Unreasonable Behavior: An Autobiography

Unreasonable Behavior: An Autobiography

by Don McCullin


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From the construction of the Berlin Wall through every major conflict of his adult lifetime up to the Syrian Civil War, photographer Don McCullin has left a trail of iconic images. Revised and updated after twenty-five years, Unreasonable Behavior traces the life and career of one of the top photojournalists of the twentieth century and beyond.

Born in London in 1935, McCullin worked as a photographer’s assistant in the RAF during the Suez Crisis. His early association with a North London gang led to the first publication of his pictures. As an overseas correspondent for the Sunday Times Magazine beginning in 1966, McCullin soon became a new kind of hero, taking a generation of readers beyond the insularity of post-war domestic life through the lens of his Nikon camera. He captured the realities of war in Biafra, the Congo, Vietnam, Cambodia, and the human tragedy of famine and cholera on the Bangladesh border and later, the AIDs epidemic in Sub-Saharan Africa.

McCullin now spends his days in a Somerset village, where he photographs the landscape and arranges still-lifes. Harrowing and poignant, Unreasonable Behavior is an extraordinary account of a witness who triumphed over the memories that could have destroyed him.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802126962
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 06/13/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 313,857
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Don McCullin grew up in north London. He worked for the Sunday Times for eighteen years and has covered every major conflict in his adult lifetime. The finest British photojournalist of his generation, he has received many honors and awards including the CBE. He received a knighthood in the 2017 New Year honors list. He lives in Somerset.

Read an Excerpt



Two brothers met on a desert battleground on a February day in 1970. The elder was myself, covering my twentieth battle campaign as a photo-journalist; the younger, engaged in skirmishing with horse- and camel-mounted tribesmen of that remote African country, was my little brother Michael, then Sergeant, now Adjutant McCullin of the French Foreign Legion. For the short hour in which I could touch down in this arid spot, we met only to disagree.

We both spoke from too close a knowledge of war, gained in a long separation from each other. Like Legionnaires, war photographers cannot avoid the front line. In the bars of beleaguered hotels in the world's trouble spots where foreign correspondents gather there is sometimes talk of our seeing, due to modern means of communication, more of battle than anyone in history. Serving soldiers (SAS and mercenaries apart) are usually committed only to their own country's conflicts; war correspondents go to them all. And photographers, unlike reporters who can often gather better information behind the lines, are generally found in the thick of the fighting. Those who stay with the work for a long time, like the great Robert Capa and Larry Burrows, often die with it. I stayed with it for twenty years, and by some miracle survived. By the time I met my brother in Chad I had lived in the front lines of Cyprus, the Congo, Jerusalem, Biafra, and many of the campaigns in Vietnam. I was to go on to see war's depredations at Yom Kippur, in Cambodia, in Jordan, the Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan, even in El Salvador. Many of my good friends lost their lives on these battlegrounds.

It was perhaps the breadth of my experience that led Michael and me to differ. We had both been drawn to war by a sense of adventure, but its meaning for each of us had changed. To Michael, war was a game, a passion. Although it still held excitement for me, most of the time I could think only of its horrors. Michael's attitude was the more explicable, the more soldierly; mine was less straightforward. After all, my engagement was voluntary, for I was not under military discipline. If war had become so hateful to me, why did I not keep away? I have even been told I must have some sort of death wish — and it is true that throughout most of my life something has forced me to go out and record death and suffering. But it is not through any yearning for death for myself, or any man.

I still struggle with the meaning of all those experiences. Wars have dreadful differences, but also a dreadful sameness. You sleep with the dead, you cradle the dead, you live with the living who become the dead. Seeing, looking at what others cannot bear to see, is what my life as a war reporter is all about, and I have been criticised for forcing horrors into the view of complacent people. It has been said of my pictures of war and famine that 'we know now that our knowing makes no difference'. Yet I believe that it is not 'naive to think all that mattered'. Of course our knowing matters, and mine are far from the only photographs to have awakened the public conscience in recent years. I resent the idea — voiced more than once — that the subjects of my photography are 'matters too serious for art'. I am also deeply suspicious of any attempt to censor communication of the truth.

