‘I’d say the Taliban are succeeding’
Four decades after Steve McCurry’s photographs changed the way we thought about Afghanistan, he tells Gaby Wood why his latest shots will be his last
The celebrated Magnum photographer Steve McCurry spends half his time on the road. “Maybe a lot more than half,” he says, considering his nomadic life as we sit in one of the well-stocked storage spaces next to his studio in Long Island City, New York. Compact and energetic, with an ageless demeanour, he has just returned from a week in the Arctic.
“I think every place has value,” he reflects, though there are some to which his eye does not respond. “Sometimes when I’m driving through, say, parts of this country, I find it really depressing and really boring. It’s always the same stores – the Burger Kings and McDonalds and gas stations…” he says. “The drugstore in Alabama is exactly the same as a drugstore in Maine or Washington State. There’s no individuality, there’s no regional flavour, there’s no charm, or poetry or beauty. It’s not something I want to use my limited time left on this planet to explore,” he concludes with a shrug. “I’d rather be in Venice.” Charm, poetry, beauty: these are not the usual prerequisites of a war correspondent. But McCurry, who, while travelling in 1979, became accidentally embedded with mujahideen in Afghanistan, has never seen himself as a combat photographer.
“I was always more interested in the refugees than the actual combatants,” he says. Famous for his 1984 National Geographic cover of a green-eyed child known as “the Afghan Girl”, he now says he is unlikely ever to return to the country he has documented, in intense colour and with unlikely serenity, for 40 years. The moment marks a shift not just in the situation in that part of the world, but in McCurry’s outlook, too. “At 67,” he says, pausing to take in this unfeasible figure, “I think that whatever you’re gonna do, you’ve gotta get cracking.”
You might say that McCurry has become the victim of his own eye – if a photographer who has 2.2 million Instagram followers and whose prints fetch up to £150,000 at auction can be called a victim. Though he doesn’t claim to be a historian or an anthropologist, he speaks of photography almost as if it were a medium of the past. He mourns change in the places he loves, while realising that he can’t be seen to be against progress.
“I’m interested in cultures that still have their individuality,” he says. He thinks back to the way China was 30 years ago, and says “it makes your head spin”. He mentions a unique transportation system that used to be a typical sight on Inle Lake in Burma – fishermen would paddle their shallow wooden boats while standing up, with one leg wrapped around the oar. But now they have Chinese motors, and that system is being lost. “When I was there the last time, in March, I saw one or two people doing that, otherwise it was all motors,” McCurry explains.
He pauses to stress that “people deserve the best possible education and healthcare, obviously. So when that starts to kick in, a lot of these
‘I was always more interested in the refugees than the actual combatants’
A city in ruins: McCurry’s shot of a bomb- damaged street in Kabul in 2002
Close to the action: Steve McCurry shot to fame after his picture of mujahideen observing a Russian convoy in Nuristan was published in The New York Times in 1979