58 Don McCullin Quotes on Photography and Life

Looking for the best Don McCullin quotes? You’ve come to the right place. Below we’ve listed 58 of the master photographers best quotes to help you better understand his process and improve your own photography at the same time.

If you haven’t done so already, we recommend reading our Sir Don McCullin master profile article to learn more about his remarkable career, photographs, techniques and much more.

Don McCullin Quotes

I feel at the edge of my journey with photography now. I’m older, more knowledgeable, but I’m never satisfied, never arriving, always looking for something better to come. I’m a lost soul without photography.

The camera was a key to open up my life. It was like opening a huge window to the world. It gave me education, it gave me hope, it gave me travel, and in the end, after giving me all those things, it started taking things away from me. It took my mind away from me, it took things back from me. You don’t own those things in the beginning. You don’t own yourself in the beginning, you’re just dumped on this earth and you have to stand up and try to walk and try to get through it.

Digital cameras are extraordinary. I have a darkroom 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.

Photography is the truth if it’s being handled by a truthful person.

I only use a camera like I use a toothbrush. It does the job.

Don McCullin Quotes 1

The Life of a Photographer

Frankly, I didn’t really know anything about photography. I’d just been taking snaps. I had to learn very quickly. But after that famous picture of the gang was published in The Observer, I was offered every job in England – just because of that one picture.

Photography has been very, very generous to me, but at the same time has damaged me.

I feel shabby – because I’ve made a name, quite a good name, out of photography. And I still find myself asking the same questions: Who am I? What am I supposed to be? What have I done?

It’s the photographs that keep me going, physically and mentally. I just want to leave excellence behind; this is what controls me, and I like that, because it has brought me to this stage.

…there is guilt in every direction: guilt because I don’t practice religion, guilt because I was able to walk away, while this man was dying of starvation or being murdered by another man with a gun. And I am tired of guilt, tired of saying to myself: “I didn’t kill that man on that photograph, I didn’t starve that child.” That’s why I want to photograph landscapes and flowers. I am sentencing myself to peace.

You can’t go around kidding yourself that your photographs in a few papers will change the world. They can’t and they haven’t. I dispair about the human race. The press only shows the bums, the killers and the arms dealers and people like that. Good news never sold a newspaper.

My life has always been about adventures. Being on edge all the time helps my photography.

I need a challenge. My greatest fear is sitting and staring out of a window without the passion to do anything anymore.

Art and Titles

I’m not an artist. I’ve been struggling against that word all my life. The American photographers all want to be called artists. I’m a photographer and I stand by it.

I am not an artist. Today, every photographer in America – if not the world – wants to be called an “artist”, which is bullshit. Why do you need a title? All you need to do is to take good pictures and offer them to people.

I have a strong creative desire but I’m not trying to be an artist. I don’t need titles. I hate the title, ‘artist’. I just describe myself as a photographer. I have a good nose for news. It’s about knowing your trade.

I think, the more of a student I am, the better it will be for my work because it means once you have too many accolades you don’t try harder. I would never allow myself to think that I don’t have to try harder. I like the idea of always learning, always trying to do better. The word “master” sits uneasy on my terms.

Don McCullin’s Quotes for Better Photography

Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.

I look for drama – drama is the key factor in all my work.

I realized that you could shoot photographs until the cows came home but they have nothing to do with real humanity, real memories, real feelings.

There is no doubt that my photographs have a very strong religious overtone, they are like twentieth century icons. When human beings are suffering, they tend to look up, as if hoping for salvation. And that’s when I press the button.

A sense of timing is the most important part of the life of a professional photographer. I have an uncanny way of being at the right place at the right time. And if the time is not right, I can be patient, stay in that place for hours, willing things to come.

Photography’s a case of keeping all the pores of the skin open, as well as the eyes. A lot of photographers today think that by putting on the uniform, the fishing vest, and all the Nikons, that that makes them a photographer. But it doesn’t. It’s not just seeing. It’s feeling.

