictly photographic. It is himself. McCullin is an enigma, created by his own conflicting emotions and motivations: he’s pleased by the award, yet over the years has often dismissed the value of his contributions. He warns the younger generation of photographer against entering into war photography, yet has remained unable to stay away himself, even in his twilight years. Journalism is arguably about answering questions and clarifying matters, but it seems that Don McCullin’s life has raised more questions (for him) than it has answered. Despite this, he continues to share his thoughts and processing of his life’s experiences without a hint of ego or censorship. Perhaps this is why he often comes to mind:
Sir Don McCullin’s knighthood is exactly what such honours were intended for. Forget egotistical pop stars who spent forty years devouring drugs and women. Forget sporting stars who worked hard on their personal career trajectories. This man nearly died a hundred times to bring us the world’s darkest secrets and that’s not a weight he will ever be free of in this life.
For those of you who would like to read more about the great man, here is a NY Times lens.blogs interview with Don McCullin. I have also pasted an hour long interview with Mariella Frostrup at the bottom of this post. I will be writing about several of his photo books from my collection in due course.