Review: We must look – the photographs of Don McCullin

The life’s work of one of the world’s greatest living photographers, Don McCullin is on show until 15 April at London’s Imperial War Museum. This exhibition is shocking but essential viewing for socialists. Don McCullin spoke to Dave Beale.

Born in 1935, Don McCullin grew up in a damp basement in North London, where he watched his father die in dire poverty. He recalls the anger he felt. Conscripted to the air force in the 1950s, he learnt about photography.

On returning he says, unlike Cecil Beaton and Lord Snowdon: “I wanted to photograph poor people… because nobody else was interested in photographing poverty but I was, because I understood it.”

The Observer published one of his photographs and decided to employ him. In the 1960s and 1970s, he travelled from one war zone to another, as well as photographing poverty in Britain. Don McCullin points to a photograph in the exhibition, of a grief-stricken Cypriot woman whose husband has just been killed. He does not talk about the photograph but about what actually happened.

McCullin’s approach is sincere and compassionate. Typically, he says of his war photographs: “This is what I’ve made a name from, which doesn’t particularly please me.”

He describes his more recent landscape photography, as a man who witnessed countless scenes of brutality, as “… a clean-up job of me trying to get rid of all this stuff”, to come to terms with his dreadful war experiences.

He puts the environmental case and criticises government development plans. “I’m not saying that landscape is as important as human beings but it plays a major part in their happiness and existence… And we also need places to escape from the cities too…”

In 1983 Murdoch’s newly appointed editor, Andrew Neill, dismissed McCullin from his then post at the Sunday Times. He recalls Neill: “came in one day and said ‘I am going to make this [the Sunday Times supplement – Eds] a leisure and life magazine and there will be no more dead children in this magazine, no more African dead children’.

Don McCullin emphasises the importance of his working class background, which will always be with him and which make him who he is. A small collection of Don McCullin’s other work (though not his war photographs) is also on display at Tate Britain until 6 May.