Photography will screw you every time it gets a chance to screw you, every time you put a roll into the camera… Sometimes I come back and find that the film has been damaged or that the camera’s back has been leaking. I don’t get angry, I don’t smash the camera, I just laugh and think: “It didn’t respect me, I wasn’t meant to have it.”

I think I am lucky if I can produce one good picture every year.

We don’t live in a black and white world, but once you see a black and white photograph, it haunts you. I have done a few pictures of wars in colour, but they don’t work – they feel too cosy – while black and white photographs will penetrate your memory.

Photography isn’t about just pushing that button. It’s about the experience of being there.

Don McCullin Quotes on Photojournalism

I had long been uncomfortable with my label of war photographer, which suggested an almost exclusive interest in the suffering of other people. I knew I was capable of another voice.

The real truth of life is on the streets. Photograph the daily lives of people, and how they exist, and how they fight for space and time and pleasure.

Although I take my work seriousily I cannot take myself seriously. When you think of it, everything has happened by accident. I have always believed that I don’t own my photography, rather that it owns me. It gave me a life, an extraordinary life which could never be repeated. I feel as if the gift of seeing what is really going on in the world is mine only so long as I put it to proper use. There is nothing to be claimed and nothing to regret, except that we go on treating our fellow human beings so badly.

I spent six weeks photographing homeless people. I think it’s the best thing I ever photographed. I went every day, parked my car up about a mile away, wore really old clothes, and carried a Nikon F under my overcoat. Then I would gradually bring the camera out. They’d all start shouting and jumping, “What the fuck are you doing?!” I liked both the danger and the challenge of it; they were quite violent people, but no one ever tried it on with me.

It’s not important that I record every tragedy that goes on in the world. But I decided to try a couple of shots. And I did something despicable. I wound the car window down and took the photographs from inside. Then I hated myself for not having the decency and courage to at least get out and do something…

You cannot walk on the water of hunger, misery, and death. You have to wade through to record them.

Seeing, looking at what others cannot bear to see is what my life is all about.

I met an Englishwoman in Africa. She said she became a doctor because she saw one of my pictures. That’s all I want – just one doctor in Africa.

Our once great newspapers, which told us what went on in the world even when we couldn’t affect it, have become instruments of a promotional culture, little more than catalogues advising us what to consume. This is not a great age in which to be a photojournalist.

War and Conflict Photographer

I’m like an old junkie, in a way. You don’t stick syringes in your arm – you go straight for the most important part of your body, the brain. You are destroying it the moment you go to your first war.

I don’t believe you can see what’s beyond the edge unless you put your head over it; I’ve many times been right up to the precipice, not even a foot or an inch away. That’s the only place to be if you’re going to see and show what suffering really means… I’ve spent fourteen years getting on and off aeroplanes and photographing other people’s conflicts. I will never get on another aeroplane and go photograph another country’s war.

Soldiers firing rifles in war make ordinary pictures because without the action, the smell and the noise, you have no truth…

You can only demand respect from the energies around us if you practice respect yourself.

It is the photographer’s job to show some of [the horror of war], to say: this is what it’s like on the ground, this is what war does to you.

I have always said that when I go to war I try not to miss a thing. I shot the things that other photographers walked by.

I had a great respect for film and knew you mustn’t spoil or abuse it. I always used to go to Vietnam with thirty rolls of Tri-X film – nothing more, nothing less.

Somebody may have been killed by the wayside and his body is rotting away and nobody cares that it was a human being and it was a person – a living person. I care, and I am going to photograph it- as horrible as it looks, I’m going to photograph it.

I used to concentrate on the battle, on the soldiers in the front, but of course, that was never the true story. The true story for me later developed into the suffering of civilians.

I don’t want to die for a few pictures. I want to live for every sunrise I can clap my eyes on; I want to see my family get older; I want to see the world try and get a bit more peaceful and understanding, which unfortunately I don’t think I’ll ever see.

Sometimes it felt like I was carrying pieces of human flesh back home with me, not negatives. It’s as if you are carrying the suffering of the people you have photographed.

