The world through the eyes of war photographer Don McCullin

The world through the eyes of war photographer Don McCullin

Don McCullin covered countless conflicts but never lost his humanity or his anger with the injustices he documented internationally or at home in the UK.

Stuart Smith, founder and director of Gost Books, remembers paging through The Sunday Times magazine as a teen in the late 1960s and happening upon the work of British photographer Don McCullin. While deeply moved by McCullin’s work in Vietnam and Bangladesh, Smith recognised the impact of his work on the domestic front as it provided a mirror in which the British could reflect on their lives and lot.

Six decades later, Smith has teamed up with legendary lensman to create Don McCullin: Life, Death and Everything in Between, published in conjunction with the ongoing exhibition Don McCullin in Rome – a Retrospective. Bringing together 140 images, many previously unseen, made between the start of his career in the late 1950s until last year, the book is conceived a meditation on complexities of our ongoing existence on earth.

A mother with her new pram and baby in the steel town of Consett, County Durham, England, 1974 © Don McCullin. Courtesy Hamiltons Gallery

Whether photographing Britain’s struggles following the collapse of empire, conflicts across Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, or recent landscapes made near McCullin’s home in Somerset, the book traces the unbreakable thread of interconnectedness that unites us across time and space.

“Don is so much more than a war photographer,” says Smith. “It was important to give weight to his landscapes, still lifes and ongoing work documenting the legacy of the Roman Empire. When you bring them together, the different works begin a dialogue and elucidate connections between people, events, history and the present.”

Unhoused man near Liverpool Street Station, London, England, c. 1970 © Don McCullin. Courtesy Hamiltons Gallery

McCullin photographed indigenous communities living peacefully with the land as they have for thousands of years and documented the devastation wrought by global superpowers intent on subjugating freedom at home and abroad. In all of his work, McCullin distills the majestic power, poignancy and poetry of the moment in a single image.

Taken together, his breathtaking images of beauty and brutality reach operatic scale, yet maintain an intimacy and tenderness that speaks to McCullin’s character and principles.

“Don was charming and serious and funny all at the same time,” says Smith. “I think that the directness and openness of his character has contributed to his work. He cares deeply about humanity and remains driven by this. His work has had a great impact not just on reporting and documenting events, but the legacy of how those events and atrocities are now remembered.”

US Marines removing a comrade during the Battle of Hue, Hue, Vietnam, 1968 © Don McCullin. Courtesy Hamiltons Gallery

As photographer and publisher worked together, McCullin shared memories that add deeper layers of meaning to the work. A medic he photographed attending to wounded US marines in Vietnam was killed two days after the photograph was made. A single nurse stayed with patients at a Beirut hospital while it was shelled for five days in 1982. McCullin even relayed his own mishap that resulted in broken ribs after falling while photographing ancient ruins in Palmya, Syria.

Simply put, Life, Death and Everything in Between is a masterpiece that represents photography at its best: heartfelt, heroic, harrowing, humble, and humane. “Don’s photography is a tool that allows him to speak about what he believes in,” says Smith. “It’s great because people do actually sit up and listen to him.”

The Great Colonnade, Palmyra, Syria, 2007 © Don McCullin. Courtesy Hamiltons Gallery

Don McCullin: Life, Death and Everything in Between is published by Gost Books. Don McCullin in Rome – a Retrospective through January 28, 2024, at Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome.

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