The North West of England has long been a point of fascination. This isn’t solely the case for its own inhabitants, stirred in the dense melting pot of cultures stretching across an Orion’s belt of Liverpool, Manchester and, eventually, Leeds. Many eyes looking in have been equally attracted to its charming realism.
Of these outsiders, it’s perhaps George Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier that pressed its nose closest to the glass in an attempt to underpin a sense of ‘northernness’. His account does its best to paint a fair picture, with the Etonian slumming his way from mill town to mill town in the mid 30s. But it’s difficult not feel a cold, thick layer of dirt on your hands as you turn through pages punctuated by sooty skylines and slag heaps. The landscape would appear uninhabitable if it wasn’t for the warmth of the people depicted.
30 years on from Orwell’s account, the scene had begun to change. It’s one captured and displayed in acclaimed photojournalist DON MCCULLIN’s new retrospective showing at Tate Liverpool.
In frequent trips up north, McCullin turned his camera on a landscape no longer bearing a thick layer of soot, but one covered ever more so in the darker colours of poverty. A landscape where industry departed but its people remained. In a career defined by pictures of war, his attention to social conflict is no less compelling.
With the retrospective featuring a newly added collection of images taken in Liverpool in the 60s and 70s, Elliot Ryder spoke to the photojournalist about his experiences of the city, his depictions of conflicts and his role as a chronicler.
As your retrospective heads north, there’ll be specially added section of photographs depicting industrial northern locations, such as Liverpool and surrounding mill towns and cities. A lot of your career has been a built on war reportage, but what was your initial draw to documenting this side of Britain in the 60s and 70s?
I’ve always had an interest in Liverpool. I went there many years ago with Jonathan Miller, the playwright, and met the poet Adrian Henri who was the key to so much of what we’d see across the city. But I’d been coming to Liverpool long before the 60s and 70s.
When I was a 15-year-old boy I worked on a train that would set off from Euston Station and head to Liverpool. I worked in the dining car, washing up dishes. I’d sleep in Edge Hill, where they had a dormitory. I’d do the journey three or four times a week.
The city has therefore always been familiar to me. I felt I knew it. I loved it there, really. Then, when I returned in the 1960s with Jonathan Miller, I never stopped coming back. I met Adrian and he became a friend. I really loved Adrian. He was the life and soul of Huskisson Street, and around that area, the Ye Cracke Pub and the Philharmonic. I was amazed by the culture, so I returned frequently.
What were your first impressions of the city in an era when the industry had declined and its former shipping wealth had departed to the south? What was the main draw for what you were wanting to capture?
I wanted to show Liverpool that it was once a great city. It still is, of course, but it was once a great city based on its docks; the liners that took people across the Atlantic. It was a very important place. I wanted to show in a way, without disrespect, the slight decline when those ships stopped departing from Liverpool.
It was a very proud city, Liverpool. I found Liverpool people to be challenging and uplifting, full of laughter and wit. It was a city that was compelling, really. What drew me to it most of all was how little it had changed. You expect cities to grow, but there’s always been a divide between the north and the south of England. The lion’s share of wealth and growth is in the south. Liverpool in a way was a backwater place, yet it had all of these amazing people that were trying to make the city go in a future direction. It wasn’t totally working, I don’t think.
The thing that interested me was the slum clearance programme, which was a huge mistake. They flattened them all, when they could have served as the first houses young people bought. It created a wilderness in the Toxteth area, which looked more like I was in Berlin after the war. It was a compelling image to see this tragic landscape. And it wasn’t helping Liverpool, because that landscape stayed there for quite a while until it was redeveloped. I haven’t even seen that part of Liverpool ever since I took those pictures.
Much of Liverpool’s centre has had a capitalist makeover, but in many ways Liverpool back then characterised the social aspect of the conflicts you’ve become renowned for. A lot of the poverty you captured in the north will have been echoed in your own upbringing in Finsbury Park in north London, a part of your life you regarded as an embarrassment given the nature of your situation. When training your lens on scenes further up north, was it somewhat easier to pick out these subjects as you had a sense of solidarity with their situation?
I think what you’re saying is quite interesting, really, because when you come from a poorer background it doesn’t take you five seconds to recognise a group of people who are living in that background. Even though I was learning my photojournalistic photography, I didn’t have to learn about life and poverty – I grew up in it. In a way, I wasn’t one of those snotty-nosed southerners looking into the birdcage; I was fully aware of the social differences in the country, and the class levels which I detest. As I walked amongst Liverpool and felt the warmth and the friendliness of the people, I slightly took advantage of it, really. As a photographer, not everybody likes you photographing them.
Do you think it’s important for the documenter and social narrator to have a sense of solidarity and shared experience with their subject? Does it affect the authenticity of the photograph in any way? For instance, The Last Resort, shot in Merseyside by Martin Parr in the early 90s, was accused by some of fetishization of the working class. Do you think the level of agency is important for a photojournalist?
