LONDON (Reuters) - From the battles of the Vietnam War to starving African villages and the destitute streets of London, photographer Don McCullin has documented violence, suffering and deprivation for more than half a century.His pictures brought home to the general public the agony of people and places near and far. Now aged 83 and knighted by Queen Elizabeth, he is haunted by what he has witnessed and prefers to train his lens on the landscapes of rural Somerset.
“Looking at what others cannot bear to see is my life as a war photographer,” he said about a retrospective of his work that opened on Tuesday at the Tate Britain in London and features more than 250 black-and-white photographs.
In a caption to a series showing stick-thin, famished children during the Biafran War, he said: “It was beyond war, it was beyond journalism, it was beyond photography, but not beyond politics.”
“We cannot, must not be allowed to forget the appalling things we are capable of doing to our fellow human beings.”
Empathy is a hallmark of McCullin’s work. His pictures show mangled corpses but also grieving families and people suffering hardship yet trying to live with dignity.
Although his most celebrated pictures come from wars in Cyprus, Lebanon, Vietnam, Cambodia, Congo and elsewhere, the exhibition features many portraits of the deprived and neglected people of Britain.
Those of homeless people in East London in the 1970s before it became gentrified and bleak scenes of post-industrial northern England have a contemporary resonance in the age of austerity. He would like to be remembered for these as much as his conflict photographs.
“These are ‘social wars’ that are worthwhile. I don’t want to encourage people to think that photography is only necessary through the tragedy of war,” he said.
As Brexit looms, pictures of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, with housewives and teenage boys facing off against British soldiers, are a sobering reminder of a conflict that still lurks beneath the surface.
McCullin grew up in a poor household in north London and lost his father at an early age - experiences that perhaps instilled his sense of compassion.
His first break came with pictures of a street gang known as the Guvnors, which the Observer picked up. He then went to Berlin just as the Wall was being erected.
His first war was in Cyprus in 1964 as Greek and Turkish Cypriots fought each other, and his photographs of a village massacre still shock.
Cyprus was where he found is talent for empathy, he says. “I found I was able to share other people’s emotional experiences, live with them, silently transit them.”
An exhibition highlight is the photograph of the shell-shocked U.S. Marine during the Battle of Hue in 1968, immobile, staring and gripping his rifle. Other pictures capture the sheer exhaustion of Marines fighting in the old citadel.
Later in his career, McCullin set out on an extended project to photograph the ancient ruins of North Africa and the Middle East, including Baalbek in Lebanon and Palmyra in Syria.
He says he looked in awe at the monuments: “Then it dawned on me how they were achieved. Through cruelty. Through wickedness and slavery.”
His landscapes of the British countryside were also intended to soothe the soul. But the dark, brooding images of flooded fields and bare trees still have a menacing look to them, as if violence is never far away.
Reporting by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Robin Pomeroy