I saw terrible things

Don McCullin, in Africa, looks for survivors

Originally published in The Financial Times

It was 2000. Don McCullin was feeling restless, shooting landscapes at home in Somerset. “I thought, ‘What is the purpose of my life?’” he recalls.

So he phoned a charity he had long respected, Christian Aid, and asked for a meeting. “We were amazed,” remembers the charity’s Africa expert, Judith Melby. “It’s really extraordinary to have a photographer like Don McCullin offering to work with us like this.”

They met, and discussed possible projects, eventually hitting on the neglected issue of Aids in sub-Saharan Africa. Some 12 million children there have been orphaned by the disease and swathes of the adult population are disappearing with dire long-term consequences: more teachers die in Zambia each year than graduate from training courses. Without parents and teachers, what will happen to those orphan children – and to the society they grow into?

Christian Aid promised to use its extensive network of local NGO affiliates in Zambia, Botswana and South Africa to help McCullin find the people he needed to photograph. Soon after, McCullin secured $20,000 from the Kaiser Foundation to fund the trip. And off he went, with Melby, to shoot a set of haunting portraits that would subsequently be shown in a London gallery and tour for two years – including a month in the lobby at the United Nations in New York.

Now McCullin has gone back, to photograph anyone still living whom he met on that first trip. Once again Christian Aid was keen to work with him, hoping the second trip would show up distinct differences between Aids sufferers who were given anti-retroviral medication and those who were not. (The drugs are free in South Africa but prohibitively costly in Zambia.) The new images form a second exhibition, Life Interrupted, which opens next week in London.

“We knew that people would have died. But we wanted to find the survivors and their offspring,” he explains, flicking through the catalogue for the first exhibition in his sitting room in Somerset. “She’s dead,” he says, pointing to one Zambian woman pictured. “And she’s dead. And him. This woman’s dead. They are both dead. But we did find this [South African] woman…”

He remembers clearly his expeditions with volunteers, many of them HIV positive. “We walked in single file as they sang ‘We are walking with Jee-sas…’ I was at the back of this conga line as we went round the homes of the people they called clients. And I thought that if I was one of those people dying on some cement floor and I heard these people coming – I would feel good.”

McCullin took with him beautiful prints of the people he’d previously photographed, to present to survivors. One boy, he recalls, took a picture showing his dead mother round to the back of their shack and burst into tears. And as the tough war-photographer remembers this, his eyes moisten too.

McCullin was born in 1935 to a working class family in north London. After National Service he joined The Observer, and swiftly gained a reputation for gritty reportage and for photographing war in Cyprus, Vietnam, Congo, Lebanon and elsewhere. “I saw terrible things,” he recalls. “A lot of dead bodies. Men executed in front of me, pleading and crying.”

He also gave witness to moments of exquisite tenderness, such as the tears of one soldier for another’s death. “A black man crying for the death of a white man,” he says, remembering one image. “It’s beautiful. You don’t want to see it but it’s amazing.”

When working in war zones McCullin could not, he feels, be accused of “intruding” on his subjects because his own life was in danger too. Photographing Aids sufferers as they die is different. So how did he approach those encounters in Africa?

“It’s not about blending in – I can’t blend in because I’m a foreigner and I’m white. But you can only be accepted if people want to accept you, and they’ll never do that if you look down on them. You have to enter [the shacks] with an innocent expression, as if you have not noticed the stench – the smells coming from the throat of somebody who is dying. But it’s not about being insincere. You can’t just go into people’s homes and pretend you are moved.”

One portrait from the first trip shows an orphan boy, in his early teens, photographed at a cemetery with tears rolling down his face. How did McCullin negotiate that image? “I just looked at him,” he says. McCullin directs a sympathetic gaze across the sofa, as if the boy were here in his sitting room. “Then I lifted up the camera” – he mimes, empty-handed – “and carried on looking at him with the other eye. I took one shot. Then I went over and put my hand on his arm.”

McCullin was 13 when his own father died, so he felt a particular affinity with that boy, he says.

A charge often leveled at photographers is that their work is immoral: instead of helping people in trouble they just take pictures. McCullin considers it a matter of honour that his subjects gaze at the camera with acceptance. “You can see that they have given me permission.” In Zambia, he adds, he did lose a great photo because he stopped to help. A sick woman’s carer told him they could not afford the fare to take her to the hospice, so he arranged transport himself. “I was standing at the back of the truck, away from my cameras, helping to open it up. And then I saw the carer carrying the other woman on her shoulders. I thought, ‘Oh, shit – that would have been the best picture of the lot.” Only a photographer confident in his reputation would make such an admission.

McCullin has lived in Somerset for 21 years. He rarely allows visitors – nor even his wife and young son – to enter his darkroom but makes an exception for me. One wall is stained by rainwater flooding through the roof; another bears an accumulation of spiders’ webs dense as candy floss. It doesn’t seem to bother him: he routinely spends eight hours a day in here, popping out only briefly to fetch cups of tea.

In his nearby office, he keeps a sizeable collection of photographic books, and flicking through them he speaks with lively warmth of the individuals whose work has inspired him: not only the famous names but also many anonymous photographers. One he speaks of particularly fondly is the great Czech Josef Sudek, who lost an arm at war and afterwards had to load film with his teeth.

To Sudek, for obvious reasons, the advent of digital photography might have been welcome, but McCullin is unhappy to see the decline of old-fashioned negatives and prints. Watching him flick through a pile of his best-known images, on paper like stiff satin that costs £3 a sheet, it’s easy to share his gloom.

But like many gifted craftsmen, McCullin rejects the idea that what he does is “art”. It’s an admirably unpretentious stance, if not one he’s able to sustain without some inconsistency: McCullin himself notes at one point that the Old Masters took suffering as their subject, as he does; and later acknowledges that his Aids photos are shortly to be shown in an art gallery.

Some people may disapprove of that – accuse McCullin, Christian Aid and the gallery of fetishising real suffering – but he points out that there are not many other places to see these images.

“People don’t really want to see this kind of reality. No magazine editor would have sent me to Africa because these images are a turn off. So it comes down to the old art gallery. If people ask how we justify that – well, it’s the last alternative to nothing at all.”

1312 words. First published 19 November 04. © The Financial Times