Don McCullin worked for The Sunday Times from 1969 to 1984, at a time where, under the editorship of Harold Evans, the newspaper was widely recognized as being at the cutting-edge of world journalism, with Don as its star photographer. During that period he covered wars and humanitarian disasters on virtually every continent: from the civil war in Cyprus, to the war in Vietnam, from the man-made famine in Biafra, to the plight of the homeless in the London of the swinging sixties.
He worked with top reporters and designers, and the prominence given to his photo essays coincided with one of the most remarkable periods in the history of photojournalism; creating iconic images that have stood the test of time – as evidenced by the fact that ten of his books of photographs are currently in print.
Don was one of only a few dozen journalists covering the civil war in Cyprus, his first big assignment in 1961. During the last war he covered, the Gulf War in 1991, he was one of two-thousand.
“Yet, we are getting a much less honest image.”…“It’s totally tailored, like getting a suit made in Saville Row.” “We now get nothing but abstraction from wars controlled by the American Army.”
Don knew his pictures could make a difference; therefore he risked his life on many occasions in order to:
“Break the hearts and spirits of secure people who could help”.
When he first went to Saigon, Don McCullin witnessed the public execution of a bomber. “Great stuff…” He overheard an excited journalist say to his cameraman, “Did you get it”? These words disturb him to this day and it’s this inability to deaden his humanity that makes his photographs speak to us in such a profound way. It is one of the reasons why he is such an important witness to our times.
There is a dimension to Don’s work that transcends ‘photo journalism’. The way he sees the world is very rare; his vision is distinctive and insightful even when trained on the supposedly mundane. The wounded people he photographs are not all on battlefields. Through Don’s eyes we come to understand that the thousand-yard stare of the shell-shocked American soldier in Vietnam is a cousin to the despair on the face of the destitute old lady in London’s Chapel Market. Like the visionary, William Blake, who saw the world around him with a hidden part of the spectrum, Don sees differently. Where most saw the filth-encrusted crazy Irishman in the street, Don saw the tormented face of an Old Testament prophet.
After the prolonged and deliberate shelling of a Lebanese insane asylum, an elderly inmate approached him. “How did this happen? Have the sane no conscience?” This is the central question that Don asks us; and through a series of filmed interviews, Don will tell the story of his life, from a childhood of poverty in 1930s London, to his involvement in some of the iconic conflicts, and important social causes, of the second half of the twentieth-century.
With extensive input from Sir Harold Evans, our film not only explores Don’s life and work, but also how the ethos of journalism changed during his career. Using the Sunday Times as an example, we compare the strictly ‘hands off’ approach of proprietors like Lord Thompson, who took pride in the fact that he did not want commercial considerations to censor his editors’ from printing what they wanted, to how the newspaper’s independent character changed once it was taken over by Rupert Murdoch, and the pursuit of advertising revenue became paramount, and with it, the inevitable obsessed with fashion, status and celebrity.