In England - interview with Don McCullin

Shooting the past

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Don McCullin

Don McCullin has been taking pictures of people in turmoil for half a century. Brian Donaldson looks back at his career and flicks through his latest collection

Don McCullin might seem like some kind of anachronistic beast among the top photographers today. Not for him the simpering vanities of celebrityhood; he has always been far more interested in the real problems that face ordinary people on a daily basis. With his latest collection of old and new photographs In England, your struggle to spot anyone famous will eventually be rewarded with images of The Beatles, John Betjeman and British fascist John Tyndall, but they are overshadowed by pictures of peace campaigners of the 1960s, urban deprivation in the 1970s, and Ladies Day at Ascot in 2006. The yawning divide between sectors of society in Britain has been as important a subject to McCullin as the shellshocked expressions on the faces of young GIs in ‘Nam.

Born into an impoverished London home in 1935, McCullin grew up dyslexic but with a handy knack for drawing. However, his dreams of going to art school faltered at the age of 14 when his father died and McCullin was forced into becoming the home’s breadwinner. After doing national service in Kenya, he came back home and bought a Rolliecord with which he took images of the gangs he grew up beside in Finsbury Park. The bloody aftermath of a street brawl in 1958 gave McCullin his first big break with a picture printed in The Observer and offers of work began to cascade his way. By the end of the 60s, McCullin’s reputation was rock solid and his images from the war zones of Vietnam, Cambodia, El Salvador and Northern Ireland are now part of the photojournalist canon. So effective are his representations of horror that he was banned by the Thatcher government from travelling with the troops to the Falklands, a fact which left him downcast: ‘I felt that I’d earned it with my blood and sweat,’ he told the International Herald Tribune in 1997.

In England marks something of a watershed moment for McCullin. ‘I don’t have the tolerance or stamina to continue much longer,’ he notes in the lavish book’s introduction. ‘I am not at the end of my work, but I’m close to the limits of what I can accomplish.’ The years of confronting some terrible man-made disasters have taken their toll and when you have been beaten up by Idi Amin’s soldiers, literally saved from a bullet by your Nikon camera or come under intense shelling in Cambodia, it’s perfectly understandable that a man will now opt to have a day at the races or capture the relatively peaceful drama of Land’s End or Stonehenge.

Now living in Somerset, he finds trips into London to photograph Shia processions, Whitechapel’s youth or the Palace of Westminster as a trip into some faraway land, as Biafra must have felt to him in a past time. ‘This is not the England of 1955 . . . there are new phenomena sweeping the land: obesity, selfishness and the hand gestures and postures of the young that I cannot understand.’ While McCullin may be nearing the point when the power of his work will solely lie in the retrospective, the archive he will leave behind is a remarkable one.

In England is published by Jonathan Cape on Thu 1 Nov.

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