Sir Don McCullin

Selecting exhibitors for The Marshwood Arts Awards and John Hubbard Prize, Sir Don McCullin spoke to Fergus Byrne

Speaking to journalist and author Sophy Roberts for her powerful podcast series Gone to Timbuktu, Don McCullen said that one of the best sets of pictures he ever did wasn’t Vietnam, Cambodia, the Israeli six-day war or any of the many conflicts that he photographed, it was the homeless men he found in Spittlefields in 1970. They had been cast out of institutions without their medicine during a time when the government were trying to ‘slim down’ social health. These were people that represented what he called ‘great human tragedy’ – something that few other photographers have witnessed in the way that he has.

Without doubt one of the world’s greatest living photographers, Don McCullin is known for capturing some of the most iconic images of the horrors and tragedy of human conflict. Through his eyes we have seen photographs that are what Sophy described in her podcast as ‘profoundly empathetic’ from a man who is ‘always trying to speak a truth’.

A new biopic based on his life, to be directed by Angelina Jolie is to begin filming soon and it is sure to be filled with many of the extraordinary stories that have trickled out over his many years ‘following and chasing wars’. There have been numerous occasions where Don has been lucky to escape with his life. Whether being ambushed and blown across the road in Vietnam; saved by a camera taking a bullet in Cambodia or imprisoned by despots in Uganda, he has often been likened to having the nine lives of a cat. But those lives have left a mark. He has printed thousands of the images that he has taken over the years and says that although he loves being in his darkroom, it is a ‘haunted place’.

However, living in Somerset he has fallen in love with the landscape and the Somerset Levels. He cites his photography of the local area as a healing factor for his warring memories. As well as landscapes he is fascinated by still lifes. He has spent a great deal of time in museums looking at the Flemish and the Dutch masters and professes admiration for the great draughtsmen Leonardo and Michelangelo. ‘For me, looking at them is like having a transfusion’ he says. ‘My still lifes provide an even deeper form of escapism than my landscapes.’ Whilst scrambling around battlefields he would dream of ‘misty England.’

Whether photographing, printing or travelling Don hasn’t had much time to judge photography and is looking forward to seeing the work that other photographers submit for The Marshwood Arts Awards. He says he will be looking for impact first and foremost. ‘Photographs that stand out in front of others’ he says. ‘The first thing I look for in a photograph is whether it speaks to you, whether it has the right composition, whether it has the right impact and whether it has the right lighting.’
A major retrospective of his work is opening in October at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome. From his first documentary works in the London of the 1950s, through wars in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Far East, to his recent projects on the legacies of the Roman Empire around the Mediterranean it will be a highlight in the world of photography.

But in the meantime he is thinking of the work that photographers submit for the Marshwood Awards and with typical and endearing humility he hopes other photographers will be happy with his choices. ‘If they accept my decision at the end of the day, they at least know that it’s done by another photographer who’s been around a long time. And whatever I choose, at least photographers will know that they will get a fair hearing.’

Three artists/makers are chosen from each category to exhibit in a mixed exhibition at the Allsop Gallery in Bridport, from 14 October – 4 November 2023. Entry deadline – August 18, 2023. To submit an entry visit