“We live in a golden age of celebrity,” says the 78-year-old British photographer Don McCullin. “That’s why you don’t see any real photojournalism anymore. Today’s newspaper proprietors aren’t interested in tragedy or drama, dying people and bomb explosions. They want massive spreads of people in Paris fashion shows wearing ridiculous clothes, with Prada handbags, and high-heel shoes that cost £600. We live in a very absurd time.”

If McCullin sounds rueful, then that’s because for the past half century he has risked his life as a photojournalist recording conflicts around the world. He is known for his stark, searing black-and-white photography, which presents the brutality and chaos of war and its repercussions with unflinching honesty.

Among his unforgettable images are a heartbreaking picture of a starving, nine-year-old albino boy clutching an empty tin of corned beef, taken during the height of the Biafran War in Nigeria in 1969, and his shot of a blank-eyed American marine, shell-shocked by the bloody battle for the city of Hue in Vietnam in 1968. Both are currently being shown in a retrospective of almost 50 photographs by McCullin organised by the Marrakech Museum for Photography and Visual Arts, in a temporary exhibition space in the Moroccan city’s El Badi Palace. 

“I didn’t choose photography – I was chosen by it, you could say,” McCullin tells me. Born in 1935, he grew up in a tenement in Finsbury Park, then an impoverished part of north London. After the death of his father, he left school at 14, before enrolling for two years of national service in the Royal Air Force during the 1950s. In 1959, The Observer newspaper published some of his reportage photographs of youths in a local gang known as the ‘Guvnors’, for which he received £50 – the equivalent of five weeks’ wages.

Worth a thousand words 

Sensing that photography could rescue him from the violence and bigotry that he was encountering every day in Finsbury Park, McCullin travelled to Berlin to document the erection of the concrete wall dividing the city in the summer of 1961. He had no commission other than the conviction that he should record a prominent news story. “Why not be in the most important news story in the world if you can be there?” he says.

His pictures in Berlin, including an unusual street-level shot of a soldier’s black leather boot beside a gun, won him a contract with The Observer – and his career as a photojournalist began. “I felt I had a natural affinity to be able to put up with the danger and to take pictures with a lot of compassion,” he says.

In the decades that followed, often on assignment for The Sunday Times Magazine, he photographed many wars, revolutions and famines, including conflicts in the Congo, Biafra and Vietnam, as well as Cambodia, Northern Ireland and Lebanon. In Vietnam, he once said, he saw men run over by tanks who looked like Persian carpets on the road: “It was total madness.” Yet, by his own admission, he became a “war junkie”.

“Occasionally I got injured,” he tells me, “but I have nothing to complain about because I’m still alive – and many of my friends are not. It was my choice to embark on 50 years of covering wars, so I don’t have any reason to question the hand that I was dealt.”

Was he ever scared for his life? “You’re on a tightrope on a very high wire,” he says. “One slip and you’re done for. When I was working in those places, I was constantly swivelling my head and eyes around to make sure that my intrusion was very limited. I had to get the pictures, but one false move could get you into all kinds of trouble – maybe even killed. That kind of life is gossamer-thin with danger.”

Was he ever tempted to intervene in what he saw? “No – intervening could cost you your life, and it could cost the person you’re helping all kinds of distress,” he says. “Only once I picked up an old lady in a gun battle in Cyprus because she was lame and couldn’t move. I thought if I didn’t do something, then she was going to get killed. So I rushed across the road, picked her up and ran away to safety.”

A point of view

A striking aspect of McCullin’s work, aside from its compositional brilliance, is that it is not simply ice-cold and detached, but warmed through with flashes of empathy for its subject matter: Harold Evans, his editor at The Sunday Times, used to call him “a conscience with a camera”. How dispassionate must a photojournalist be, I wonder?

“It’s important to go somewhere impartially,” he says, “but at the same time you go with an open mind and heart. You don’t go because you’re a photographer and you’ve got no blood flowing through your own veins. You go to bring back an image that is going to change people’s opinions. When you see hundreds of dying children in a war, you tend to take a side on it. If you can look at dying children and not have any feeling, then you shouldn’t be there.”

In between seeking out war zones, McCullin recorded poverty in his home country. During the ’70s, he created a memorable series of Hogarthian pictures of homeless people in London, including one remarkable portrait of a down-and-out Irishman with wild, bedraggled hair, and a face blackened with grime. In McCullin (2012), a Bafta-nominated documentary about his life and work directed by David and Jacqui Morris, he recalled seeing the Irishman’s penetrating blue eyes gazing at him through the viewfinder, and reflecting that he looked like Neptune, the god of the sea. “It was just as tragic seeing those homeless people as it was going to Africa and covering some of the wars there,” McCullin tells me. “Humanity knows how to suffer, and suffering is not something we are going to eradicate.”

After years of photographing bloodshed, McCullin was so haunted by what he had seen that he decided to stop. He took up landscape photography instead, capturing the tranquil English countryside surrounding his home in eastern Somerset. For his recent book Southern Frontiers (2010), he made elegiac images of Roman ruins in North Africa and the Middle East – including the ancient city of Volubilis in Morocco.

Does he see himself primarily as a photojournalist – or does he prefer to consider himself an artist? “Neither!” he says forcefully. “I hate the word ‘art’ being associated with photography. There’s no need for it. I’m a photographer. I’m quite happy with that title. I also see myself as someone who records history. So I’m not a reporter but a person who recorded time and events – and, sadly, tragedy.”

In 2012, nine years after announcing his retirement, McCullin spent a week in Aleppo, where he came under sniper fire while documenting the Syrian civil war on assignment for a newspaper. “I wanted one last look at what was going on, to make sure that what I did in the past wasn’t a dream,” he explains. “And when I got there, it was exactly like my days in Beirut. The streets were awash with people with Kalashnikovs. I thought, ‘Boy, how little has changed.’”

When he saw at firsthand that the world’s capacity for suffering had not diminished since his days on the front line, how did he feel? “I felt an enormous sense of sadness,” he says. “Let’s not forget that a thousand journalists have been killed since 1961. Why did they sacrifice their lives for a world that hasn’t changed one iota?”

He sounds angry. “Disappointed is a better word. NATO, the EU, democracy, and all the rest of it – how little it has achieved. We even have the threat now of Russia creating a new Cold War. What have we got to be joyful about? Nothing.”

Alastair Sooke is art critic of The Daily Telegraph

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