A lot of people write to me, “I want to be a war photographer,” and it sickens me in a way. The desire to view death and suffering as a spectacle or adventurous career opportunity is perverse, especially when photographers only train their lenses on the problems of others. O.K., if you want to be a war photographer you don’t have to get in a plane and go to somebody else’s country. There’s a lot of poverty and misery and suffering in your own. I’ve been there.

Even in battle photography I go over on my back and read the exposure. What’s the point in getting killed if you’ve got the wrong exposure.

Don McCullin Quote from Interview with British Journal of Photography, March 2010
Don McCullin Quote Exposure

McCullin on Landscape Photography

People say “I love your landscapes”, but people shouldn’t love any war picture I’ve taken. When they say “love” they don’t mean it like that – they mean they were moved by it.

Landscapes freed me from the emotional garbage that I was carrying. I could go out into the landscape and have no reason to have any moral thoughts. But in the end, while taking these photographs, I suddenly realised that, there, everything I was looking at had a political dimension too: dairy farms closing, more land being taken up for housing… So even my landscapes are political, and not just in Britain. My landscapes have also recently been incorporating the destruction of Palmyra and similar places, which are totally politicised.

Related: Nature and Landscape Photography Quotes

I like photographing the English landscape in the winter, because it’s naked and it’s cold and it’s lonely, and I feel lonely doing it – and yes, I feel as happy as anything. There’s no politics, there’s no one saying: “get off my land!” No one’s pointing a gun at me. It’s almost as if I’m drinking from the flower, as if I’m drinking the pure nectar of freedom.

The great thing about landscape is that you owe nothing to fear. It’s all yours, no one can say you’re doing the wrong thing morally, there’s not a human being that can come up and say, “Why are you taking my picture?”

McCullin on Printing and the Darkroom

The darkroom can be cruel. You have to talk your way through your printing, alone, sometimes you turn the radio on and listen to trash music. When I finish, I wash everything meticulously, I dust everything, it’s like paying a homage to the spiritual power that could destroy me. And I won’t let it. Something else will destroy me – but it won’t be the darkroom, it won’t be photography. I am very strong, nearly ninety nine percent of me is strong and fortified all around. But I am sure there is a crack, somewhere behind me, in my make-up, where the damage will get in and destroy me.

I am sometimes accused by my peers of printing my pictures too dark. All I can say is that it goes with the mood of melancholy that is induced by witnessing at close quarters such intractable situations of conflict and joylessness.

I live in this house with 60,000 negatives in these filing cabinets and several thousand prints, and they are all based on quite nasty subject matter. I’ve felt that when I’m asleep upstairs at night these ghosts get out of the filing cabinets and they contaminate the house.

When I look at the work of Alfred Stieglitz, I see so many tones. I’ve printed so many pictures, and worked in the darkroom for so long, I know my tones. The darkroom is an amazing, wonderful, and cunning place – it’s a place of mind-searching. By dodging and burning, I engage in the landscape work; there’s definitely some cunning goings-on in that darkroom.

People have always said that the darkroom is my womb, and I suppose that’s true. I like the consistency of the dark. It keeps me safe. I know that when I’m out taking photographs, I’m already thinking about being home and printing my images. But I’ve never betrayed what I set out to do. I just keep doing what I’m doing.

Perfection – you’re striving towards the perfect print. In the darkroom, you can almost hear the applause, the accolade of this perfect print. If I know that I’ll be printing the next day, I go to bed at night worrying, and sometimes I actually scan the negative in my imagination whilst I’m lying in bed. I know all of my negatives – I know where they succeed, and where there’s trouble. It’s just terrible the way that photography is blackmailing me all the time. I’ve been blackmailed for the last sixty years of my life by photography, and it’s been the greatest love affair; it’s fantastic really.

What’s your Favorite Don McCullin Quote?

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To learn more about Don McCullin’s photography and legendary career, we recommend reading our Don McCullin master profile article. To see more Sir Don’s work, check out the image archive on his official website.

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Founder of Photogpedia.com. Photography enthusiast, occasional filmmaker, part-time writer and full-time dreamer. Rediscovered photography in 2012 and have been trying to level up my photography skills since (I'm getting there) #chasingthecreative

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