Even with all my years of watching, I have never been able to switch off my feelings, nor do I think it would be right to do so. Few are equipped to remain unmoved by the spectacle of what war does to people. These are sights that should, and do, bring pain, and shame, and guilt. Some sights heighten the feelings to an unbearable pitch. Once, when I was caught in a forward position with American Marines in Vietnam, a supply wagon bringing ammunition — a moke of the kind you might see on sea-side dunes — overshot our position in the dark. It stopped, and a sniper killed the driver, who stayed slumped in his position at the wheel, the engine droning on eerily. Through the night he was outlined by tracer flares from the other lines, unearthly in harsh yellow, orange and green. The incoming fire made it impossible for us to reach him. We watched in appalled fascination until dawn, when the battle died down and the moke's engine, finally running out of petrol, puttered to a stop.

Often in battle you think tomorrow it will be you, that you are going to be the one lying with your face to the stars. It is strange to think of a human body lying fixed in one position, staring at the stars without seeing. I remember being in a patrol when a burst of automatic fire brought down the two men ahead of me. I dived for cover, my mouth in the mud, my cameras covered with dirt, and I lay there, still, for twenty minutes during which everything in my life came back to me. At times like these, when men have died in front of you, and behind you, there is an overwhelming sense of them dying for you.

It has been said that I print my photographs too dark. How can such experiences be conveyed with a feeling of lightness? Yet, I ask myself, what has all my looking and probing done for these people, or for anyone? How many times, as the fire was closing on my position, have I thought — Is this it? Is this the day? What have I done with my life?



Like all my generation in London, I am a product of Hitler. I was born in the Thirties and bombed in the Forties. Then Hollywood moved in and started showing me films about violence. At a very early age I can remember overhearing my father telling my mother about a severed head one of his fellow air raid wardens had found during the blitz and was showing around in a box. Gruesomeness of this sort was par for the course for Londoners during and just after the Second World War, and it rubbed off on the children too.

The bombsites became our playgrounds. We went out hunting for shrapnel and the foil dropped by the Germans to deflect radar. We lived with nightly bomb terrors. Air raid shelters, like the one in our back yard, became our second homes. There was a pungent smell about those shelters — the smell of damp air trapped in that concrete shell. I lived that smell. I recall it today as fondly as other people remember the smells of summer, or of winter fires.

Children played at war because war was all there was. I remember playing toy soldiers with my little brother Michael. We would draw them up in battle-order in the yard and take their heads off by shying clods of earth. I was later to remember this battle. The play was unnervingly like the real thing.

My first home was just off the Tottenham Court Road, where my father occasionally worked as a fishmonger. The work was occasional because my father was an invalid. My mother had to make most of the decisions for us. When the family expanded, with the birth of my sister Marie, we moved to two rooms under the grille of a pavement in King's Cross. This lasted only a few months before we moved to a tenement building in Finsbury Park, then known as the worst area in north London. Again we had two damp basement rooms. Marie and I slept in one, they lived in the other. There was a scullery and a tiny lavatory, half in, half outside. It was no place for a man with chronic asthma, or kids for that matter, but it was home.

My most painful memory of the war was born of the attempt to get me away from it. When I was five, Marie and I were faced with evacuation. Michael, who was not born until a few years later, managed to escape. I remember the buses gathering at Paul's Park Primary School to take us to Paddington Station. There were many tears, and mothers waving and giving advice to their children. We all wore labels and carried little brown cardboard boxes containing our gas masks. We were told that we were going for our own protection, away from the bombs, to a rural existence.

As soon as we arrived in Norton St Philip in Somerset, Marie and I were separated. My mother had been promised that we would not be split up, but we were. My sister was taken to the wealthiest household in the village. People who had engineering companies in wartime were on to a good number. I was sent to a council house. My sister's existence and mine in that same village were from then on quite separate. Where she lived they had a maid with a black and white uniform who used to serve my sister tea. I would go round and peep through her window. Although I was her brother, I was looked upon as one of those scruffy council house children and not allowed in. Looking back, I think it may have been the beginning of something you can see in my pictures — an attempt to get as close to my subject while remaining invisible myself.

