THE ONLY TIME legendary wartime photojournalist Don McCullin lost his nerve was in Cambodia in 1970. Caught in the relentless crossfire that was decimating the soldiers around him, he finally realized that “a negative is not worth my life.” He discovered that the Nikon next to his head had taken a bullet, while he’d zigzagged back to camp. Yet despite suffering something like a nervous breakdown that day, McCullin rallied and went on to cover yet more of the headline conflicts of the last third of the 20th century. By some charmed combination of guts, fate, resilience, and foolhardiness, McCullin survived to tell a half century’s harrowing tales of being in fighting in Cyprus, Beirut, Congo (“its awful, dark Conradian period”), in wars in Vietnam, Biafra, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and the civil unrest in Northern Ireland; of being the only photographer in Jerusalem during The 6-Day War, back for the Yom Kippur War, the first and second Iraq Wars, and other theaters of manmade horror.
Each destination yielded indelible black-and-white images that have informed minds and seared consciences around the world — as well as being annotations in McCullin’s own private hell. For him, there has always been an inner debate about the posture of voyeur in the face of human suffering and violent death. At times he was compelled to put down his camera and assist in some small way as best he could. (In Cyprus, he carried a frail old woman to safety, in Vietnam a wounded GI.) At other times he felt considerably less resolve for those he encountered. He promptly left Afghanistan upon discovering that the Mujahideen were stealing his gear. “I told the writer I didn’t want to die with that kind of dishonorable thieves.”
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