Through a glass darkly – 89

Don McCullin

Don McCullin is a name to conjure with in the world of photo-journalism. In the days when I used to take the Sunday newspapers seriously his pictures seemed ubiquitous. He was quite simply the grittiest, biggest risk-taking, most sought-after news photographer in the world. Seemingly specialising in war zones and human disasters. It seemed that wherever there was fighting and famine McCullin and his cameras were there.

Unreasonable Behaviour 

I’ve been reading McCullin’s 1990 autobiography, a paperback copy which I picked up in the [excellent] OXFAM bookshop in Thame. He grew up in a tough, working-class tenement in Finsbury Park. His father was an invalid and an occasional fishmonger. In the early stages of the war he was evacuated three times, finally to some fundamentalist chicken farmers in rural Lancashire. Unhappily. Back in London he failed the Eleven Plus and went to the local secondary modern school. Schooling largely passed him by. He frequently truanted with a bunch of other boys, many of them destined for borstal, setting up gang headquarters in bombed out houses. His father encouraged him to do drawing for which he showed some skill.

His father died aged forty when Don was just fourteen. There was now no question of art school. As the elder son, he had family responsibilities. He promptly left school and worked as a pantry boy on the LMS dining cars. Angry with God he flung plates out of the train windows as it passed over a viaduct. He spent his first wage packet on a teddy boy suit. He left the railways to work in a cartoon animation studio in Mayfair; but his colour-blindness counted against him. National Service at the age of eighteen  widened his horizons. He served in the RAF, in a photographic unit, and was posted to Egypt and to Kenya and to Cyprus. He emerged from the RAF as a Leading Aircraftsman with an African Service Medal. And spent his savings on a Rolleicord, a twin  reflex camera.  

Going to the Wars

McCullin’s breakthrough came in 1959 when a policeman was murdered outside Gray’s Dancing Academy in the Seven Sisters Road, and he sold some photos of local gang members to the Observer. He was twenty three years old. Shortly afterwards he cut short his honeymoon to head for Berlin to take photos of the Vopos using breeze blocks to build the Berlin Wall, watched by American soldiers with machine guns. Within a few months he was in Cyprus witnessing the awful atrocities committed by both Greek and Turkish irregulars.  “I think I grew up that day. I took a step away from my personal resentments, my feeling that life had been uniquely tough on me … … and taking away my father when I was young. That day in Cyprus when I saw someone  else losing their father, someone else losing their son, I felt that I could somehow assimilate this experience so that my own pity could cease to be personal. And I could say ‘OK. I’m not the only one.’”

And so McCullin went to the wars. In November 1964 he flew into the Congo, and blagged his way unto Stanleyville with Major ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare’s mercenaries.  On a subsequent trip to the Congo he entered illegally from Rwanda to join another group of mercenaries under Colonel  Jean ‘Black Jack Schramme, who were besieged in Bukavu which was presented in the media as a kind of small scale Dien Bien Phu. 

Inevitably McCullin went to Vietnam, initially for the Illustrated London News. In Saigon he checked into the Hotel Royale, run by Monsieur Octavie, a former legionnaire. It was like something out of Graham Greene. McCullin was here when the US Marines came charging up the beach at Da Nang, M-16 rifles at the ready, like a repeat showing of Iwo Jima, to be met by a gang of almond-eyed girls who welcomed their would-be combat heroes with pink and white orchids. Faith in their fire-power and technology made the Americans immune to lessons of the past.

Disillusioned with the Observer, McCullin moved on to join the Sunday Times colour magazine, edited at the time by Godfrey Smith. It was an exciting time offering McCullin a wide variety of projects. Improbably he photographed the Beatles, warming to Paul McCartney and being irritated by Yoko Ono. Even more improbably he went on a photographic trip to Cuba with Edna O’Brien, with whom he fell fleetingly in love. But his speciality was war, and he persisted in returning to dangerous places. He was in Jerusalem in 1967 for the vicious fighting between Arabs and Israelis. Later that year he was in West Africa when the Ibos declared independence from the Nigerian Federation. The French gave covert support to the Biafrans, while the British government, supposedly neutral, pumped large amounts of arms into Nigeria.

