Palestinian Fighter Training in Beirut, 1976 © Don McCullin

Words by Fifi Abou Dib

In parallel with Beirut Art Fair last September, the historic bell factory in Beit Chabeb (recently restored by Philippe and Zaza Jabre) hosted a breath-taking exhibit of Don McCullin’s work. Now 84 years old, McCullin is a renowned British photojournalist who shot some of the world’s most heart-wrenching images of war and urban strife.

At the bell factory in Beit Chabeb, McCullin himself hosted the special exhibit in which he showcased around 20 of his powerful images of the Lebanese Civil War, most of which were shot at the very beginning of the conflict. Images on display include Karantina in 1976, the Nabaa neighbourhood, a man who looks like he just buried his son, glaring with sadness and reproach at McCullin’s lens, and harrowing shots of violence, death, tears and pain. McCullin says that since his last assignment – Aleppo in 2011 – the scale of human suffering he’s witnessed torments him to the point where he’s no longer able to sleep. He refuses to be called a war photographer and since 2011 limits his work to shooting peaceful landscapes.

A Lebanese Family Leaving the Martyrs Cemetery, Beirut, 1982 © Don McCullin
A Lebanese Family Leaving the Martyrs Cemetery, Beirut, 1982 © Don McCullin

The photographs shown at Beit Chabeb spent two years hidden in a desk drawer, and were purchased by Philippe Jabre after having been exhibited in England. Jabre decided to display the images for the first time during Beirut Art Fair, and he asked the photographer to be present for the show. When he was in Lebanon, McCullin told this reporter about his childhood, spent in dire poverty in England in the 1930s, after the premature death of his young father. At the time of his military service, he asked to be enrolled in the UK’s Royal Air Force, in the photography division, and he was sent to Egypt, where he first fell in love with the camera and learned to capture critical moments from behind the lens.

Christian woman with hand grenade, Holiday Inn, Beirut, 1976 © Don McCullin
Christian woman with hand grenade, Holiday Inn, Beirut, 1976 © Don McCullin

His big break came when he turned 21. He was in England with a group of friends, the “Guvnors,” who asked him to photograph them dressed in their Sunday finery at a building under construction. A fight erupts between the men, a policeman intervenes and is shot dead. McCullin’s photograph of the Guvnors is bought by The Observer and becomes a national sensation. His career takes off dramatically.

McCullin’s next assignment took him to Berlin, where he apprehensively photographed the erection of the Berlin Wall. Future work took him to Vietnam, where shrapnel tores into his flesh during a battle. He’s grateful for the injury: “It allowed me to experience what others did during those moments.” One of the most devastating episodes of his career took place in Biafra in the 1970s. He was already married and had children when he witnessed hundreds of African children in front of a school, one dying after the other because of a relentless famine. This particular experience scarred him, and he returned to England unable to cope with what he saw, eventually asking his wife for a divorce and taking off on his own.

The Temple of Jupiter, Baalbek, Lebanon, 2008 © Don McCullin
The Temple of Jupiter, Baalbek, Lebanon, 2008 © Don McCullin

“Shortly afterward,” he recalls, “my daughter told me her mother had been diagnosed with brain cancer. I was living a frivolous life and had many girlfriends. My son was supposed to get married a few months after that, but we all ended up at my children’s mother’s bedside. I slept on the floor in her room, and when I woke up she was sitting up straight in her bed. I went to her and she fell into my arms. Her body was still warm but she was already gone.” As he tells this reporter his story, at Beit Chabeb’s restored bell factory, tears are streaming down his face. He can’t control himself. Sixty years spent photographing the dark excesses of humanity have taken their toll.


A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS, SHOW & TELL #51

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