I’m very honest in what I do. I wouldn’t want to do anything dishonest that I would have to account for later on in life. My work is in black and white. Martin does colour, which can take away poverty in some respects. I don’t want to cover anything up. I work in black and white and I’m there to tell the truth. There are no lies involved in the things I’ve shown, not only in Liverpool. Some of the most wicked pictures in my exhibition are pictures I’ve taken in Bradford, which [was] one of the most impoverished cities in England. I don’t pull my punches when I photograph poverty. Mainly because I understand it.
To what extent do you think the photojournalist plays a part in the shaping of a narrative? Would you regard yourself as a mirror, or more of a narrator when shooting?
I saw myself as a chronicler. I chronicle the injustice of what I see through my eyes and what I know through my personal experience. I’ve learnt my way through this life by walking amongst the truth of things, the poverty, the pain of people’s unhappiness. I see it and I recognise it. Not everybody does. A lot of people would close their eyes to it and want to walk past it. I will press the button on my camera and say, “This is not right. This is not the way people should be living their lives, in this squalor and poverty.” I am no Sir Galahad, by the way. I’m no knight in shining armour speaking up for the people, I’m not that kind of person. I’m a person who journeys through life and sees with his eyes and presses the button on the camera. That’s what I do. I’m not a hero.
(Liverpool in the seventies)
It’s important, nonetheless, to capture and show these moments?
I’ve been doing it for years, and I’ll tell you something, I’ve only made the slightest bit of difference. I could probably come up to the north and you will still find millions of people living in unfair, unjust, deep and dark poverty. All those pictures I’ve taken in the past haven’t made much of a difference, if any at all.
Much of your iconic work focuses on military conflicts and intra-state wars, and you’ve stated you’re still affected by some of the images you captured. How do the scenes of social conflict compare to the stark realities of militarised violence in, say, Vietnam?
In Vietnam and Cambodia, many were farming people. People who had part of the Cold War dumped on them. One million North Vietnamese soldiers paid with their lives, and another one million down in the South. War had nothing to do with their culture. It was dumped on them by the Americans, Russians and Chinese. Sometimes, if you live a simple life in the country, with a thatched house, in the darkness of night and brightness of dawn and you go out and exercise your rice growing, it’s a lot purer and a simpler life than somebody trapped in a city with thousands of other people, and the squalor that goes with it. The two cultures don’t match up. At one moment you have this paradise situation in Vietnam and Cambodia, next thing they know they’ve got people bombing them, killing them, burning them and their children. There’s no comparison. It’s totally different environment. And yet, as a photographer, I managed to harness both of those situations and funnel them through the lens of my camera. And it can only be done with a person behind that camera who is emotionally tuned in to these two wrongs.
Looking towards the retrospective moving up north, is it strange to see your work in a gallery rather than in a newspaper? Is it stranger to think of yourself as an artist, too?
It’s always at the back of my mind: is it right to have these photographs in an art gallery? Who are you, a photographer or are you an artist? I totally disclaim myself as an artist. I am a photographer and very happy with that title. But at the same time, since I cannot get my work published to the degree it used to be in The Sunday Times, there’s no outlet for people like me anymore. I’d put the pictures on the underground subways in London if I had to, rather than let them rot away in their boxes in my house. It’s better to get the voice out there, even if it means intruding into an art gallery.
How does the context of the photographs change once on gallery walls? Is there then a greater emphasis on aesthetic rather their socio-political content?
At Tate Britain, they had 180,000 people go through my exhibition. Some of my friends went to see it and they said you could have heard a pin drop in the most crowded of spaces [pre-Covid]. One noted how the silence in there said a lot about the exhibition and its power; people were so moved by the awful things they were seeing that they shouldn’t be seeing. It’s a strange place to have that feeling, in famous gallery like Tate Britain. I must have done something right.
As for more contemporary photojournalism, what are your hopes for the medium? Is it able to compete with the instantaneous live feeds and videos on social media? For example, after the explosion in Beirut, many people across the world had already seen a multitude of images.
The word photojournalism is dead in a way. Newspapers don’t want that kind of image in their newspapers anymore. Newspapers aren’t interested in the photographs that I did, and other photographers like me. It’s about celebrity, it’s about footballers. When [Harry Maguire] did something wrong in Greece, it got total saturation, because here’s a guy who earns £190,000 a week. [Apparently], he’s much more important than the poor starving on the other side of the world, being bombed at the same time.
Finally, Don, do you have any concerns about the truth and authenticity of photojournalism as we move deeper into a digital era? As media becomes less institutional and more open source, does it open the door to a world of post-truth imagery?
I’ve done my best to tell the truth and to go to places which I know not many people want to look at. But now ‘fake news’ has upset the balance. It’s made people reconsider what they’re looking at, what they’re reading in a newspaper. Is it true or false? There are people who would say they believe nothing they read in newspapers, and it would be wise to not believe everything in newspapers, but a lot of it will be quite truthful. It’s a personal choice. It’s a personal responsibility. It’s up to you to make that decision. I’m a photographer and not an orator. My opinions don’t count for much. My photography is my voice.
Don McCullin retrospective is showing at Tate Liverpool until 21st May 2021. Visit tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-liverpool for tickets.