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Death of the Photojournalist

As Tate Liverpool presents a comprehensive retrospective of the legendary British photographer Sir Don McCullin, we sit down with the man himself to talk about making peace, accepting responsibility, and getting your house in order

‘Of course I feel fear, I just don’t respect it. I suppose that makes me sound somewhat contemptuous.’ The words are shot through with a defiance so clean cut and crystal clear that they seem almost immune to our phone call’s frequent drops in signal. This is hardly surprising, Don McCullin hasn’t made his name by mincing words, but by granting visual voice to that which would otherwise be hushed and hidden away.  

Don takes my call having just emerged from his dark room. By his own admission, it’s a solemn place full of nasty chemicals. Now 84, he knows there’s a good chance he’ll have to stop printing before the year is out. To that end, his final forays into the dark room, much like his upcoming Tate Liverpool exhibition, represent a pressing desire to see some order and peace emerge from the chaos and conflict that have come to define his career. 

What do you consider to be the role of the photographer nowadays? Do you think that role has changed in any way over the years?
There was a role I was engaged in; some called it photojournalism. It’s all but dead now. The newspapers no longer want to see the kind of things I used to shoot. They don’t want to be reminded of the ugliness that exists in the world. War and famine are an inconvenience. They want glamour, success and stardom. Photojournalism has been killed off. We exist in a time of Netflix. We consume; we don’t reflect. My role is all but finished. And not because of my age, either. I’ve outlived it. I’ve outlived photojournalism.  

If photojournalism is indeed dead, then who or what killed it?
It’s simple: people don’t want to accept responsibility for their actions. They don’t want to accept responsibility for their inaction either, for that matter. They don’t really even want to accept their reality as it stands at all. They want to wallow in a diet of bad food and disposable entertainment. They don’t want the real world; they just want out. They’re defeated by it all, I suppose. 

Roland Barthes once said that the photograph is inherently violent. Not because it shows violent things, necessarily, but because on each occasion it fills the sight by force. Would you agree?
I think that certainly used to be the case, but people have found ways to offset that emotional impact by simply dissociating. A lot of the evils I’ve captured are often attributed exclusively to the Cold War, for example. That creates an illusion of distance; it makes it easy to tell yourself that it’s no longer an accurate depiction of our reality. Which is nonsense. It’s less obvious now than it was then, perhaps. But these things are still very much happening. 

We’ve got the best methods of communication we’ve ever had; the facts should be more in your face than ever. And yet, we’re all so detached. Regardless of its content, I don’t want people to be able to simply disregard my photography. I want it to arrest you. I want the full weight of its meaning – whether that’s joyous or tragic – to come down on you. 

You have always seen photography as a form of communication above all else. Do you think we can still trust photography in an age of fake news, misinformation and digital manipulation?
You should never have trusted photography in the first place [laughs]. When I was a boy and I’d visit the barbers, there would be stacks of Illustrated and The Picture Post – both of which are long out of print now. I’d marvel at the photography. I didn’t know at the time, but they’d often stage out the photos for the purposes of propaganda. It was the done thing.  

Personally, I never felt in my life the need to do such things. There’s only one time I ever came close to staging a photograph and you’ll see it at the Liverpool exhibition. It’s a picture of a dead North Vietnamese soldier – all of 17 years. He’s been shot through the teeth and he’s lying with all of his possessions in front of him. I collected those possessions myself, as they’d been scattered by American Soldiers. I was trying to show this man’s sacrifice. I was trying to recapture a little of his dignity. I tried to speak on his behalf. But that’s still a narrative, I suppose. Photography always has an agenda. You should always be wary of trusting it entirely. 

