Don McCullin says his war photography has been a 'waste of time'
‘I’ve been in so many wars – and nothing has changed’: Legendary photographer Don McCullin says his work documenting conflict has been a ‘waste of time’ amid horrors of Israel-Gaza war – as he marks release of new book
- Sir Don was speaking to promote book, Life, Death and Everything in Between
- He has covered conflicts including the Vietnam War and fighting in Biafra
He is one of Britain’s best-known photojournalists, his career having been defined by the horrors of war.
But, despite his epic bravery in a working life lasting more than 60 years, Sir Don McCullin believes much of his work has been a ‘waste of time’.
Speaking today to promote a new book showcasing some of his previously unpublished images, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme that when ‘one war has come to an end another is in the waiting room’.
The 88-year-old acknowledged that he has been praised for his work, but insisted the ‘people who look at books don’t change wars’.
Pointing to the ‘horrendous’ conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Middle East, he added: ‘I’ve looked at so many wars, I’ve been in so many wars, and nothing has changed.’
He is one of Britain’s best-known photojournalists, his career having been defined by the horrors of war. But, despite his epic bravery in a working life lasting more than 60 years, Sir Don McCullin believes much of his work has been a ‘waste of time’
Sir Don’s new book, Life, Death and Everything in Between, features 140 of the photographer’s pictures. Above: A previously unpublished image of US Marines removing an injured comrade during the Battle of Huế in the Vietnam War in 1968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, Life, Death and Everything in Between, features 140 of the photographer’s pictures.
Life, Death and Everything in Between is published this month
Among them is a harrowing image of US Marines removing a wounded comrade to safety during the Battle of Huế in the Vietnam War in 1968.
The photographer’s coverage of the conflict helped to make him a household name.
He also covered conflicts in Cyprus, Biafra, Iraq, Cambodia and Lebanon.
He told the BBC: ‘I am slightly depressed in a way, because I think everything I’ve done concerning international conflict, everything I have contributed to showing how awful it is, I think has been a waste of time really.’
He added: ‘When one war is come to an end another is in the waiting room and… people say to me “Oh I looked at your pictures, they are very moving, and they made us think”.
A homeless man is seen sitting with his head in his hands near Liverpool Street Station in 1970
Young workers are seen making an early morning delivery of new furniture in Kolkata, India, 1997
A young man smokes a cigarette at a shopping centre in Bradford in 1970. The image has been published for the first time in Sir Don’s new book
A mother with her new pram and baby in the steel town of Consett, County Durham, England, 1974
‘But, you know, the people who look at books don’t change wars, it’s the people who control other people’s lives like the politicians.’
Talking of his work for the Sunday Times, he said he had a ‘good audience’, but was sometimes ‘preaching to the already converted’.
‘It never got through to the other people who kind of control their lives, like the politicians,’ he said.
‘And, my god, I’ve looked at so many wars, I’ve been in so many wars, and nothing has changed.
‘In fact, what is going on in the Middle East today proves what I’m saying. I never thought it would be as bad as what I listen to every day and watch.
He added: ‘What I’m seeing what is going on is horrendous and tragically sad.’
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
A person is seen riding a camel amidst the ruins of The Great Colonnade, in Palmyra Syria, 2007. The photo features in the new book
Sir Don’t new book also features some much more recent images. Above: Headless Amazon fighting, Palazzo Massimo, Rome, Italy, 2022
An image from 2021 of a flooded field near Sir Don’s home in Somerset
Apples with a statue from Papua, Somerset, England, 1995
Speaking of his new book, he said: ‘I worked with the person who designed and produced the book.
‘I think the book actually is quite a powerful book because the layout is quite different from many other books I’ve done.’
Describing the philosophy behind his work, he previously said: ‘I took photographs which are about human beings suffering and I wanted you to look at those photographs and I wanted you to try and persuade yourself even if you didn’t want to look at them that they had a purpose’.
He was shot and badly wounded in Cambodia and imprisoned in Uganda, as well as being expelled from Vietnam
As well as his war photography, Sir Don’s other work includes searing images of poverty in Britain and the AIDS crisis in Africa.
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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