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Talking with Don McCullin

Starving nine-year-old Ibo albino boy, Biafra 1969 © Don McCullin, Contact Press Images

Starving nine-year-old Ibo albino boy, Biafra 1969 © Don McCullin, Contact Press Images

Recently I had the privilege of sitting down and talking with Don McCullin about his new project on the ruins of the Roman Empire, the wars he covered, and his aspirations and regrets as a photographer and a man. McCullin, now in his seventies, is the undisputed dean of photographers who have covered, and in many ways defined, large-scale conflict - Biafra, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Cyprus, etc. - an unsettling vision of the world since the 1960s. The interview is being published now in the new Aperture magazine (May issue, in print). A few video clips will go up on the Aperture website soon as well. But I wanted just to quote a couple of things that he said in his very honest and direct way, so anyone interested in a fuller version will look up Aperture in a library or subscribe (Aperture is well worth supporting).

My question to Don: “If you turn to the war in Iraq today, there’s no imagery coming out that’s impacting people in any sense the way that it did in Vietnam.”

Don’s response: “Well, we know why. We had so much freedom in Vietnam. We could do anything we wanted, go anywhere, do anything, photograph anything. [In Iraq] you can’t photograph a dying soldier as you could in Vietnam, because you have to be ‘embedded’ now. And being embedded is basically like being somebody’s dog who is being taken out to Central Park for a walk, with a collar on. So therefore you’ve got censorship, really. That’s what it comes down to.”

And on photographing landscapes: “Many times I go home without a picture, because at the last minute, the clouds go somewhere else, the sun is beating in my face–I get nothing. You know, it’s like somebody who sits on a riverbank fishing. It’s not about catching fish or getting negatives. It’s about being there, having the privilege to be there and be in command of your own joy. And mind.”

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