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Don McCullin's camera has captured some of war's most enduring images. From Jan. 31 to April 14, the National Gallery in Ottawa is hosting a display of his work. He spoke to The Globe's James Adams about selected prints.

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“Somebody’s made a film about me [McCullin, released in Britain earlier this year] and there’s this colonel of the battalion I was with back then in it. He says they have a reunion or did have reunion every year after the war in Vietnam and he says this individual never, ever turned up. Everybody says to me, ‘Have you ever found out what happened to this guy?’ I haven’t but you know, in photography, you usually don’t. A lot of the soldiers around him, when I found him sitting in that place, they thought he was what we call in England ‘swinging the lead,’ trying to get out of the fight, really. They basically left him there, in isolation.” Shell-shocked U.S. Marine awaits evacuation, Tet Offensive, Hue, South Vietnam, February 1968. Gelatin silver print.

Don McCullin/Contact Press Images

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“It looks like a still from a film about the Mafia or the I.R.A. or something like that but there’s nothing intentional about it . . . The man’s wearing a perfectly good Raglan raincoat, very stylish, with the Sicilian hat on and carrying the British Sten gun, which is about the worst weapon ever invented. Things like this happen very quickly; you get what you can; you don’t stylize it; it happens the way it happens. A lot of people actually like the image, which is the wrong reason for any of my pictures to be valued. It’s a bit glorifying by its Constable look. That’s what war photography should not be about.” Turkish defender leaving the side-entrance of a cinema, Limassol, Cyprus, 1964. Gelatin silver print.

Don McCullin/Contact Press Images

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Catholic youth escaping a CS gas assault in the Bogside, Londonderry, Northern Ireland, 1971. Gelatin silver print.

Don McCullin/Contact Press Images

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“Probably one of the best portraits I’ve ever taken. He’s an Irishman with blue eyes and has some funny marks on him. He was lying every night by a bonfire near a vegetable market. Some Hare Krishna types would come around at night giving these people soup, then they’d daub their faces with that absurd kind of religious sign. So he had to put up with that to get that bowl of soup. You can see he’s a man whose soul has been destroyed or possibly didn’t exist even. It’s a picture I call Neptune because he looks like that Roman god under the sea with his spiky hair rising with the undercurrents of the ocean. Sometimes I get carried away and romanticize about things because I need to indulge myself in some journey into fantasy because I’ve seen so much ugliness.” Homeless Irishman, Aldgate, East End, London, 1970. Gelatin silver print.

Don McCullin/Contact Press Images

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The Guvnors, Finsbury Park, London, 1958. Gelatin silver print.

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“Finsbury Park [where McCullin was born in October, 1935, the son of a fishmonger and his wife] was full of dregs. He looks like a kind of Gypsy to me. His name was Johnny. There’s a contemptuous look in his eye and a bit of pride. A lot of the boys I went to school with had foreign blood in them; they’d come to the area because they were poor. Jewish people, Pakistanis. I wished I’d turned my camera more on Finsbury Park because it was full of extraordinary-looking people. Sadly, all those boys I grew up with there got involved in criminal behaviour. But that background was very good for my life in photography because I grew up fighting boys and being kicked and beaten myself. It was a bad place but the best place to get my grounding in what I was to see in my future life.” At a cafe in Finsbury Park, London, 1958. Gelatin silver print.

Don McCullin/Contact Press Images

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Jean, a homeless woman, Aldgate, East End, London. 1984, printed c. 1985. Gelatin silver print.

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Along the Ganges during the Sonepur Mela festival, Bihar, India, 1993. Platinum print.

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“The demonstration was taking place in Trafalgar Square and this man broke away and ran down Whitehall. But the police were waiting because 10 Downing St. [residence of the British Prime Minister] was down in that area and they weren’t going to let him get there. Others eventually showed up to join him but they never got any further. This picture doesn’t have a threatening look about it. It’s slightly joyful even, because you can see some smirking going on amongst the policemen. For the first time in my life, it seems as if there is a sense of humour in Mr. McCullin.” Protester, Cuban missile crisis, Whitehall, London, 1962. Gelatin silver print.

Don McCullin/Contact Press Images

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“I wasn’t really a photographer when I took that picture. I just snatched a moment. I was in Paris with my young wife – we’d never had a proper honeymoon, so we went there on the weekend – and I saw a man reading a newspaper near the Café Flore and I looked over his shoulder and there was this picture of an East German soldier jumping into the West over barbed wire. I said to my wife, ‘When I get back to England, would you mind if I went to Berlin?’ I only had one camera, the very worst kind you could take for a journalistic story, but there you go. Berlin back then was The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; it was a John LeCarré scene. It was amazing. This was the beginning of my footprint in the word of photojournalism and covering international affairs.” American soldiers, Checkpoint Charlie, West Berlin, August, 1961

Don McCullin/Contact Press Images

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U.S. marine throwing grenade, Tet Offensive, Hue, South Vietnam, February 1968. Gelatin silver print.

Don McCullin/Contact Press Images

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Old Vietnamese man, Tet Offensive, Hue, South Vietnam, February, 1968. Gelatin silver print.

Don McCullin/Contact Press Images

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Palestinians fleeing a massacre by Christan Phalangist gunmen, Karantina Beirut, January 1976.

Don McCullin/Contact Press Images

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