The acclaimed photographer tells DavidClark about his inspirations and insatiable curiosity, and why photography still matters
Master photographer Steve McCurry
hat first attracted you to photography?
WI grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and I lived there for most of my early life. My father was an electrical engineer, but he also had a very keen interest in photography. I had a camera when I was growing up, but I only really got involved in photography when I was in college.
I took a class in fine art photography, and I fell in love with the camera and the possibility of travelling the world and taking pictures. I decided this would be a great vehicle to help me travel, to explore and see the world that we live in.
You initially aimed to be a film-maker. How did you come to work with the still image instead?
While I was studying film-making, I started doing a lot of still photography and working for the school newspaper, and I drifted into doing stills for films. I started looking at a lot of photography books by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. Once I got out of school, I never was involved in film-making again.
Were there any photographers who inspired you when you were starting out?
One of the founders of Magnum Photos, Henri Cartier-Bresson, is one of my biggest inspirations. He was a great storyteller. His pictures are elegant and well-composed, and he was a great portrait photographer. I think his pictures are as fresh today as they were when he first took them.
He was a documentary photographer, and was on the spot to photograph the assassination of Gandhi and other major stories around the world. He really was a very intelligent photographer, and he was also an artist. A lot of people can photograph war and strife, but to photograph everyday life in a city or town, of ordinary people, which he did: that is a real gift.
What was your most important break as your career developed?
A huge break in my career was meeting the group of Afghan refugees, in 1979, who informed me of the civil war in their country and ultimately insisted that I join them to document the conflict. With their help, I was
Steve McCurry’s iconic photograph of Afghan refugee Sharbat Gula, 1984.
“T here are certain documentary photographs that just hit on something we all respond to”
disguised and smuggled across the border into Afghanistan. This was one my early opportunities to spread the story of a major conflict through my photographs.
Another important career break for me was when I photographed Sharbat Gula
[preceding page] in 1984, in a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan. After all these years, I still find the image powerful. I think it’s because of that hopeless beauty conveyed in her look. She’s a very beautiful girl. It’s clear that she’s poor – her face is dirty, her shawl is ripped – yet she has a sort of dignity, confidence and fortitude that people respond to.
I feel humbled to learn that the newer generation is still learning of this photograph. I hope that they also learn the story behind the image, and about how hard life can be simply trying to survive in a conflict zone.
Which part of the world has been the most interesting for you to photograph?
I find Asia probably the most fascinating part of the world. The cultures in Asia seem to be the most ancient, and their origins seem to have a direct link to the present day, some lasting thousands of years. There is no other place on the planet, perhaps with the exception of the pyramids in Egypt or ancient Greece, that has preserved the essence of such an ancient civilisation – where temples, architecture, language, customs and art still remain and are as vital today as they would have been 500 or even 2,000 years ago. My work in Asia is like drinking from a glass that never empties.
What have been the most important changes in documentary photography that you’ve seen during your career?
Documentary photography is becoming more and more accepted in the fine art market. There are certain documentary photographs in the world that just hit on something we all respond to; there is a universal chord that speaks to us. They become important. Documents are important, and they rise to the surface in that world of collecting and exhibitions and people want them.
Some of the photographers in the past – such as W Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange Henri Cartier-Bresson – have facilitated the acceptance of the documentary photographer in the art world today. Today’s professional photographers inhabit a very different landscape now than they did 20 years ago.
Kodachrome 64 was your film of choice for 30 years. How has the transition to digital capture affected your work?
I’ve had great fun with digital photography. The transition to digital hasn’t really changed
the way I see or the way I photograph, but I am now able to work in much lower light and more difficult situations than I could in the past. The same truths apply to any image, regardless of the technique that went into crafting it.
I worked with film exclusively for most of my career, but these days I have fully embraced digital technology. It’s a matter of practicality. It takes some of the technical problems away and frees you up to do what you want to do, which is to be in the moment and interact with your subject. That’s the joy of it.
Is social media increasingly important for getting your work seen and continuing to develop an audience?
