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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Don McCullin

Dates:  1935, 9 October -
Born:  Great Britain, London
Active:  England / Cyprus / Vietnam
Photojournalist and war photography. More recently concentrated on still-lifes and landscapes.

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for Don McCullin
Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum (London, UK)

Don McCullin is recognised as one of the greatest war photographers, and throughout the 1960's and 1970's he covered events of global importance for the Sunday Times Magazine including the Vietnam war. His first published story in 1958 concerned his own street gang in North London, and his subsequent images in Britain have looked at the unemployed and the destitute. Abroad, McCullin has covered ecological disasters and the war-torn regions of the world, documenting events normally hidden from view. His work proved so painful and memorable that in 1982 he was forbidden to cover the Falklands war by the British government of the time. 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of the Victoria & Albert Museum and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 11 Nov 2011. 
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
If you find any errors please email us details so they can be corrected as soon as possible.

Biography provided by Focal Press 
McCullin studied painting for two years before joining the Royal Air Force in 1954 where he became a photo assistant for aerial reconnaissance. By 1959 he began reportage with his camera and had pictures of a London youth gang published in The Observer. He won acclaim for 1961 images of the building of the Berlin Wall. As a conscientious believer in the power of photography to effect change, McCullin decided to try to curtail war and brutality by documenting conflict to reveal the true horror of violence. He covered the war in Cyprus in 1964 and later the Vietnam War (graphic images of the Tet offensive of 1968). He has been on the front lines of wars and human disasters (famine, genocide) around the world — Congo, Israel, Biafra, Cambodia, Lebanon, Pakistan, Northern Ireland, and India. For a time he was a member of Magnum. Book publications include The Destruction Business (1971) also published in the United States as Is Anyone Taking Any Notice? (1973). After many years on staff with The Sunday Times he went back to freelance assignments in 1985. In the early 1990s he had gone into seclusion in England, trying to force himself to make more lyrical "art" photographs of still life and landscape, often utilizing antique photo processes. Self-assessment of this activity as a non-fulfilling pursuit brought him back to the forefront of social activism. Since 2000 he has worked in Africa for the Christian Aid Society and has been active in AIDS awareness campaigns. 
(Author: Ken White - Rochester Institute of Technology) 
Michael Peres (Editor-in-Chief), 2007, Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, 4th edition, (Focal Press) [ISBN-10: 0240807405, ISBN-13: 978-0240807409] 
(Used with permission) 

Further research

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Bill Jay
Don McCullin 
Family history 
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Exhibitions on this website

Theme: War
ThumbnailShaped by War: Photographs by Don McCullin 
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Visual indexes

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Internet biographies

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Wikipedia has a biography of this photographer. Go to website
Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website
Grove Art Online ( has a biography of this artist. 
[NOTE: This is a subscription service and you will need to pay an annual fee to access the content.]
 Go to website

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

• Beaton, Cecil & Buckland, Gail 1975 The Magic Eye: The Genius of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown & Company) p.260 [Useful short biographies with personal asides and one or more example images.] 
• Capa, Cornell (ed.) 1984 The International Center of Photography: Encyclopedia of Photography (New York, Crown Publishers, Inc. - A Pound Press Book) p.322-323 
• Evans, Martin Marix (Executive ed.) 1995 Contemporary Photographers [Third Edition] (St. James Press - An International Thomson Publishing Company) [Expensive reference work but highly informative.] 
• International Center of Photography 1999 Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection (New York: A Bulfinch Press Book) p.221 [Includes a well written short biography on Don McCullin with example plate(s) earlier in book.] 
• Lenman, Robin (ed.) 2005 The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press)  [Includes a short biography on Don McCullin.] 
• Weaver, Mike (ed.) 1989 The Art of Photography 1839-1989 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press) p.460-461 [This exhibition catalogue is for the travelling exhibition that went to Houston, Canberra and London in 1989.] 


The wit and wisdom.

"Although I take my work seriously I cannot take myself seriously. When you think of it, everything has happened by accident. I have always believed that I don‘t own my photography, rather that it owns me. It gave me a life, an extraordinary life which could never be repeated. I feel as if the gift of seeing what is really going on in the world is mine only so long as I put it to proper use. There is nothing to be claimed and nothing to regret, except that we go on treating our fellow human beings so badly."
"For me to take those pictures, I had to stand up. I offered myself. I believe to this day that a sniper must have seen me, but seen me not carrying a weapon or not wearing a weapon….It seems uncanny that I got away with it. [Speaking about the Battle for Hue, Vietnam, 1968]"
"I am sometimes accused by my peers of printing my pictures too dark. All I can say is that it goes with the mood of melancholy that is induced by witnessing at close quarters such intractable situations of conflict and joylessness."
"I knew I had an amazing picture, but what a terrible way of earning a living. [Speaking about Bangladesh, 1971]"
"I know I was slightly insane on the helicopter back to Da Nang [but] I had 28 rolls of the most powerful film. [Speaking about the Battle for Hue, Vietnam, 1968]"
"I only use a camera like I use a toothbrush. It does the job."
"I realized that you could shoot photographs until the cows came home but they have nothing to do with real humanity, real memories, real feelings."
"I saw two other men killed right next to me and thought, "This is what you are. This is what you do. Do it." When you're afraid, doing what you do best takes your mind off of your fear. I would be a liar if I said I wasn't afraid. There was always fear in my makeup. [Speaking about the Battle for Hue, Vietnam, 1968]"
"I suspect I was suffering a kind of mental breakdown in a way,…I was actually basically nothing less than a kind of war junkie really."
"I was devastated by the sight of 900 children living in one camp in utter squalor at the point of death. I lost all interest in photographing soldiers in action. [Speaking about Biafra, 1959]"
"I will never believe my photography hasn't still got something to teach me."
"If I wasn?t in war, I was at home and unhappy."
"It was often at my own suggestion that I would go to these events. After all, if you were a picture editor and you were sending someone to a war, there's every likelihood that you'd be sending him to his death really."
"Like all my generation in London, I am a product of Hitler. I was born in the thirties and bombed in the forties."
"Occasionally I used colour – I can use it quite well if it comes to it. But I thought that black and white images in war were much more powerful."
"Photography for me is not looking, it‘s feeling. If you can‘t feel what you‘re looking at, then you‘re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures."
"Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures."
"So I had my own code of conduct [as a photojournalist] and I've kept that to this day. And it was about being a decent human being."
"There seemed to be an empty or vacant seat. I thought it had my name on it. But I never wanted to be described as a &quo;war photographer". [Speaking about the Vietnam War]"
"… I want you to look at my photographs. I don't want you to reject and say: "No, I can't do that. I can't look at those pictures. They are atrocity pictures." Of course, they are. But I want to become the voices of the people in those pictures."
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