Don McCullin on His 60-Year Career: ‘What Good Have I Done?’

Don McCullin
Don McCullin. | National Science and Media Museum

Iconic war photographer Don McCullin has given a thought-provoking interview to Vanity Fair in which he wonders what the point of photography is in conflict zones.

McCullin, from the U.K., started as a photographer’s assistant while enlisted in the Royal Air Force in 1956 and began foreign assignments in 1966 for a British newspaper.

Since then he has covered countless conflicts and believes that “humanity will go on suffering until the end of time.”

“I’ve been watching the war in Ukraine, which has been overtaken by the tragedies in Israel and Gaza,” McCullin tells fellow photojournalist Mark Edward Harris in the Vanity Fair piece.

“I’ve always said that when one war would be finished, there would always be another war waiting. And I’ve been proven quite right over the many years I’ve been covering wars.

“It also brings me to the point of thinking most of the work I’ve been involved in is partly useless. Because people that look at my pictures are normally decent human beings who are already anti-war people.

“So what good have I done when wars continuously go on, year in and year out, without any chance in my lifetime of ever seeing any peace in the world?”

The macabre McCullin is typical of interviews he has given over the years in which he questions the point and purpose of his war photography. He points to one of his better-known images — a starving 24-year-old Biafran woman breastfeeding her child — saying that it illustrates the danger of making an iconic photo.

“It was like a Madonna and Child picture. I started kind of losing it, because as a photographer, one is always aware: Where is this picture going? Who will see it? How will it be laid out by the art director?,” He says.

“All these things are swimming around in your mind the very moment you’re pressing that button. Was it contrived? I have such guilt about all those images. I don’t live a comfortable life anymore because of the guilt.”

Moving to Digital

McCullin’s film photos are famous for being dark which he attributes to being a “dark person.” But he reveals in the interview with Vanity Fair that he has begun shooting digital — all on automatic mode.

“I use digital, but I’m wary of it because it never gives you the proper rendering in color,” he says. “Its color is slightly ghastly. If anything, color works in a very subdued light, otherwise it becomes too cheesy and too chocolate box-y.”

The 88-year-old now shoots landscapes around the English countryside where he lives and says he still enjoys the experience of going out to shoot.