‘I’d say the Tal­iban are suc­ceed­ing’

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Cover Story -

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

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