Your exhibition at Tate Liverpool spans the full 60 years of your career. Was retracing those steps a daunting task?
I have to tell you this: my mind is tortured by my life’s work. But I can’t get away from it. That’s my lot. I have 60, 000 negatives in this house. Even over lockdown, I’ve re-developed the entire chronology of my coverage of the civil war in Beirut. In amongst those pictures lies evidence of some of the worst atrocities known to man. I have an entire museum of death and cruelty right here in my own home. I can’t bring myself, even now, to say I’ve had much of a career. I’ve communicated certain facts to those that would listen. But that’s it. 

If that’s the case then why retrace those steps at all? Do you think we have a duty to acknowledge the past?
Perhaps. But if you want the honest truth, I turn 85 this year. So I’m getting my house in order. I want to bring a little order to this chaos before I fall off the perch, as it were. 60,000 negatives, 10,000 prints – that requires a lot of organisation. But I want to leave my work in great condition, so that wherever it ends up, people can learn from it in some way. I’m panicking a little bit. You get like that as you get older. You want to create some sense of order before you disappear. 

The Liverpool exhibition also features a great selection of your landscape photography. Is there a therapeutic or meditative element to that style of shooting?
The landscape photography allows me to live in a world of fantasy, in some ways. I’ve had quite enough of reality at times. Shooting landscapes allows your mind to wander in any direction it pleases. And nobody can blame you for it. Photography has held me to ransom for the last 65 years. I’ve paid dearly. I’ve broken bones, been caught in crossfires, held at gunpoint and even shelled. It’s laid heavily on my family life, too. My mind is never at rest. 

With the landscape photography there’s some peace. I’m perfectly happy to stand for three hours or more in the biting cold on Hadrian’s wall. If I come away without a picture I’m not at all bitter. It’s like fishing; you can come home empty handed and still have had a good time. Disappointment suggests that you feel you deserved to be rewarded. You don’t always have to be rewarded in life. Just being alive without pain or suffering is enough for me. The landscapes really drive that home for me. Though some people tell me that I even make Somerset look like a battlefield [laughs]. 

How do you feel about the state of photography today?
Everybody’s a photographer nowadays, aren’t they? Selfies used to make me angry, but my old age is kicking in now and things like that bother me much less. As I’ve said, the kind of photography I did is now long gone. You won’t see it around anymore. Newspapers are more hung up on entitled celebrities who can’t hold their drink. They want fantasies. The state of photography is very much in line with the state of society, in that sense.  

If that’s the case, do you think the image itself has lost its impact? As the media offers a constant barrage of visual noise, is a drift towards desensitisation inevitable?
I think so, but I think Hollywood has a lot to answer for, in that respect. Hollywood has a way of making violence not only commonplace, but comical. Exploding little condoms full of fake blood. It doesn’t just lower the stakes; it makes all that suffering seem oddly pornographic and exploitative. Of course, I haven’t done this for as long as I have without feeling somewhat exploitative myself. And the worst part of it all is that I fear I’ve done very little to change things. The violence and the apathy will all go on. 

You don’t think we have the capacity to change?
The word ‘change’ has been leaned on so heavily of late. It’s become quite the buzzword. And where has it gotten us? Very little has changed. I grow trees in my valley here in Somerset. It’s an amazing thing to do; plant new life and nurture it, ensure that it survives. We should be doing that. We should see to it that life has meaning, that each life has its chance to thrive. As it stands, we’ve got it all backwards. I get angry at times, thinking that my life’s work has had no meaning, that it’s brought about no change at all. There hasn’t been a year that’s gone by that a new war hasn’t sprung up somewhere.  

But surely, it’s photographers like yourself, those who bring these truths to light, that have paved the way for change?
Oh, but we’re so tiny in the grand scheme of things, aren’t we? We’re nobodies. We don’t rate on the scale. Anyway, I think that’s enough ranting from me. At the very least it’s been quite the journey, I must say. I have to get rid of that anger now, though. I have to concentrate on what a lucky sod I am. I have to give myself that one last injection of life before I float out like the old Viking I am, my ship ablaze and adrift.

You can visit the Don McCullin Retrospective at Tate Liverpool now