Yesterday I attended a conversation at the 92nd Y between celebrated war photojournalist Don McCullin, now 80 years old, and Sebastian Junger (of Restrepo fame), at the occasion of the re-issue of the book of photographs Don McCullin by Aperture. McCullin is truly an inspirational figure who spoke movingly and powerfully of his childhood during the Blitz, his lack of formal education, the stroke of good luck that led to his career in photojournalism, the shame he felt when covering conflicts at not being able to do more for the people he photographed, especially since the war photographs that receive the most attention in the press are generally the ones that show people getting killed.
Some of the particularly arresting stories he shared included one about his interaction with the Christian Phalange in Lebanon and one about photographing a woman beating her chest when she saw her building had been completely bombed out - woman who died in another bomb explosion only moments after McCullin left the scene. He was very lucid about the experience war has on young soldiers and the difficulty in separating, within the diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a profoundly traumatic experience that happened during the war from the inability of young men who lived such an "exciting" tour of duty to face the return into ordinary, civilian life back home. Both he and Junger made the point that some of those men who led flamboyant lives during military duty may have led very obscure and uneventful lives without the war. In a way the war allowed them to realize themselves. The effect war has on soldiers is a complicated topic.
Here is the story behind McCullin becoming a photographer and selling his first picture, which I show at the left (photo credit: National Media Museum website): he had purchased a camera when he was in the mandatory service at someone's recommendation, although he had failed the test to become a photographer because he could not remember the theory due to his dyslexia, and when he went home this gang, the Guv'nors/Governors, wanted him to take a picture of them. There was a bombed out house in the neighborhood whose entire front was missing so one could see the interior on each floor, and he had each position himself at the edge of each of the rooms. In those days even gangsters wore suits, as you can see. The picture is available in bigger format here. McCullin said at the talk that he only took one negative, which seemed to amaze Junger. He also told the story of how he got (when he was photographing) picked up by the police who claimed there was a stolen camera in the neighborhood and required that he show them the receipt and escorted him home to that end. And he showed them the receipt and they suddenly became very nice but he did not have much respect for the police after that.
He also told stories about his time in war conflicts such as Vietnam, a photograph he didn't take when a bomber got murdered by a crowd in a very theatrical execution (if I understood correctly), his relationship to God (he lost his father young and so lost faith after that, but still when he came under heavy fire while he covered a conflict he could not help praying God for a second chance), his feeling of powerlessness when he went to an orphanage in Africa and 800 malnourished, dying children stared at him with hopeful eyes while there was nothing he could do for them besides taking photographs.
The event was a conversation between McCullin and Sebastian Junger, who spoke eloquently, asked excellent questions and truly listened to their answers to build upon them in follow-ups. I was familiar with Junger's work as a nonfiction writer but he truly impressed me as a speaker and interviewer. He absolutely was the right person to involve so that McCullin could share his life story in the most impactful manner. The event was accompanied by a slideshow of some of McCullin's pictures (most of war scenes and all in black-and-white dark/"dusky" printing, his signature style). Many of those were jaw-dropping in their sheer beauty and intensity. The man deserves to be a legend.
You can purchase the book here.