Don McCullin during Q&A with Northern Lights Ambassadors in the Starr Auditorium, Tate Modern

Don McCullin speaking in the Starr Auditorium, Tate Modern
Photo © Tate, 2014

Don McCullin, 80 years old today, is widely recognised as one of the most important photographers of our time. His work documenting conflict and human suffering around the world during the latter half of the 20th century brought a profound and disturbing style of photojournalism to a global audience. Some of his images, such as Shell-Shocked US Marine, Battle of Hue 1968, have become iconic representations of the devastating effect of war on individuals, families and communities.

In 2014, a group of 39 works, including images from Cyprus, Vietnam, Congo and Northern Ireland joined the ARTIST ROOMS collection. The collection includes a photograph of a woman grieving for her murdered husband in the Cyprus Civil War which won the World Press Photo of the Year prize in 1964 when McCullin was aged just 29. ARTIST ROOMS On Tour brought this collection to the Shetland Islands to be exhibited at the Shetland Museum & Archives in Lerwick and Bonhoga Gallery, Weisdale. A group of young people, calling themselves the Northern Lights Ambassadors, travelled to Tate Modern in London to see McCullin’s work in the ‘Conflict, Time, Photography’ exhibition and to meet the man himself for a private Q&A session.

McCullin spent several hours talking through his experiences with the group and answering questions before critiquing the work produced by the group and offering invaluable advice. He spoke in detail about being amongst the grief and hardship of families and how he balanced bravery and respect in his role as a young outsider documenting events such as those depicted in The Murder of a Turkish Shepherd, Cyprus Civil War 1965.

McCullin told of how his career in photography almost didn’t happen when he sold the camera he had left the Air Force with. “I put the camera in a pawn shop because I wanted to buy a motorbike.” His mother retrieved the camera by paying £5 and, from there; he claims he “stumbled into photography purely by accident”.

Advising the young people on their potential to be a photographer, he told them “I want all of you to have the opportunity of knowing that you don’t have to be a great academic scholar to be a photographer. It’s your eyes. Your eyes are the key to photography.”

Speaking about the emotional and poetry involved in his work, he said “It’s not about photography really, photography. It goes far beyond in layers of different horizons. You are motivated by emotion.”

Highlights of the discussion are in the video below. See more of Don McCullin’s work here.

Read more here:: ARTIST ROOMS blog: Don McCullin's advice to young creative people