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Don McCullin

A great war photographer reveals his favourite places, from Cannes to Calcutta

Samantha Weinberg | January/February 2016

BEACH PELION, GREECE
This is below the house we go to each summer. There are rarely many people, just the odd yacht blocking the view, which annoys me. Our son Max learnt to swim here when he was three. I sit in the sun and eat wonderful fruit. I don’t take pictures; I’m very relaxed about family photos, which is shameful. All my life I’ve avoided Greece and Italy – the confrontations in the world meant that I never went there – and they’ve turned out to be the places I love best.

JOURNEY IRIAN JAYA (NOW WEST PAPUA)
That was a journey to the most primitive place on Earth. I went with Mark Shand and Harry Fane. We arrived in Agats, where Nelson Rockefeller’s son disappeared – either drowned or cannibalised. We were in dugout canoes, and when our engines packed up, we were never more afraid in our lives. We had one policeman with us who shot a caiman and the boys with us smoked it and ate it. I didn’t. I got a fistful of amazing pictures from the trip. I was fascinated by the people. The men all wear things called kotekas, penis gourds. I tried to get an explanation; they said it was vanity.

BUILDING TEMPLE OF BEL, PALMYRA, SYRIA
I went there six years ago, long before IS’s assault on antiquities, and met the curator who was decapitated recently. I’d only been there ten minutes when I fell over and broke my rib. I somehow found my way to hospital. When I woke up, there were Syrian police at the foot of my bed, wanting to know if I’d been attacked. I discharged myself in a panic. I’d paid my way and wanted to make it worth it. I photographed as much of the temple as I could. It is – was – the most magical place, one of the great archaeological sites, spread out with a 13th-century citadel looking down on it. I think they’ve been trying to destroy that as well. I think about it all the time.

HOTEL HOTEL DU CAP
Years ago, Olympus organised a weekend here in Cannes for all sorts of big photographers. At the end, they opened a door and said help yourself. There were cameras, wall to wall. I wandered down to Eden Roc, looked over a wall and saw all these topless women, which was a shock for a north-London boy. At the hotel everything was at your beck and call. I wasn’t accustomed to it. I was afraid of comfort; I thought it might steal away my discipline. My work depicts suffering. I enjoy the thought of comfort now, though it makes me feel a bit two-faced. I want to be true to myself. It’s a tough place, truth.

VIEW FROM HADRIAN’S WALL, ENGLAND
I go in winter in blizzards. When you’re standing on the wall, which you’re not strictly allowed to do, it’s incredibly romantic and melodramatic. I feel as if I’m in history, as I do at home in Somerset at the iron-age forts. I like to imagine what it must have been like to be a Roman soldier. I was there last year and it was incredibly cold – I was wearing long johns. I walked along the top, around the bend, then took this picture. I’ve just had it made into a platinum print – it’s one of the most beautiful scenes.

WORK OF ART “GASSED” BY JOHN SINGER SARGENT
I think it’s the most moving, symbolic tragedy – these young men are destined to live in darkness. Every human being wants to live and see daylight and beauty. Of all the injuries, I find blindness possibly the most tragic. I see blind people in the street and I can’t look at them – I feel so shabby. This picture has a slight modernistic, photographic look about it. Many of Sargent’s paintings were of women in beautiful gowns with pearl necklaces. I suppose he felt moved to show you the other side of his talent. But for me, it’s uncomfortable to look at.

CITY CALCUTTA
I once saw an old sadhu lying dead on a bridge – everyone was passing him as if it was normal. In a sense it was. This is a place of drama and turmoil and survival, but at the same time it still reeks of the early days of the East India Company. I went for the first time in the 1960s with Eric Newby. We stayed in the Great Eastern Hotel and as we went in, Eric said: “I can guarantee the first thing you see on the menu will be brown Windsor soup.” He was absolutely right. There was also a taxidermist’s where you could have your trophies stuffed. I did a book about India many years ago and stayed in Calcutta for weeks. There was this place called the Park Cemetery that was full of tragic tombs of children. India is still my great passion – I could go there blindfolded and still take great pictures.

 

Don McCullin was talking to Samantha Weinberg. A retrospective of his work is at Hauser & Wirth, Bruton, until Jan 31st. Unreasonable Behaviour: The Updated Biography is published by Jonathan Cape 

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