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‘I know what I did in wars was not always right’: Legendary photographer Sir Don McCullin says he’s been ‘poisoned’ by conflict and can’t sleep at night because the images he captured ‘always come back with extreme clarity’


Sir Don McCullin has said he struggles to sleep at night because of the ‘poison’ of what he witnessed documenting some of the world’s most brutal conflicts. 

The photographer, 88, became a household name in the 1960s with his coverage of the Vietnam War.

He also documented conflicts in Cyprus, Biafra, Iraq, Cambodia and Lebanon.

Speaking to promote his new book, Life, Death and Everything in Between, Sir Don told Prospect Magazine’s Media Confidential podcast that the horror of what he has witnessed ‘comes back with extreme clarity and prevents me from sleeping’.

He described it as a ‘poison’ that is ‘in my blood and it still won’t go away’

The photojournalist said he found solace in the landscape around where he now lives, in Somerset, which he said ‘was a medicine that cured me’. 

But he also admitted that ‘what I did in the wars wasn’t always right’.  

Sir Don McCullin has said he struggles to sleep at night because of the 'poison' of what he witnessed documenting some of the world's most brutal conflicts

Sir Don McCullin has said he struggles to sleep at night because of the ‘poison’ of what he witnessed documenting some of the world’s most brutal conflicts 

The photographer, 88, became a household name in the 1960s with his coverage of the Vietnam War. Above: A previously unpublished image of US Marines removing an injured comrade during the Battle of Hu¿ in the Vietnam War in 1968

The photographer, 88, became a household name in the 1960s with his coverage of the Vietnam War. Above: A previously unpublished image of US Marines removing an injured comrade during the Battle of Huế in the Vietnam War in 1968

Sir Don’s new book includes a harrowing image of US Marines removing a wounded comrade to safety during the Battle of Huế in the Vietnam War in 1968.

He was shot and badly wounded in Cambodia and imprisoned in Uganda, as well as being expelled from Vietnam.

Sir Don’s other work includes searing images of poverty in Britain and the AIDS crisis in Africa.

Sir Don was speaking to Media Confidential presenters Lionel Barber – the former editor of the Financial Times – and Alan Rusbridger, who edited The Guardian for a decade until 2015. 

The photographer also insisted that the images he has taken do not belong to him.

‘There is a danger that one becomes greedy and selfish and you think these images belong to you,’ he said. 

‘They do not. You are stealing these images from people suffering in front of you. 

The photojournalist said he found solace in the landscape around where he now lives, in Somerset, which he said 'was a medicine that cured me'. Above: An image from 2021 of a flooded field near Sir Don's home in Somerset

The photojournalist said he found solace in the landscape around where he now lives, in Somerset, which he said ‘was a medicine that cured me’. Above: An image from 2021 of a flooded field near Sir Don’s home in Somerset

‘So, you know, I feel as if I am walking on burning coals that are burning my feet, telling me that what I’m doing isn’t always right.

‘I have a conscience and I know what I did in the wars was not always right.’  

He also claimed that there is a ‘beauty’ in conflicts that most people cannot understand.

The photographer highlighted how, when in Vietnam in 1968, he saw a black soldier grieving the loss of a heroic medic who had just been shot dead by a sniper.   

‘There was nothing more extraordinary to see tears streaming down his face,’ he said. 

‘I  thought people would never believe me and they think I was self-indulgent to say, you would see moments of great beauty in war, you will see them. 

Young workers are seen making an early morning delivery of new furniture in Kolkata, India, 1997. Sir Don's new book includes 140 of his pictures

Young workers are seen making an early morning delivery of new furniture in Kolkata, India, 1997. Sir Don’s new book includes 140 of his pictures

This previously published image of boys sitting on a statue of famous Muslim historian Ibn al-Mustawfi in Arbil, Kurdistan, also features in the new book. It dates back to 1991

This previously published image of boys sitting on a statue of famous Muslim historian Ibn al-Mustawfi in Arbil, Kurdistan, also features in the new book. It dates back to 1991

‘And I had the best eyes in the world and I knew I saw them. And it does happen in war, occasionally you will see gifts from another human being.’

‘War is 99 per cent bad and evil and woefully wrong, but occasionally you will get that moment of light that comes and shows you something, allows you to walk away and think “there’s no hope but there might be”.’ 

His new book is being published to coincide with the exhibition Don McCullin in Rome – a Retrospective.

Simon Baker, the curator of the exhibition, said: ‘Known for the bold, frank and always emotionally engaging gaze with which he approached the most disparate subjects, McCullin produced some of the most recognisable images of poverty, hunger and war in the history of photography, as well as documenting the landscape – both in Britain and abroad – with the style and passion that distinguishes all his work.’

Life, Death and Everything in Between by Don McCullin is published by GOST Books. Don McCullin in Rome – a Retrospective is on display until January 28 at Palazzo delle Esposizioni.



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