The Images and Memories of War

For 30 years, Don McCullin's CV as a photographer read like a chronology of global conflict from the Vietnam War in the 1960s to Beirut in the 1980s. Now, McCullin is famous also for photographing the beautiful landscapes around his Somerset home in England. In an interview for the BBC Radio 4 programme Open Country, McCullin says that there's a big change from war, destruction and death on a grand scale to the quiet beauty of Somerset.

For 30 years, Don McCullin's CV as a photographer read like a chronology of global conflict from the Vietnam War in the 1960s to Beirut in the 1980s. Now, McCullin is famous also for photographing the beautiful landscapes around his Somerset home in England. In an interview for the BBC Radio 4 programme Open Country, McCullin says that there's a big change from war, destruction and death on a grand scale to the quiet beauty of Somerset. 

Don McCullin: These beautiful landscapes [in Somerset] are the most wonderful healing that I could have ever found to my past. It's taken me nearly 70 years to discover who I am and what I want.

I don't have any guilt any more. When I went to war I used to come back with enormous guilt. I used to come back from places like Biafra and Somalia and see my children refusing food and I'd seen children dropping dead of starvation. It was very difficult for me to balance this all off. I was a confused person. If I hadn't kept this very fine balance in check I think I would have gone barmy.

BBC: What role has the landscape played in healing that troubled mind, in getting that balance right?

DM: It's just total freedom here. I'm looking at the most extraordinary sight. There's no one here bothering me, there's no contamination or pollution. If there was ever a time for a person to calm down in his life and try and find some convenient and comfortable balance to chase away all those painful years, you could not find a better sanctuary than this.

BBC: [We're looking at] a photo of Somerset: It's winter; there are no leaves on the trees and the hedgerows, the sun behind a finger of dark cloud. It's quite stark—it's quite bleak.

DM: I do all of my landscapes in the winter. I like the nakedness and the loneliness of individual trees. I like the last of the day's light. When I'm out there, strange things happen. One day I looked round and there was an otter running through this almost empty but still muddy dyke with an eel in its mouth. I never got a picture that day but I've never stopped thinking about the privilege of seeing that wonderful otter. This is part of my healing process; of trying to eradicate the past, which won't be possible, but at least I'm trying.

BBC: Do you ever wish that you'd started on this part of your career earlier and that the war years had been twenty rather than thirty? Or none? Was the war stuff necessary to inform the stark beauty of the landscape work?

DM: War is very exciting, let's not beat about the bush. As a young man you go to war if you've got the nerve to see it through. In the beginning you're slightly confused. You think 'Am I watching a Hollywood film, or am I in a Hollywood film?' But when see your first dead child and your first starving child, then you think 'God, this is awful.'

When I'm in the countryside, I'm getting the same excitement from doing landscapes. If I can stand and see a sun doing what it's doing, I think I've got a chance.

The two sides of my work have a message. One is evil and the other is meant to take that evil away, particularly in me personally. These things haven't come at a cheap price. Going to war is not an easy thing for me to get rid of. Not just because of the reputation but because of the memories of war itself, which I take to sleep some nights with me.

The images and memories of war and the screams and cries are still fresh in my mind. I can still smell a mattress that was burning in a house in Cyprus when I went to my first civil war. There were three dead bodies lying in that house, and the sweet smell of the warm blood in the early Mediterranean morning. People don't realise that smells, as well as vision, can be a very powerful memory.

When I took pictures in war I couldn't help thinking of [the 18th-19th century Spanish artist] Goya. It's the iconic adoration of the heavens and God when people are about to be shot. I remember the bullets hitting the men who were murdered in a Beirut doorway. With what last gasp of air they had in their lungs, and as they were dropping, I could hear the word 'Allah!' I almost had a breakdown because of this terrible scene.

Then a man came up to me and said, 'If you take any more pictures I'm going to kill you too. Get going!' I walked away. But, I came across another scene. I could hear music, classical music and I thought, 'God, what's going on? This is mad!' I heard someone say, 'Mister, take this photo!' There was a group of (Lebanon's Christian) Phalange, young boys about fourteen, fifteen with Thompson machine guns and Kalashnikovs. One of them had a lute and he was strumming it over the body of a dead Palestinian girl.

I was told not to take any pictures and I thought 'I can't walk past this.' I was risking my life just to get this picture. I had one more look behind me and I went, Bang, Bang. I didn't even do the exposure and I ran away. When I got back and processed the film the negative was very thin, but I did get an amazing picture. It was a purely sixteenth century Italian painting of war—and absurd because a man was playing the lute.

