"Now I’m in an old man’s body with a young man’s eyes,” says 82-year-old war photographer Don McCullin as he struggles to the top of a shelled building in the Syrian city of Homs in a new documentary, The Road to Palmyra. “I couldn’t get up there on my own steam,” he admits, three months later, in his Somerset home. “My mind says, ‘We’re going up there,’ my body says, ‘Hang on, are you sure?’ If my legs shake a bit, it’s not because I’m afraid, it’s my body refusing my youthful mind.”


Nonetheless, half-pulled and half pushed by the crew, McCullin gets to the top and takes the brooding and revelatory shot of the apocalyptic city you can see on these pages. Homs is a stop-off as McCullin and the 68-year-old architectural historian Dan Cruickshank take a road trip from government-controlled Damascus to Palmyra, the Unesco-listed ancient Syrian desert city of temples and columns despoiled by two Islamic State occupations during the country’s seven-year-long civil war.

The TV camera spends much time on McCullin’s shock of white hair and the lined face that has seen so many terrible things in 60 years covering conflicts in Vietnam, Lebanon and beyond. “I’ve just tried to bring the honesty into my images,” he says of a black-and-white reportage style that found the dark centre of human suffering within beautifully constructed shots. “I’ve covered starving children, earthquake victims, massacres of Palestinians in the streets of East Beirut.”

McCullin is still finely attuned to the realities and dangers of combat zones. As Cruickshank talks on a drive through Damascus, McCullin warns that a mortar shell could come over from rebel lines at any moment. In Homs, he finds an unexploded mortar shell in the pavement. “I have risked my life endless times, and ended up in hospital with all kinds of burns and shell wounds. I have those reptile eyes that see behind and in front of me. I’m constantly trying to stay alive. I’m aware of warfare, of hidden mines. But being with Dan was an amazing experience. He’s an extraordinary man, a lovely human being, and he personally took the damage of Palmyra very seriously – under the surface he was bleeding.”

IS did terrible damage in the 2,000-year-old city, hacking faces from sculptures and blowing up the iconic, for Syrians, Temple of Bel. “Not only did they destroy human life, they turned on the nation’s culture,” says McCullin, who refused to watch footage of IS executions in the theatre at Palmyra, now a silent and ghastly place. “I won’t watch their beheading footage. There is no way to describe IS, even calling them idiots and morons, it goes beyond that.”

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Don McCullin in Vietnam (Getty/FC)
Don McCullin in Vietnam (Getty)

One of the toughest moments in the documentary comes when McCullin and Cruickshank meet the sons of Khaled al-Asaad, Director of Antiquities at Palmyra who was beheaded by IS in 2015, aged 83. McCullin knew Al-Asaad – he’d visited the museum where he worked and taken photos there – and he cries when the director’s sons tell him of their father’s last words as the guards demanded he knelt before the executioner’s blade. “I kneel only to God,” he said, “not to lackeys.”

“They took us to where their father was murdered. I was trying to hold it in. But as tough as I am, you know, I’m still a human being. It was just a purely emotional moment, something I found really powerful, and it was hard to listen to. When I think of IS it sends a shiver down my spine. When I think of them and their atrocities, I detest them beyond imagination.”

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McCullin has been to Syria several times during the civil war and was able to photograph the famous Temple of Bel before and after its destruction. “On one trip I fell over and snapped my rib, which pierced my lung. On another I got the last really high-quality pictures of this temple before it was destroyed. So I’m doing something useful.” Last year he was in East Ghouta, recent scene of the alleged chemical attack that led to British and French air strikes in April. He is still troubled by the incident. “They may have been gassed, they may not have been – we still don’t have any real proof,” he says, casting doubt on the television footage that was used, in part, to justify western military action. “The truth is, we haven’t seen any heaps of dead families in their homes. We did see children being hosed down, because they were traumatised, but they’re going to be traumatised when you’ve been bombed like that. I used to hear the bombs raining down on London when I was a five-year-old, so I know what it’s like to be afraid of bombing.”

Eight decades after that introduction to war, is McCullin finally turning his back on the combat zone? “I always think to myself what goes around comes around. If you do something bad and evil in your life, eventually it’s going to catch up with you and punish you. I don’t think I’ve done incredible evil to another human being but I still don’t trust life. I got away with all the wars and then had a stroke several years ago and wound up having a massive surgery. But I’m still here.”


The Road to Palmyra airs on May Bank Holiday Monday at 9pm on BBC4