Heroes & Mentors: Don McCullin and Eugene Richards

© Eugene Richards/Reportage By Getty Images
A photo from Richards's book Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue. A one-year-old child screams and cries while her mother (a former nurse) smokes crack, March 1990, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

For many photographers, conversations with other photographers—be they heroes, mentors or friends—are an important part of their professional lives. They critique and inspire each other creatively; share information about technique and craft; debate the future and rehash the past; commiserate about challenges, perhaps argue; and they learn.

We asked a handful of photographers whom they would like to meet and talk with. We wanted to let PDN readers listen in on these conversations between some of the most influential people in photography, whose work spans generations and genres. We think these exchanges offer insights into the past, present, and future of photography.

Don McCullin’s coverage of conflicts in Cyprus, Biafra, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon and Northern Ireland has been published around the world and in his 1973 book, Is Anyone Taking Any Notice? The Winner of the Warsaw Gold Medal and the World Press Photographer Award, he was awarded the ICP Cornell Capa Award in 2006. In 2010, the Imperial War Museum in Manchester, UK, mounted “Shaped By War,” the largest retrospective of McCullin’s war work. McCullin, who is represented by Contact Press Images, has lived and photographed in Somerset, England, since the 1980s.

Eugene Richards has won a Guggenheim Fellowship, the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Award, the Leica Medal of Excellence, two Olivier Rebbot Awards from the Overseas Press Club, the Robert F. Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Journalism Award for coverage of the disadvantaged, the ICP Infinity Award for Photojournalism and other awards. Represented by Reportage by Getty Images, he has published over a dozen books, including Few Comforts or Surprises: The Arkansas Delta (1973); Dorchester Days (1978; republished 2000); Below the Line: Living Poor in America (1987); Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue (1994); The Fat Baby (2004), which won Best Book of the Year from Pictures of the Year International; and War Is Personal (2010).

Their conversation took place in New York City in January, the day after the opening for Richards’s exhibition “War is Personal” at 401 Projects. You can hear an excerpt from their conversation at
"Don McCullin and Eugene Richards on Photography's Personal Cost (Audio)."

Eugene Richards: I remember meeting you in Beirut [in 1982]. You probably don’t remember but you gave me some advice that I badly needed. I was so lost. I’d never been out of the country.
Don McCullin: A lot of people come up to me and say, “I remember you, you were very nice to me when I turned up.” In the early days of my life, particularly in Vietnam, people weren’t very nice to me. They thought it was up to you to find your own battle. They never extended the hand of friendship so I thought, when you can help other people, why not do it?

I think we met long before we met because we looked at each other’s work.

I look back on [your] work as having probably the most sensitive approach to the subject matter. I thought: This bloke really knows how to be in the presence of these people suffering.

Richards: When I first saw [your] work, I looked at the pictures and they embarrassed me. I looked at the pictures of the bare-breasted woman with the starving kid or the little boy with albinism [in Biafra], or in later times the dead woman and the people playing music over her. It’s what war is: It’s embarrassing, the fact that through all these millennia we’re still doing all this awful shit to each other. It’s a disgrace, and it’s inhuman and it’s ungodly.

Most photographers I see now are working with form or excitement. I’m very rarely embarrassed by war photos. Does that make any sense?
McCullin: I don’t do it any more. I don’t know when the day will come when Eugene will say, “I can’t do this any more.”

When I walked into those camps in Biafra, those children looked at me like I was there salvation. But all I brought was a Nikon camera. I feel guilty about that to this day.

: I know you came up in a hard place, and I did too. I’ve heard it out of you in private conversations, a sense that you’ll never quite get to a certain place because you came from a certain place. I feel the same way. Even now when I have a gallery show, it’s a very strange place. I don’t belong there.
McCullin: Were you embarrassed about last night [Richards’s gallery opening for “War is Personal”]?

Richards: Uh, probably so. I don’t know if you share this, but I work to get the pictures in print. It’s an aberration for me to put the work up on the wall and have people come up and say how much they like it. I feel good about that, but on the other hand I failed terribly in getting this body of work into the world.

So you say to yourself: Do I really want to keep pushing my way into people’s lives? All they want from me is to make sure their kid’s story is told. And if you can’t tell it anymore there’s no point to it. At a certain point, you say well, fuck it.
McCullin: My problem is that as I started growing in stature, as I started getting books published and exhibitions, I left my wife and family for another woman. I can’t blame any war or any event I ever went to for destroying my marriage, I blame my own weakness. It’s because photography is all-consuming. It eats away at the sensible judgments that other people find so easy to make.

: The problems I’ve gotten into, talking about personal problems and destructive family issues, were because we’re more fragile than people think. When I was doing the drug book [Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue, 1994], people would literally spit on me, they peed on me. You were the biggest piece of shit in the world. And people say, “Well, you know who you are, you can handle it.” Well, no you can’t handle it. So you take that kind of everyday disgrace. You’re put down, so you do have to pick yourself up. Suddenly you go to a class or a workshop and people say: Aren’t you great. For that tiny moment you’re great, but in the larger world, you’re not great. That’s how we get into trouble.
McCullin: You are a very serious person. I act the fool sometimes but I’ve never seen you act the fool. I think you’re the most serious person in the photographic world.

: I’m the most frightened.
McCullin: No it comes across in your work. You are the most concentrated person on what you are doing at the time, otherwise your pictures wouldn’t mean what they mean. That’s why I respect you so much.

: I respect you, and mostly I think it’s because you question what we’re doing.
McCullin: Do you ever question what you’re doing?

Richards: I’ve been called to task many, many times, and I never blame a single person when they simply say: You have no right to take this picture. I think, Do I?
McCullin: I don’t think we have the right unless we’re invited.

