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Don McCullin: Celebrated War Photographer On The Value Of His Craft

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Don McCullin is one of the most-celebrated living war photographers, having covered conflicts from Iraq to Vietnam, from Belfast to Lebanon. Yet despite spending countless decades covering revolutions, famines, wars and poverty, the 76-year-old is not sure if war photography has achieved that much.

How do you judge if you’ve done a good job?
I have judged my achievements and the fact is they brought very little. Every year there is another war, as there is this year with the Arab Spring, costing hundreds and hundreds of lives. Look at Syria - only on the weekend President Assad issued a warning that if you meddle with us, there'll be Armageddon. What good are all these war reportings? What have they achieved? Nothing.

But it is important to document these things, to bear witness?
It can be another leaf of history, but they don't change anything. Don't expect change, just because you've recorded it.

The Work Of Don McCullin - War Photographer
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What about influencing 'hearts and minds'?
Some people react, but what can they do about it? It's about governments. They have the power to change, not the man in the street. I came to realise this 20 years ago. Each year there are new wars, new famines, new tragedies. You can't blame my pessimism, can you?

Do you not see the value of it any more?
I don't, to be honest. It might seem a rather tragic statement from someone who spent so long doing it. I also take pictures of people living in poverty here [UK], people living in shop doorways. There is value in that. With our society we can change the quality of our existence. We can change poverty here and slum housing, but not getting involved on the other side of the globe in cultures with different beliefs.

How has the job changed?
The eighties was a time of change, with a serious profitability drive. I was at The Sunday Times and I left because they made it plain that the magazine was going to be a money-spinner. I was basically forced out and into the wilderness for a while. The advertising boys didn't want adverts next to dying children and they won.

It's also difficult these days when you're embedded with an army because they try to corral you all the time. It started in Iraq. They don't want you running all over the battlefield, seeing whatever you want to see. They have an agenda; they suffocate your ambitions. They don't want you getting hurt, but they also don't want pictures of dead American soldiers.

How does people taking pictures with mobile phones, filming and publishing their own images affect your profession?
I'd like to know why there was no press around when they captured Gaddafi. I can't figure out why it was only the murderers with the mobile phones there. The press was probably around but being held back. I haven't seen one powerful picture come out of Libya, not one. When you see those pictures, the quality is so bad.

Though from a shock perspective, that footage of Gaddafi dying was just as potent, even if it was badly shot?
It was out of focus, in the heat of the frenzy prior to his death, but yes, it was almost like a Van Gogh. You could see the terror in his face even in that poor reproduction.

Does mainstream media have to keep up with graphic pictures, such as Gaddafi's final moments, on the internet?
Publications aren't that interested in keeping up on that front because the celebrity agenda is where the money is. They are all just happy to run those mobile phone pictures of Gaddafi. The media world has grown so much. It needs to be fed, fed, fed, with an almost obnoxious demand for more tragedy, more celebrity, more horror.

McCullin's work is currently on show at three exhibitions in London - Tate Britain, The Imperial War Museum, and The Hamilton Gallery.