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A Terrible Beauty

9/7/2017 • Vietnam Magazine

“I’m a photojournalist, or whatever you want to call me. But I don’t belong to the world of art.” So writes Don McCullin in Shaped by War, a chronicle of his four decades of war photography. McCullin was born in London in 1935, and in many ways his war-shadowed childhood groomed him for the job he would have, one that took him from war zone to war zone and ultimately propelled him into the ranks of the 20th century’s leading photojournalists. The war in Vietnam was influential in shaping McCullin, and his photos have influenced how millions have and will perceive the war. Indeed, many of McCullin’s images are icons of the Vietnam War, and despite the photographer’s claims to the contrary, much of his work does belong to the world of art. On the following pages, accompanied by quotes from McCullin, we present a selection of his images, a number of which are on exhibit until April 15 at London’s Imperial War Museum.

Facing national service in 1954, Don McCullin knew he didn’t want to be an infantryman, so he claimed to have worked in a film studio and asked that he be sent to a photographic unit. In 1955 he was assigned to a Royal Air Force (RAF) unit in Kenya during the Mau Mau Rebellion, processing aerial reconnaissance photos. He failed the RAF’s photography test while in Kenya, but he did buy his first camera and began taking pictures. Back in London in 1958, McCullin took photos of some of his neighborhood friends, and after his friends were involved in a deadly gang fight, those photos ran in the London Observer, launching his career. In 1961 he covered the building of the Berlin Wall and in 1964 the war in the Congo.

McCullin went to Vietnam for the Illustrated London News in 1965, the first of what would be 15 trips there.

“I thought black-and-white images in war were much more powerful,” McCullin wrote in Shaped by War. But since the London Sunday Times magazine was printed in color, its editors urged McCullin to take some color photos and he sometimes obliged. The black-and-white grittiness of the photographer’s most famous pictures seem somehow to evoke a truer reality than the real world’s spectrum of color. McCullin’s exquisitely composed color work, however, be it of Marines in the Citadel at Hue or desperate civilians fleeing for their lives in the 1972 Easter Offensive, is often equally stunning.

Don McCullin’s subjects often graced the Sunday Times’ cover, but in July 1970, McCullin himself was the cover story: “Cambodia: The Moment McCullin Was Hit.” Traveling with South Vietnamese troops in Cambodia in June, McCullin took the Sunday Times cover shot just moments before he suffered serious shrapnel wounds during a Khmer Rouge ambush. Then, even with morphine coursing through his veins, he managed to take more photos as he and others wounded were evacuated.

In 1975 he was back in Cambodia to cover the fall of Phnom Penh.

 

Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.

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