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Don McCullin says ‘photojournalism is dead’ as he reflects on career

Veteran war photographer speaks about difficult relationship with his work capturing "other people's suffering".

By Charlotte Tobitt

Sir Don McCullin has revealed he feels “deeply uncomfortable” about his work and his reputation as one of the greatest living photographers and asked: “Did I do any good?”

The 88-year-old photographer also claimed “photojournalism is dead” as today’s editors are “slightly shying away from offending the public” with uncomfortable imagery.

McCullin was speaking about his career to Tina Brown at the Sir Harry Summit in London on Wednesday. He covered conflicts around the world including Chad, Uganda, Vietnam, Israel, Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland, initially for The Observer and then from 1966 for The Sunday Times under the editorship of Sir Harold Evans.

McCullin now particularly enjoys photographing the landscape near where he lives in Somerset, saying it “gives you back something, and it doesn’t cost anything, and you’re not stealing anything as I’ve done with my life. I’ve been stealing other people’s suffering with my camera. And it’s brought me a certain amount of recognition, which I feel deeply uncomfortable about.

“I have made mistakes… but this is a way of correcting my mistakes. I’m trying to give back something that you can actually look at without making you uncomfortable.”

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Don McCullin: ‘I don’t feel morally happy about my work’

McCullin was named by Press Gazette as one of the 40 most influential UK journalists of the modern era in 2005. His final trip to the frontline was six days in Syria in 2012 with Times journalist Anthony Loyd, having travelled to cover the Iraq war nine years before that.

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McCullin, who was knighted in the 2017 New Year honours list, said: “I don’t really want to be known for taking pictures of other people’s deaths and suffering. I’ve done it but I don’t feel morally happy about it. I went too far I think.”

Brown suggested that “we all feel that you bore witness, you brought it home and made us care”.

But McCullin responded: “It was a waste of time. Every time there was a war, there was another war waiting in the wings… I know that as one war is finishing, another is following. And so did I do any good, or did we do any good?”

Don McCullin and Tina Brown on stage at the Sir Harry Summit on 15 May 2024. Picture: Parsons Media
Don McCullin and Tina Brown on stage with one of his photos at the Sir Harry Summit on 15 May 2024. Picture: Parsons Media

McCullin, who was shot and badly injured while working in Cambodia and imprisoned in Uganda, also said: “I’m never going to be free of  conscience and I’m never going to be free of thinking, you know, why is it them and not me?”

Don McCullin: ‘Photojournalism is dead’

Brown asked McCullin if it is still possible for photojournalism to have the kind of impact that his did at The Sunday Times with its “glorious” layouts.

He responded: “I think photojournalism is dead, actually, because I’m so sick and tired and I think the editors of our newspapers today have an obligation to give us real news. They give us fantasy… we see fashion, we see food all the time. You know, there are some people in the world who can’t get a meal.”

He suggested the newspaper magazines primarily show celebrities like Mick Jagger or the Beckhams each weekend, adding: “I’m tired of that. I want news.”

McCullin went on: “I could go to Gaza with my eyes blindfolded and come away with extraordinary images,” praising journalists “risking their lives” to report there but suggesting their images are not being shown enough.

“We don’t want to see our newspapers covered in blood and guts every day of the week, but I would like to see a lot more information coming out and I think the editors are kind of slightly shying away from offending the public.”

McCullin has agreed to be a judge for the selection process of a new annual photojournalism fellowship announced by Brown on Wednesday with guidance and mentoring by Reuters and Canada’s Globe and Mail.

Gaza photographer: ‘I didn’t achieve anything’

McCullin’s views on the impact of photojournalism were similar to those shared earlier in the day by Palestinian photojournalist Motaz Azaiza, who questioned the impact his work from Gaza has had on the war with Israel.

He said: “It’s now 76 years of occupation and a lot of people before this war happened left their homes because of occupation and today, it is happening again in front of the whole world. 

“People used to complain that there was no media to report it but now that it’s happening and reaching millions of people, it’s the same, nobody does anything to stop the murdering of civilians.”

Azaiza added: “From one angle, I feel that I did something, but I have since discovered that I didn’t achieve anything… War can’t achieve anything, even the pictures can’t change anything.” 

Azaiza was named as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in April but said “it’s a fake because while I respect those people who fought to put my name on the list, they didn’t give me the opportunity to speak about the genocide happening in my home”.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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