Don McCullin was forced to abort a mission to photograph the historic Temple of Bel in the Syrian city of Palmyra when a Russian soldier stopped him at the gates.

 

Don McCullin in conversation with Tate Modern photography curator Simon Baker [© C Cheesman]

The renowned photojournalist, 81, has spoken of his dismay after returning to Palmyra last week – a region he had first visited several years ago for a project about the Roman frontier.

He had planned to photograph the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel, which now lies in ruins after being attacked by so-called Islamic State.

Back in the spotlight, McCullin today took part in a talk at Photo London, where he is Master of Photography 2016.

McCullin was asked to talk about the excitement over his career at this period of his life, with a major exhibition at Photo London coinciding with the launch of a new book.

‘Well, it’s because it’s the last time for me really,’ said McCullin, who was in conversation with Simon Baker, curator of International Art (Photography) at Tate Modern.

Reflecting on his career, McCullin said: ‘I’ve got to the stage in my life when I’ve been in love with photography for about 60 years and, in the end, it really takes its toll on you because people think that taking photographs [is] just “press that button and it’s all so easy”.

‘They don’t realise the stress you go through to get there… and you get disappointed, as was the case when I went to Palmyra in Syria last week. All I wanted was to photograph the Temple of Bel, which the ISIS people have destroyed – it was the most atrocious thing to have done.’

‘I saw a gap in the wall’

Backed by Russian air strikes, Syrian forces recently recaptured Palmyra – prompting Don to call The Times, to tell the newspaper he’d like to document images of the city ruins.

‘I actually got to the Temple and saw the door slightly open and I thought, “You lucky devil – you’ve made it”. I pushed the door – it was totally unmovable.

‘Then, I saw a gap in the wall and I thought I’ll get in there.

‘I took one frame and a Russian soldier came out of nowhere… roaring round the corner… and pushing me away saying, “No, no, go away, go away”…

‘That was it. I [had gone] all those thousands of kilometres, only to be turned away.

‘So what it really comes down to is that you don’t really own photography.

‘It tends to own you more than you own it – even though you shouldn’t believe you own it. You “practise” photography.’

To distract himself from the trauma of documenting decades of global conflict, McCullin these days devotes much of his time to black & white landscapes, and the darkroom at his Somerset home.

Predictably, Don McCullin’s talk at Photo London proved massively popular, with access strictly controlled by organisers – and not a spare seat in the house.

• Don McCullin is arguably the UK’s most important living documentary photographer. He talks to Joel Meadows about his work and life in this week’s digital copy of Amateur Photographer.