You soon become aware of, and resigned to, the position you have in society: the fact that I lived in a council house meant that somehow, for me, the die was cast. My sister was leaving us through the privilege she enjoyed in that house. My mother took the amazing decision of allowing her to stay on after the war as a permanent foster child in that rich family, who sent her to a girls' boarding school in Weston-super-Mare. So my sister went to public school. You could say — as they did in Finsbury Park — 'Adolf Hitler done her a favour.'

I felt cast out, unchosen, rather as if I were the wrong breed of dog. I remember running after my father when he set off home at the end of a visit and begging him to take me with him. My stay in Norton St Philip lasted less than a year, but I was soon evacuated again. I was always being evacuated. In my ignorance of Hitler's bombing plans, I supposed that my mother thought — Get him on the road again, give myself a breather.

In my third evacuation I hit a new low. I was sent to the north of England, to a village not far from Bolton in Lancashire. They were chicken farmers, and I got one egg a week on Sundays. Their main interest was in keeping me out of the house as much as possible by sending me to service in the morning, afternoon Sunday school, and then they would try to get me to go to the evening service as well. After tea on weekdays, they would lock me out until ten o'clock at night in all weathers.

I slept on the floor. My room had no lino or furniture, just some old chicken incubators. It was a room that was never used, and just because it was spare these people were forced to take in evacuee children they did not want.

With me in the house was a lad whose old man owned a pub in Camden town. He used to wet the bed and he got terrible hidings for it. We had landed among people who were rigid and, for all their Bible talk, very unforgiving. They found our ways alien, as we did theirs. I hated their funny way of cooking potatoes with their jackets on, and I wouldn't eat them. I would be clouted for that.

Clouting was an enduring memory from that evacuation. I was clouted by the schoolmasters, clouted by the kids in the playground, and clouted when I got home. I was building up a tidy store of resentment and mistrust.

One day I fell off a barn attempting some daredevil feat and smashed my face. That is why I have a broken nose. I crawled across a field and passed out. I woke up to see two women standing over me. They got me home, and I could see the chicken farmer was sorely tempted to bang me another one in the face for getting into trouble. He insisted on sending me to school the next day. Now that I had a huge swollen face on top of my much-mocked London voice I became an even bigger joke.

Finally, I wrote to my mother to say that I wasn't being treated well. She sent me the train fare and I made my way home. The night before I left, the chicken farmer dragged out a dustbin, emptied the chicken meal from it and filled it with hot water. I got my first bath in seventeen weeks.

That whole experience had strange after-effects. Once I got my own space, and a farmhouse, I always liked to have a few chickens about. I think they're very decorative and so, unfortunately, does the local fox. More seriously, it gave me a lifelong affinity with persecuted peoples. I know what it is like to be branded uncivilised and unclean, and to be treated as something pernicious. Except that I was ostracised and ill-treated by my own people, and not an alien race.

In the short term, though, the effects of evacuation were hardening. The loneliness and the long separations from my mother had done for me what public school did for the boys of the middle classes. It had turned me into a tough little blighter who could stand on his own two feet. It also made me twitchy.



Back in wartime London, I developed a variety of odd habits. I would jerk my neck out repeatedly in a convulsive way. I was terrified of stepping on cracks in the pavement — all children have a bit of a fixation about this, but mine was carried to extremes. Above all, I liked to race the bus. I used to come out of the Tube at Finsbury Park, which slopes up like a drift-mine, see the 212 for Highgate starting up and tear along the road beside, or in front of, it for several hundred yards, past the school clinic, testing myself.

I discovered later in life that I was dyslexic, a condition that was not improved by the constant moving from school to school. By the time the evacuations were over, I could scarcely read even the simplest things, and was certainly not digesting the words I did struggle through. In those days there was only one sort of remedial teaching for slow learners and that was the cane, or a hard clip round the ear with the back of a hand. Exasperated schoolmasters seemed to think that violence would prod you forward. In my case, it simply made me violently backward. When first I got back to London I went in dread of beatings and whackings, and even punchings, that teachers had licence to administer. One master tried to speed my progress towards the Eleven Plus examination by banging my head against the school wall. Yet it has to be said that these terrifying Finsbury Park teachers were ranged against a most evil bunch of boys.

