Photography

Digital Photography Is “A Totally Lying Experience” Says Legendary War Photographer Don McCullin

Don McCullin may now be 80-years old—an almost mythical name rather than the fearless photojournalist who recorded many of the most visceral wars and catastrophes in the last century—but his words still carry enormous weight.

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A Palestinian woman returning to the ruins of her house in Beirut in 1982.

As a former Observer and Sunday Times photographer, McCullin travelled far and wide across the world to major conflicts in places such as Vietnam and Cambodia, Beirut and Iraq, Biafra and the Belgian Congo, Lebanon and Afghanistan, and El Salvador.

Speaking at the Photo London art fair, where he was named master of photography, he claimed that photography has become dominated by digital, turning into “a totally lying experience” that couldn’t be trusted anymore.

This doesn’t mean that McCullin believes digital cameras aren’t useful; he uses them himself “because of the pressure, people want things ‘now’”, and actually thinks digital cameras are very powerful. In fact, it’s their immense capability which has in his words, “hijacked” photography.

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“The Guv’nors” was McCullin’s first published photograph, 1958.

“The digital cameras are extraordinary. I have a dark room and I still process film but digital photography can be a totally lying kind of experience, you can move anything you want … the whole thing can’t be trusted really.”
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A US Marine shot in the thigh by a sniper, Hue, Vietnam, 1968

McCullin, as befitting someone who mostly shot in black and white, especially despises the excessive tinkering of colour in many digital images:

“These extraordinary pictures in colour, it looks as if someone has tried to redesign a chocolate box. In the end, it doesn’t work, it’s hideous.”
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Suspected pro-Lumumba freedom fighters tormented by Congolese soldiers before execution, Stanleyville, Congo, 1964.

He is particularly keen to distinguish between being a photographer or photojournalist, and being an artist. In a discussion at the art fair with the artist and film-maker Isaac Julien, he said:

“I’ve always thought photography is not so much of an art form but a way of communicating and passing on information.”
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Bogside in Derry, Northern Ireland in 1971.

“Because I photograph people in peril, people in pain, people being executed in front of me, I find it very difficult to get my head around the art narrative of photography. I’ve managed to push it back and retain my place by just accepting that I’m a photographer.”
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Maybe this is why McCullin loves film.

Behind the lens

Despite McCullin’s hatred of digital manipulation, it is widely accepted that darkroom editing has been common for decades. Digital simply made it easier and more prevalent.

That’s also not to mention that there are other ways to influence the perspective of your audience.

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A dead North Vietnamese soldier, Tet Offensive, Hue, February 1968.

This photograph is one of McCullin’s most famous images—and one of his most controversial.

During the Vietnam War, McCullin saw two American soldiers looting a booby-trapped body, and felt angered by the lack of humanity from men supposedly on the same “side” as he was.

While indeed it was a war, and the deceased soldier, which the soldiers referred to as a “dead gook”, was the enemy, McCullin loathed his allies for descrating the body of what he saw as simply, “an innocent young man fighting for national reunification”.

So for the first and last time, McCullin rearranged the fallen photos of the soldier’s family to remind viewers back home that enemy soldiers weren’t just “dead gooks”—they were people with mothers and sisters, just like everyone else.

While this was clearly a huge violation of journalistic duty, McCullin was not apologetic and did not attempt to keep it a secret.

“That’s the only time, truthfully, I’ve ever done that. Many people ask me about that photograph. I have no shame in saying: ‘Yes, I did it.’ He couldn’t speak. I spoke for him.”

So ultimately, is it fair for him claim digital is an unrealistic experience when it has always been possible to manipulate the emotions of viewers in both the darkroom and the actual battlefield?

Leave your thoughts in the comments below.