LONDON — “I’m not an artist,” the photographer Don McCullin insisted recently. It was an awkward statement, not least because Mr. McCullin was standing in the Tate Britain gallery in London, in the middle of a major retrospective of his work, which opens Tuesday and runs through May 6.
“I’ve been struggling against that word all my life,” Mr. McCullin, 83, said. “The American photographers all want to be called artists. I’m a photographer and I stand by it.”
Mr. McCullin started taking photographs in the 1950s in a working-class area of North London. He first shot his friends, who were members of the Guvnors, a local gang whose notoriety helped get Mr. McCullin’s pictures into The Observer newspaper. Within a decade, he was sent to cover violent conflict in Cyprus, and he has largely been unable to get away from battlefields ever since. In 2017, he went to Syria to photograph ancient temples damaged by the Islamic State.
Mr. McCullin said that he had no desire to glamorize war but that he could not escape what he had seen. “I feel sad my photos didn’t change anything,” he added. “As soon as one war was finished, another cranked up.”
He acknowledged that he did have one thing in common with great artists: emotion. “You can’t do these pictures without it,” he said. Giving a tour of the exhibition, he pointed out the photographs that were most important, and emotional, to him. Here are some edited excerpts from his explanations of the pictures.
“The Guvnors in Their Sunday Suits, Finsbury Park, London,” 1958
This is when I was groping my way into photography. It’s my first picture that got published.
I wasn’t thinking about anything when I took it. They said, “Get that camera of yours and take some pictures.” But it was the picture that set me on the road to photography. Thank God, otherwise I’d still be hanging out with them.
Having a tough background gave me empathy. It made me know violence, poverty, bigotry. This was my university.
“East Germans Looking Into West Berlin,” 1961
I was with my wife in Paris and I was looking over some guy’s shoulder, reading a newspaper, and saw this photograph of an East German soldier jumping into West Berlin with his helmet and Kalashnikov. And I said to my wife, “Would you mind if I went to Berlin?”
I went to East Berlin and got immediately chucked out. Four pictures — that’s all I got.
These people are East Germans looking into the West for relatives. Look at their faces: One woman’s laughing, almost. They did understand what was going on — I think they knew more than me — yet they’re making a Sunday afternoon out of it.
“The Cyprus Civil War, Limassol, Cyprus,” 1964
I went to The Observer one day and they said, “Would you consider going to cover the war in Cyprus?” It was the question I’d been waiting for. I knew this was my opportunity. It was like being a prize fighter, being offered my crack at the world title.
This one looks like a Hollywood still, a mobster film. This man’s far too dressed to be in combat. He’s actually got a tie on. He just ran out of this cinema and I pressed the button.
It was unreal. There were thousands of bullets winging through the air and I was running around like he’s running around. I was so excited by the firing.
“Starving 24-Year-Old Mother with Child, Biafra,” 1968
Biafra changed how I did photography. The rush went; it was the children.
You couldn’t miss the suffering there. I could have gone there with my eyes closed and taken these pictures. I was surrounded by it.
This woman here, she’s 24 and close to death. It’s almost a Madonna and child picture, in the wrong sense.
“U.S. Marines, the Citadel, Hue,” 1968
You wouldn’t get this today. Today you’re embedded with these people and that’s the end of it. Embedded means censorship from my point of view. They won’t let you go to the front and they don’t let you photograph wounded soldiers anymore.
After I took this picture, they brought him to me and I carried him on my shoulder away from the battle. He wrote a letter to his mother about it, and sent me a copy. I’ve got it at home.
“Dying Cambodian Paratrooper Hit by the Same Mortar Shell That Hit McCullin,” 1970
I was in a small town near Phnom Penh and it was the evening and we walked into an ambush. A mortar bomb dropped in front of the jeep and I got all the metal that came underneath. It got me in my legs and my crotch. And it killed the man who was in front of me. He got the whole lot in the stomach.
They put me on this truck to take me to hospital and I felt, “Why sit here doing nothing? Why not take pictures, take my mind off it?” He died after I took this.
“Homeless Men Sleeping While Standing, Whitechapel, London,” around 1970
This is from the best story I ever did, about the homeless in this country. It’s some men sleeping while walking. They’d have a five-minute nap then jump awake when they thought they were about to fall over. I wanted to show no human being should ever go through this.
A lot of people write to me, “I want to be a war photographer,” and it sickens me in a way. If I do get a chance to answer them I say, “O.K., if you want to be a war photographer you don’t have to get in a plane and go to somebody else’s country. There’s a lot of poverty and misery and suffering in your own.”
“Gangs of Boys Escaping CS Gas Fired by British Soldiers, Londonderry, Northern Ireland,” 1971
This was a Sunday afternoon and the British Army were firing tear gas into a neighborhood, gassing the people in their homes. The day I did this, I was gassed, then I got hit in the back by a rubber bullet.
Was I lucky to get these photos? Yes, and no. Lady Luck only appears now and again. She keeps you alive. But there’s more to it than luck. These pictures all have to be done to a 50th or 100th of a second.
“Young Christian Youth Celebrating the Death of a Young Palestinian Girl, Beirut,” 1976
They’re celebrating the death of this 16-year-old Palestinian girl in the rain. I was told to leave this area. They said, “If you don’t go, we’re going to kill you.” But as I was going, I heard this music and these boys were shouting, “Mister! Mister! Take a picture!” I thought, “Christ, I’ve got to.” I didn’t even take an exposure reading.
Am I haunted by all this? I think about it all the time. I don’t have any freedom from it.
“The Battlefields of the Somme, France,” 2000
I started taking landscapes in 1991. I just wanted to do something completely different.
Someone said, “You even make your landscapes look like war scenes.” It means there’s probably some darkness in me somewhere. There’s always been some bitterness in me really, because I lost my father when I was 13. That didn’t cheer me up. And I’ve always had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about privilege and money. This is my money: the love of photography. This is my reward.