All of us returning from the country experienced great difficulty settling back into our impoverished urban homes. I know the smell of poverty as well as I know the stink of bomb-shelters and chicken houses. For me it is a compound of mildew and damp, of floor-cloths that are never clean and never get cleaned because there is no hot water, of too many bodies confined in too small a space. Even with my sister away, we would always be shifting round at home, trying to fit better into that cold, cramped basement so that my father could have the maximum warmth. I remember often sleeping in close proximity to his night-long cough. Yet the circumstances of my childhood fitted me in later years to stand before the poorest of people with humility. I would know without being told exactly what their lives were like.

Close to where we lived, in Fonthill Road, there was a notorious street known to everybody as The Bunk. It was a place beyond poverty, accurately described in a book called The Worst Street in North London as a home to thieves, punch-up artists and every other known type of criminal. Residents of The Bunk used to treat the police the way people treat the bulls of Pamplona. And not only the police. The red alarm boxes, labelled 'Emergency, Fire', were always being punched in by the boys in The Bunk to bring round the brigade. Often kids would set fire to one of the bombed-out buildings in order to make the call genuine. When they arrived, men of the fire brigade would be stoned, or would have their hoses cut. The children of The Bunk all went to my primary school.

Our real times were spent out of school. I spurned authority, all the boys did. We used the derelict bombed houses as our hideaway places. They were the arenas for our obnoxious behaviour. We would buy a pennyworth of chips for our lunch, ram them into a dry roll and take it into a derelict house, climbing right to the top where we would sit and discuss things, as if we were in some kind of parliament. The usual debate concerned how we were going to sabotage our school. In gutted buildings sometimes we crapped from the top floor to the bottom, pretending we were bombing Germany. It was all weird, though no doubt Desmond Morris would see it as quite normal animal behaviour. It demonstrated the breaking of discipline, the breaking of authoritarian rule over us.

One of those derelict houses later played a striking role in my adult life. While we were still growing up, bombed houses were either a haven or a prey for vandalism. We stripped the lead and sold it to metal dealers. We ripped up the remaining floorboards and chopped the wood to sell it as kindling to old ladies for two pennies a bundle. The catacomb shells of shattered buildings gave us pleasure, and great sensations. There was nothing quite like the thrill of negotiating one dangerous level after another when all the staircases had gone. For us, it was like climbing the Eiger, and there we would bivouac for hours, in our own private places, away from the eyes of the alien adult world.


Excerpted from "Unreasonable Behavior"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Don McCullin.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xi

Part 1 Becoming Streetwise

1 The Battleground 3

2 Children of War 6

3 Dereliction in the Bunk 13

4 A Shocking Liberty 22

5 Hunting Dogs 26

6 Tank Warfare 30

7 The Murder 38

8 A Faster Sidewalk 44

9 The First Contest 53

10 Delinquent Photographer 65

Part 2 Going to the Wars

11 With the Mercenaries 71

12 Search and Destroy 82

13 First the Lion, Then Vultures 89

14 Jerusalem 98

15 Another Desert War 104

16 The Battle of Hue 109

17 Lessons of War 118

18 Children of Biafra 122

19 People Who Eat People 138

20 Wounded in Action 149

21 Besieged 160

22 Rain Forest Genocide 166

23 Hiding Behind the Camera 172

Part 3 Matters of Life and Death

24 Prisoner of Idi Amin 183

25 Handshake Before Highway 13 195

26 Death on the Golan Heights 204

27 The Tribe Who Killed Christ 208

28 Waiting for Pol Pot 216

29 A Christian Massacre 220

30 Picnic with Abu Ammar 234

31 Shadow of Doubt 241

32 Earthquake in Iran 246

33 A Short Walk with the Mujaheddin 253

34 The Unease of Change 260

35 White Towel from the Camino Real 264

Part 4 The End of the Affair

36 The Task Force Gets Away 275

37 Breaking Point 280

38 The Nastiest Place on Earth 287

39 Heart of Darkness 292

40 Of Love and Death 299

Part 5 Wars and Peace

41 Alone with the Ghosts 307

42 Flying High and Low 316

43 Aids in Africa 322

44 My Phoney War 331

45 New Frontiers 337

46 The Road to Aleppo 349

47 A Walk Around the Volcano 357

Index 371

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