In­ter­view

The ac­claimed pho­tog­ra­pher tells DavidClark about his in­spi­ra­tions and in­sa­tiable cu­rios­ity, and why pho­tog­ra­phy still mat­ters

Digital Camera World - - CONTENTS -

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

Op­po­site:

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.

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