Social media has become a platform for me to appreciate the impact my work has on others worldwide. It has become an additional way to culturally enrich an audience with encounters I have met around the world.
Tell us about your online photography masterclass with Masters of Photography. What’s it about, and what made you choose to do it?
I think the great thing about photography is telling stories about humanity, about people and the world that we live in, and to share those stories with other people. This course isn’t about how to use your camera; it’s not a technical course. It’s more about developing your eye, it’s about finding those interesting
“T he key thing is to find a subject that has meaning to you – one that enriches your life” Opposite: Nomad child, Amdo, Tibet, 2001.
pictures to tell great stories. I believe that Masters of Photography is a unique way to provide tips on how to create a dialogue with your subject, and to give the strength and tools to young photographers to go out there and take pictures.
What are the main ideas you want to get across in your masterclass?
I say that with the camera you can wander and explore, get into sort of a meditative state, get into a zone of concentration, where you became hyper-aware of your environment. You start to notice things, sights and sounds, which normally we would walk by and not pay any attention to because our mind is thinking about something else.
I also say you never go wrong following your heart: you never go wrong photographing what you care about and what you are passionate about.
What are the other key messages that you get across in the class?
First, to encourage the viewer to go out and be curious about the world that we live in. Second, rules are meant to be broken. Third, sometimes great pictures are ambiguous and have a sense of mystery. Fourth, the journey is always more important than the actual destination. And finally, the best pictures are ones that tell a story, that take us on a journey.
You’ve shot many individual projects during your career. What practical suggestions do you have for others wanting to shoot personal projects?
I think a lot of it is about persistence. If you’re going to photograph a project on cooks or doctors or boxers or actors, for example,
I think it’s just a question of sticking with it. After some time, you start to dig deeper and become more discerning. Later on in a project, you often realise you can improve on some of the work you did in the beginning. You just have to kind of chip away at the subject. You have to show your work to friends, family and other photographers, because sometimes we all fall in love with our work and we need people we trust to give honest feedback.
It’s a long process and you have to keep working on it. That’s why the key thing is to find a subject that has meaning to you – one that enriches your life and you think is important, whatever that may be.
When did you realise travel was going to be an important part of your life?
There’s not much history of travel in my family, so it’s a bit odd that suddenly I’ve become a sort of nomad, spending the last 30 years travelling around the world – but I’m very curious.
What drives your love of travel – what do you get out of it?
I’m fascinated with other cultures and the world. I think that travel and seeing the world and experiencing the planet that we live in is maybe one of the most important things we can do. We’re here for such a short time in this world, and it seems that one of the most interesting, most worthwhile things you can do is actually see the world.
You’ve met people from a wide variety of cultures over a long period – what have you learned about human nature from those encounters?
I think human nature is somewhat universal. That’s something I’ve observed over years of travelling around the world. I think there’s a commonality of humanity – wherever you’re from, there are certain fundamental similarities we all have. You scratch the surface of religion or customs, and people are basically the same at the core.
What’s been the best thing about your career to date?
I have this wonderful chance to travel the world with my family, my wife and our 18-month-old daughter. I think it’s a tremendous opportunity at such a young age to be confronted by different cultures and the rest of the world.
What advice would you give someone who wants to do your kind of work?
If you look at the photographers whose work we admire, they’ve found a particular place, theme or subject, dug deep into it, and carved
“A good picture is memorable – it stays with you, moves you and, ultimately, changes you”
out something that’s become special. And that takes a lot of time and a lot of work, which is not for everyone. You can return to one single photo over and over. It’s one moment captured in time; and if it is the right moment, the decisive moment, it tells the whole story.
A good picture is one that elucidates an emotion, and brings forward a reaction – one that makes me want to learn something from it. A good picture is memorable – it stays with you, moves you and, ultimately, changes you in some way. A retrospective book, Steve McCurry:
A Life in Pictures by Bonnie McCurry, is the largest collection of Steve’s images in one volume. It will be published by Laurence King in November 2018.
Above: Mother and child at a car window, Mumbai, 1993.
Above: ‘Taj and Train’, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India, 1983.