It’s strange. Physically, I’m not afraid. I’ve had a slightly macho attitude about it all. You don’t have that attitude at all and yet, I think, no one can get any closer than you’ve got. I couldn’t get that close. Dare I go closer? You must think like that because we all dare ourselves.

: Not at all. You grew up a tough guy and I grew up a guy who wanted to be a tough guy and got beat up all the time. I realized that the only way I can photograph people is if I get close enough to touch them. They can be fully armed. If I can [get close] I can photograph them. I’m not good at a distance.
McCullin: I know that I’m that close when I want to cry. Can you believe a bloke like me can be capable of crying behind that Nikon?
When I saw this family. . .during the war in Bangladesh I saw a woman dying in front of her family. And they howled. I had the old Nikon up to my eye and I thought: Just keep your eye there, they can’t see you. Then the father said to me, “What shall I do?” I was about to lose it. I thought, Why would he look at a man who’s losing it, and ask for guidance?

Everyone thinks oh, Don McCullin, he’s tough as shit, nothing bothers him. But it did bother me, and I hope it bothered me enough to show in my pictures.

: A while ago there was a book of poetry [published] by a woman who was losing her eyesight. Her friends had died, her family was passing away, her eyesight was going. She got to the point where she could handle anything but she couldn’t handle the beautiful things. I think that’s what’s happened to me.

You’re with people who are being tortured or people being shot at and they turn around and give you their food. That’s when I fucking lose it. Or you go to a cancer ward, and you’re with a bunch of women, all of them have breast cancer and all they do is share with each other. Then I fucking fall apart. It’s been the case that I can handle it all until the beautiful thing happens.
MCullin: That’s probably the most insightful thing you’ve said today.

It’s the beautiful things that I need now. Fifty years I’ve been photographing bad things. I don’t sleep that well at night. I have so much stuff up here that could drive me insane: torture, executions in front of me, being beaten in the prison by the Ugandan army [in 1972], seeing a truckload of bodies being taken to the Nile where they fed the crocodiles.

When these things are happening you ask yourself the $100 question: What does this have to do with my photographic life? All I wanted to do was put a roll of film in the camera, make a picture, and make a print.

There’s one photo of the little starving boy, the albino. I don’t print it anymore because when that print used to come up in the developer it was as if it was coming to knock me over. It was so terrible to relive that day and it was another day I was fighting not to cry.

Photography will never be a free ride. We love it still, but it was never a free ride.

Richards: I’m not sure I ever loved it. I think I loved it when I was young, but at that time I wasn’t photographing people. As soon as I started photographing social issues I looked at it as a battle. [That’s] partially because when I started off, I was photographing in the South and the pictures had a function and they didn’t work.
McCullin: Are you saying you think you failed?

Richards: I left there feeling very defeated. I came back to Boston. The little book I did on Dorchester [Dorchester Days, 1978] was derided, people said this is not the real city of Boston. Then I did the book on breast cancer [Exploding into Life, 1986; co-authored with wife Dorothea Lynch]. I’m very proud of that book. I’m very proud of Dorothea. It became, in time, a book that helped women talk about their bodies, and their explorations of self. At the time, the American Cancer Society didn’t want it. People trashed it.

So what I developed was a fuck-you attitude. I got to love photography less and less as time went on.  I really hate what we’ve done in Iraq, so I have to put my two cents in, but it’s not love. In fact, maybe it’s the opposite.
McCullin: To be honest about it, I would say 90 percent of the work I’ve done in my life was a waste. I say it failed because the moment one war was sorted out, another one started. Have I achieved anything? So far, so bad. Nothing’s changed.

Richards: You know ultimately you’ve had value. I think the only value we have had is we’ve gotten dialogue going. But it’s at a price, even the price of family. When the drug book came out, there was a big review of the book that talked about me, implying basically I was a racist for doing the book on black America, and then talking about my own drug use, and talking about how I gave needles out to people, which I did do. It unleashed a backlash. I didn’t work for a year. Sam [Richards’s son, six years old at the time] was growing up; he heard his father was a bigot. We had TV cameras outside our house. For a fucking little photo book, if you can believe that.

On the one hand you’re lauded, but there are just as many people who look at what Don McCullin does and say: You’re depressing, you’re bringing us down.
McCullin: I’ve cured that problem. In the last 10 or 15 years I’ve started to do landscape. It’s been my healing. Now in England people talk more about my landscapes than about my war [photography], which pleases the hell out of me. I think I’ve kicked the old war junkie habit.

You’re still doing that painful work and I know you’ve got to sooner or later find another Eugene Richards.

Richards: I have no aspirations to do anything else.
McCullin: I’m sure you’ll find something.

: Well you’re doing it too. Today we [were] talking about the idea of photographing the body.
McCullin: Oh yeah, nudes. I’ll tell you how that started. I went to the museum in Libya, and there was a torso of a woman from the neck down, with drapes, and there was only a single overhead light coming down. Because the light was burning the marble, I overprinted it, and I almost got it looking like a real, live woman. God it was so sensual. I still don’t think there’s any 
really great nude photographers. It’s just tantalizing me at the moment.

Isn’t it strange, two men like us, what we end up talking about?

Richards: Talking about sex?
McCullin: Not sex so much, but our minds have suddenly gone somewhere more beautiful for a moment.

Richards: I think you’ve made the connection [to] the violence we were talking about before— the great, quote, “social photography,” it has to come out of a passion.

You have to be literally turned on by the people you’re meeting to understand the suffering that they’re going through. That life is valuable. Life is beautiful. Life is precious, and very short. We’re old guys. And that’s what it is.


Heroes & Mentors: Stephen Shore and Gregory Crewdson

Heroes & Mentors: Eli Reed and Wayne Lawrence

Heroes & Mentors
: Tina Barney and Gillian Laub

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