So how do you work out all that risotto of madness and then come back to England, Somerset, and try to be normal and go and do landscape photography? Strangely enough, I've managed to do it; and will continue to do it. When I'm doing these landscapes I feel as if I've got wings; I could fly from one hillside to the other. It's the only peace I can get out of my photography.

BBC: This is the photo of a guy who, in full combat gear, is just staring off into space. He doesn't know you're there, he's so shell-shocked; he's grubby, his nails are filthy. It sends a shiver down my spine just looking at it.

DM: The funny thing is it's become a kind of signature picture of mine.

I spent two weeks with this battalion of the 5th Marines in Hue in the middle of Vietnam. I went through exactly what they went through. I was sleeping next to dead bodies. We'd been very badly attacked and I jumped into a depression in the ground. I looked down and there was a disgusting smell. I was actually sitting on the stomach of a dead North Vietnamese soldier who had just a film of earth over him. I was with another Marine and we both vacated very quickly.

So when you've had two weeks of that insanity, you look like that. I came away looking like that. I've brought all that insanity back to this house and I've got all the negatives and prints here. There's a jolly old struggle going on every day—in my mind most of all. So the landscape is helping me. It's a battle of strength—who is going to win? I think if I hadn't had this house I may have gone off the road. I may have become a drunkard or mad. Life hasn't been easy for me.

When I'm in my house printing, I play classical music all the time. There's a beautiful marriage between me and music. We all need crutches to help ourselves. I don't care how strong a man thinks he is, eventually he will need an emotional arm around him. It doesn't matter who puts that arm around him. We cannot go through life thinking we are islands.

I did a book two or three years ago and I called it Sleeping with Ghosts. The reason I chose the title was because I thought, 'When I go to sleep at night. I bet all my filing cabinets have a merry dance knowing I'm not here'. All the negatives about the wars are terrible images: pictures of burnt children, men being executed and crying in front of me, pleading for me to help them. In war pictures, you have these images of people staring at you in a kind of an accusation. Into wars and revolutions people used to look at me with those thousand-yard-stares.

BBC: They look right through you.

DM: Yes. I wanted that because they gave their consent.

I didn't have an easy time doing war. I remember being in Beirut one day and my timing was wrong. I photographed a woman who came out of this huge tragedy.

There was a block of flats that had been bombed by the Israelis and it had collapsed like a club sandwich. I didn't know that inside was her family. She saw me taking the picture and came rushing and started punching me. I had to take those blows because it was my fault for (a) intruding on her, (b) not getting her consent, which she wasn't going to give anyway. She, was in deep grief. I just turned my back and took these tremendous blows.

Then a Palestinian came up with a nine millimetre pistol and demanded my camera. He was pointing the pistol right between my eyes and pulling my arm, which had been broken in another recent war. When I look back, I could have died for not giving him that camera. I should have said, 'OK, take it.' I'd committed a crime, in a way, because of bad judgement.

I managed to keep my camera and I went back to the hotel because the crowds were so hostile. I was in a very nervous state and I ordered a cup of coffee. A man came in and said, 'You know that woman who just attacked you?' I said, 'I don't want to hear about it.' He said, 'she's just been killed. Another car bomb went off just when you left and killed her.' So I came back from that experience in Beirut and I made up my mind. I wasn't going to go to war again, even though I did.

BBC: So that single episode was a culmination of all that pressure and what turned you into what you are now, the landscape photographer.

DM: I think it made me search myself. It's nothing to do with photography. We are, as human beings, obliged to search ourselves. Are we having the lives we want? Are we doing the right things we should be doing? Are we addressing certain questions that we must address in our lives?

I felt deeply ashamed because I've always prided myself on being the man who cares, the man whose timing was right, the man who sought consent. I didn't do it that day. Everything was happening fast and I responded in the wrong way by taking that picture. I have that picture of that woman to this day.

BBC: Do you ever look at it?

DM: No. Can you imagine my guilt knowing the woman was killed within a few moments of me leaving the scene?

I've never printed that photo. I did it once for a publication. I was trying to exonerate myself by publishing it in my autobiography. I was trying to say to people, 'Look, I did wrong' and it was a kind of public confession. I didn't kill that woman, I just photographed her. But it was wrong.

Landscape photography was me running away from my past, and I'm still doing it. So I'm using the landscape not as an excuse, but as a convenience for me to try and heal myself so that I can get on with what time I've got left and show people that I'm not such a bad person for what I did that day.

You could say I've got it made now. I just want to have a few more blackberry seasons, make a few more landscapes and get a few more people on board who say, 'I like what you're doing.' I don't need any more reward. So, I've got it made.