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‘I started out in photography accidently. A policeman came to a stop at the end of my street and a guy knifed him. That’s why I became a photographer. I photographed the gangs that I went to school with. I didn’t choose photography. It seemed to choose me but I’ve never been loyal to risking my life for the years.’

Early Work

Don McCollin grew up in Finsbury Park in North London. At the time, the neighbourhood was still in partial ruins after being bombed in the Second World War. McCollin remembers a childhood of poverty, bigotry and violence. His father died of chronic illness when McCollin was fourteen. His father’s death affected him deeply and he was forced to leave school in order to work and support his family.  

McCollin’s life was transformed by the first camera, a Rollerxard bought while on national service with the RAF in north Africa. Much of his early work was made in and around the streets in which he grew up. These scenes included members of a north London gang known as ‘The Guv’nors’ posing in the shell of a bombed -out house. The gang was indirectly implicated in the murder of a policeman and as a result McCullin’s photographs were picked up by the press. It was these photographs which first alerted magazine editers to his intuitive photographs style, securing him his first contract.

From the start, his photographs were unflinching but full of curiosity and empathy for his subjects. Later, when asked why he chose to photograph those who have been harshly treated in life, he said, ‘It’s because a case of ‘There but for the grace of God go I”. It’s a case of “I’ve been there”’.

Berlin

McCullin travelled to Germany in 1961 to photograph the building of the Berlin Wall. After the Second World War. Europe had become a divided continent formed of capitalist countries in the west and communist regimes in the east. The economic situation was significantly poorer in Eastern Europe, with food and housing in short supply, as well as restrictions on individual freedoms, the US, France and Russia, formed West Germany. The Soviet-controlled zone became East Germany. The capital city, Berlin, located within the Soviet zone, was similarly divided.

When the border between East and West Germany was officially closed in 1952, it was still possible for some to cross over in Berlin. In 1963 McCullin saw a photograph of an East German border guard jumping over the border to West Berlin. He felt compelled to document the construction of the wall designed to prevent further detections. Without being sent by a newspaper, McCullin was left to pay his own travel costs. The images he took capture the uneasy coexistence of military occupation and everyday life. McCul;lin’s photography won him a British Press Award and a permanent contract with the Observer.

Cyprus

Cyprus left me with the beginnings of a self-knowledge, and the beginning of what they call empathy. I found I was able to share other people’s emotional experiences, live with them silently, transmit them.

In 1964 the Observer Magazine sent McCullin to Cyprus to over the ongoing violence on the island. It was his first international assignment and the photographs he took were his first images of conflict. His pictures documented a period of violent political conflict. His pictures documented a period of violent political conflict between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. There was a long history of both Greek and Turkish rule over the island which had resulted in warfare between the two groups. The conflict became known as a civil war, lasting from 1955 until 1964. Many atrocities were committed and McCullin put himself at personal risk while taking these photographs. He credits the experience as giving him the beginnings of self-knowledge as a photographer, as well as the powerful sense of empathy for which his images are known.

Republic of Congo

‘I first went to the Congo in 1964…

The fighting I encouraged was vicious and cruel, and on the whole, evil men prevailed.’

Working as a freelance photojournalist for the German magazine Quick, in 1964 McCullin travelled to the Republic of Congo, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was tasked with photographing the rebellion which followed the murder of the country’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba was murdered on 17 January 1961, allegedly with help from the US and Belgium. The assassination took place during a period of unrest following independence from Belgium colonial rule in 1960. The country had fallen under four separate government by Lumumba’s supporters in Stanleyville (later Kisangani), and separatist regimes in the mineral-rich areas of Katanga and South Kasai. Journalists had been banned from Stanleyville, where rebellions were taking place, so McCullin disguised himself as a mercenary working for the Congolese government Coups and seizures of power followed, resulting in military dictator Mobutu Sese Seko leading the country from 1965 until 1997.

Biafra

‘It was beyond war, it was beyond journalism, it was beyond photography, but not beyond politics…We cannot, must not be allowed to forget the appalling things we are all capable of doing to our fellow human beings.’

McCullin travelled to Biafra in 1968 to photograph the humanitarian caused by the Biafran War (now known as the Nigerian Civil War).

His work was published in the Sunday Times Magazine. The War was fought between the government of Nigeria and the separated state of Biafra. It was a result of the deep-rooted political, ethic and religios tensions in Nigeria. Military coups and control of oil production also played a role. A blockade set up by the Nigerian government meant that food and medical supplies were restricted. Causing widespread famine and disease. The federal Nigerian army has also been accused of the deliberate bombing of civilians, mass slaughter with machine guns and rape.

Reports of starvation and genocide led other countries to call for aid for the people of Biafra. McCullins images and those by other photographers did much to raise awareness of the situation. However, in December 1969 with increased support from the British Government, Nigerian federal forces launched their final offensive. The Balran state surrendered and was reintegrated into Nigeria in 1970. In three years of war, between 500,000 and 2 million civilians died, many of them children.

Vietnam

“Seeing, looking at what others cannot bear to see, is what my life as a war reporter is all about.”

McCullin visited Vietnam sixteen times over the course of his career. Working on assignment for the Sunday Times he covered both the Vietnam War (also known as the American War) and its aftermath. The war was a protracted conflict running from 1954 to 1975. It pitted the communist government of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, their allies from South Vietnam, against the government of South Vietnam, including the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and its principle ally the US. The Viet Cong fought a guerrilla war against anti-communist forces in the region, while the North Vietnamese Army engaged in more conventional warfare. The US and South Vietnamese forces relied on aerial warfare, including the use of napalm, which resulted in many civilians’ deaths. It is estimated that between 1 and 3.8 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were killed during the conflict. 58,220 US service members also died.

The majority of the works in this room were taken in 1968 when McCullin spent eleven days with American hoops. Many of the American soldiers were young inexperienced and ill-prepared for the horrors they encountered. Their experiences in Vietnam damaged the reputation of the US. McCullin took some of the best-known images as the best men.    

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