The war in Vietnam continued. Forty five newspaper-men lost their lives in Vietnam, including Sean Flynn, the son of Errol, and the photographer Larry Burrows. McCullin flew into Hue, the ancient walled city on the Perfumed River, following the Tet Offensive of January 1968. Combined South Vietnamese and American troops recaptured the city after a month of intense and bloody fighting. During which he greater part of the historic city was destroyed. McCullin was fortunate to survive eleven days in the front line. ”Sometimes I crawled ahead of the phase-line in order to be in a position to photograph the Marines advancing towards me … … [When I came out] I couldn’t speak and felt as if I had aged twenty five years.”  He flies home via Saigon and Paris, where he is caught up with a plane-load of English rugby fans returning from an international match.


By his mid-thirties McCullin had travelled to some seventy countries, many but not all war zones. He travelled in India with Eric and Wanda Newby.  For the Sunday Times he visited cannibal tribes in the rain forests of New Guinea. Off to cover the war in Chad, he meets up in Fort-Lamy with his brother Michael, fighting as a sergeant in the French Foreign Legion. In Cambodia he is wounded by mortar fragments in action against the Khmer Rouge. He becomes great friends with the writer Norman Lewis, and together they make expeditions to visit remote Indian tribes in Venezuela and in the Amazon Basin. He is imprisoned and fears for his life in Idi Amin’s Uganda. For light relief he is enlisted as the official photographer for the supposedly historic meeting between Lord Thomson, the proprietor of The Times and the Sunday Times, and Chou En-Lai. Shortly afterwards he is back in the Middle East with a full Sunday Times team when his colleague Nick Tomalin is blown to bits by a Syrian missile on the Golan Heights. 

By the start of the 1980s things are changing. Harry Evans leaves the Sunday Times for The Times, ill-advisedly as it turns out. Rupert Murdoch, the new proprietor, picks a fight with the printers. And McCullin’s marriage starts to fall apart as he gets involved with a high-powered businesswoman who runs a model agency. “I was less drawn to the thick of the action …  I no longer wanted, if I ever had, to commit a long drawn-out suicide in the pursuit of heroism …  I wanted to live without testing my courage all the time.

Two things strike me as I read this book. First the enormous change that has taken place in the make-up of newspaper colour supplements [weekend magazines]. When McCullin’s report from El Salvador in !982 is spiked [Reagan’s United States feared it could become another Cuba], he realised “policy had started going against too much hard photo-journalism and further into softer areas, like consumer goods and fashion.” Four decades on the Times magazine on Saturdays is a hymn to consumerism and greed; with a predilection for semi-literate celebrity journalists and soft porn. It has become a magazine where McCullin’s work would not be acceptable. Far too disturbing.

The second thing is that, although McCullin over a couple of decades had witnessed more death and despair than most people of his generation, nothing prepares him for the terminal illness of his own wife. Christine is diagnosed with a brain tumour. “Overnight this lovely young woman I had married twenty-two years ago had become a cripple.” McCullin is on an expedition to some remote islands off Sumatra when she is operated on in London. “My confidence started dying with Christine. I realised you could shoot photography until the cows come home but they have nothing to do with real humanity, real memories, real feelings.” When Christine is rushed back into hospital, McCullin is there when the consultant tells her: “I’m afraid I have to tell you you’ve only a short time to live”. His wife dies on the morning of their son’s wedding. McCullin is now [the book was published in 1990] living alone in Somerset with filing cabinets full of ghosts.

I guess it’s a preaching cliche: a thousand deaths are a statistic, but one death is a tragedy. A thought that bears in on me as we prepare for Joanna’s Thanksgiving service in Wycombe next week. I hope to write more about her after that.

January 2023

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: