Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume. 34, Number 6. 1971

photographer's war

page break

photographer's war

Through the Sixties McCullin steadily forged a reputation as a great war photographer, a reckless hunter after action in the awful places of the world: Cyprus in the Troubles; first cameraman to the Wailing Wall, Jerusalem, in the Six Day War, with Arab bullets kicking dust across his lens; the Congo in the killing time; bloody Biafra; Vietnam again and again, as if that sad holocaust were a personal crusade.

In the darkrooms of "Paris Match", Don McCullin hotfoot from Vietnam - scanned strip after strip of negs. He was looking for one picture in particular, but it wasn't there. McCullin can describe that missing photograph. It was the one that really counted out of a whole roll of 35mm shots.

"This picture still keeps flashing through my mind," he says.

We're sitting in his house in Hampstead Garden Suburb, with prints of freshwater fish framed on the wall, and a series of etchings of Nelson dying heroically at Trafalgar. Vietnam is on the other side of the world, but McCullin has been there - and been back three more times - to let his cameras show us what it is like.

"We'd made an attack, and suddenly I was way out in front with the marines, and all the others had run back. We were up there, exposed, and there were Vietcong on the houses. Well, we were an easy kind of target. We lost three men in the first move. The VC's just twanged them down, one after the other, you know? And everyone who moved got hit.

"The marine lieutenant had a bullet through the neck, and he was screaming orders, his hand right in his neck, and beside his face were two boots—they belonged to two different soldiers, lying on their stomachs, but their boots were entwined like lovers, you know?"

McCullin composed that picture on the ground glass of the Nikon viewfinder and took it. Lying on his back he changed the film in his camera, and stuffed the exposed roll in his pocket.

"The lieutenant had a bullet right through his leg, and one that took half the other part of his leg out. We were moving on our elbows, and I was dragging him, trying to help him and hold him, and then the film must have dropped out.

"We lay 40 minutes in this hole, and he was lying on top of me with his legs under my shoulders, and the bullets were winging across, hitting a wall just above our heads. My cameras were being ground into the dirt underneath me, and I thought this is bloody silly, because I can't even take a picture here..."

They waited until the marines radioed a tank up to get them out, and while they waited the lieutenant said to McCullin: "You're a fool. You're a bloody fool," because McCullin didn't have to be there, being shot at by VC's, and McCullin answered: "Yes I know, but what can we do about it?"

There is a terrible inevitability about the way this one English photographer has become a chronicler of wars to a world that is sickened by them. To hear him talk is like picking up a volume of Kipling and matching with the infantry of scores of years ago, or reading Hemingway's staccato prose about the Spanish Civil war, or sitting in the cinema watching "Zulu", with red-coated soliders dying at Rourkes Drift.

Or it is like looking at pictures by Robert Capa, who also knew how to photograph war.

McCullin has become a soldier, armed with three Nikon bodies, a 28mm, a 35mm and a 135mm lens.

"If I'm with soldiers, I think like a soldier, I move around in a ruffian kind of way, and live like a dog, and stink - but I feel for what is happening, and I shoot pictures..."

He knows the disgust of war, and he knows the heroics.

"I get a very great thrill out of being with soldiers and moving up to the front. It's very exciting, everybody smoking a lot and trembling and people keep peeing on the side of the road because they're nervous and that - it's a reaction. The blokes are offering you cigarettes and being nice and everybody's smiling, but it's a front, you know.

"Soldiers are very interesting people. If you're in a section of a dozen men, each of these men is a real person, with different things he's thinking about just before he's going to go over there and get killed or wounded, and to be with these people is really living to the fullest, because I might not make it either.

"I feel that to show the romantic side of war is justified too, because these people are human beings and they might cease to become human beings within a short space of time...."

He is 32, and the toughness which is his trademark has a blue-eyed, gentle look to it.

"A lot of things I've seen would have driven other people crazy. Like seeing men executed, burnt children, men dying and weeping. I've got a very soft kind of heart really, but I can take all that.

"I got to Vietnam and say I mustn't take sides—I'm here purely as a photographer. Then somebody presents me