The nomad image maker

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Steve McCurry has been providing a glimpse of the collective anima that unites mankind for more than 30 years. In his thousands of portraits the eyes take centre stage, reflecting and revealing a story more real than any printed page. Devoting his life to documenting the world’s vast array of cultures and faces, often in remote and violent landscapes, or close to home in the aftermath of 9/11, McCurry’s photos capture the human condition in all its rawness, beauty and honesty. It is fitting that a 2003 French documentary on McCurry was called The Face of the Human Condition, an apt tribute to the man who has made humanity his life’s work. 

Who or what inspired you to want to be a photographer?
While studying documentary film making in university I took a fine art photography class. At the same time I started photographing for the college newspaper. A whole new world opened up to me. I loved the ability to walk out the door and immediately start to work, start to photograph with no particular plan in mind, to wander and observe life as it unfolded.
You initially worked as a photographer for a newspaper in Philadelphia, but quit your job in order to live in India as a freelance photojournalist. What were some of the biggest challenges or learning curves you had to overcome in order to make this transition?
In between high school and college I travelled to Africa, the Middle East and Asia. I had also travelled to Latin America during college so I was prepared to interact with all kinds of people which is a skill that has served me so well throughout my career.
You’ve mentioned before that India holds a very special place in your heart and is where you’ve shot some of your most prized images. How did the people of India react to you when you first started going there to photograph their daily lives?
A big part of the portrait making process is just exercising patience and waiting until people relax with the camera and become less self-conscious of being photographed. It’s in that moment when people stop being so self-aware that their true personality emerges. Whether you are in India, or Afghanistan or Tibet or Burma, this simple truth is universal.
Your big break came in 1979 when you illegally crossed the Pakistan border into rebel-controlled Afghanistan before the Russian invasion and spent two weeks on the front line.
Were your pictures shot surreptitiously or were you openly immersed in such intense and dangerous conditions?
When I was in Pakistan in 1979, I was wandering around various areas along the Afghan-Pakistan border, when by chance I met a group of Afghan refugees in a small village called Chitral. They told me how their villages were being destroyed by the conflict and recognising me as a voice of the foreign press, wanted me to help get their story out. So they smuggled me into Afghanistan with the hopes that I would be able to tell their story to the world. I had never experienced being under mortar and machine gun fire, visiting all these people whose villages had been destroyed.
I travelled with many different Mujahedeen and militia groups. We mainly travelled at night to avoid being spotted by the Soviet helicopters. Most of the time we walked, sometimes for twelve to fourteen hours a day. A few times we were able to borrow horses. I was always astonished at the continual pipeline of weapons and supplies going into Afghanistan from Pakistan around the clock. Rockets, mortar rounds and ammunition were carried in by camels, donkeys and fighters. I witnessed strafing by Soviet helicopter gunships, ambushes of Russian convoys, forced marches of captured soldiers and the Mujahedeen crawling over helicopters they had just brought down with Stinger missiles.
Your photograph of the young Afghan girl, Sharbat Gula, which was published on the cover of National Geographic in 1985, is as equally mesmerising as it is startling. Why do you think this picture became so iconic?
In the photograph, anyone can see that she’s a beautiful girl, but it’s clear that she’s poor: her face is dirty; her shawl is ripped; yet she has a sort of dignity and perhaps confidence and fortitude. In her eyes, I suppose you could sense that there’s something troubling her, something not quite right. Perhaps she’s seen more than she should have at such a young age. So you have this pretty girl, but she has flaws such as her scar and the dirt of her face. It’s a mix, which gives it a sense of reality. It’s not posed or contrived. There is an ambiguity about her expression.
When you rediscovered her two decades later, even though it was elating to reconnect, was there a sense that she was better left an enigma?
It was very emotional finding her. We were really quite astonished. It was like a miracle, finding her and finally being able to help her. For me it had been such a lingering question for so long – so many people had written to me wanting to know her story. I think, if anything, being able to reconnect with her so many years later just gave that much more meaning to the image for me, both in a personal and a historical context. My family is in contact with her through an intermediary who is a friend of hers and mine, and it has been gratifying to be a small part of her life.
Do you think that people are becoming more and more immune to the effects of photojournalism simply because we are bombarded daily with images of destruction, poverty and death in the news?
In magazines there is such a competition with the ad space these days. The editorial has to be just as graphically strong, or stronger, than the ads next to it. Part of this is due to the inundation of multimedia – there are countless channels on television, infinite content on the internet and stimuli literally everywhere we turn … there is so much competition. Back in the 50s and 60s, magazines were the place people got their news.
Now, there are a thousand different sources readily available and largely free … How can you compete with that? That being said, the changes haven’t really affected me or how I go about my work. A strong, powerful photograph will always be that, and I don’t think anything will ever supplant that unique influence.
Which photographers, dead or alive, do you most admire?
I think Henri Cartier-Bresson’s pictures were a wonderful insight and look into a person’s personality. His pictures are journalistic but they transcend journalism for me and work on a lot of different levels. They’re timeless.
In 2006 you stated that your favourite photograph out of all the ones you’d ever taken was the sandstorm picture of a group of women huddled together for protection. Has your preference changed since then?
This is still one of my favourite pictures from my work in India. Another of my favourites was also taken on a subsequent trip to India. I was in a very old quarter of a very old city in Rajasthan – the whole city is painted this wonderful colour of blue. I came around a corner where I noticed a series of hand prints on a wall that had been placed by children during one of their festivals. I stood there for about an hour and went back the next day and stood there for another hour, photographing that alleyway and the surrounding neighbourhood. Photographing people, cows, dogs coming and going. Eventually, one little boy dashed through the frame and I caught him in mid stride.
The theme of this issue is Power. What does this word mean to you?
Power means many different things. For some people it is political capital, or money, or influence, weapons, technology or sheer physical prowess. I think few things have that kind of power the way a single photograph can. One of my strongest memories of this was the photograph by Nick Ut of a small Vietnamese girl, running naked and barefoot down a street as her village is napalmed in the midst of the Vietnam War.
This single frame, more than any thousands of words thrown around on television, radio or print had a huge influence on the outlook of people. There is a certain immeasurable quality that strikes at the common heart in all people. That image made the conflict real for so many people. It was, as much as anything else, a striking turning point in public opinion.
There are countless other examples of this: The Apollo Moon landing; the tanks lined up in Tiananmen Square; the images from Kent State; the monk immolating himself in Saigon. These are the images that define events, eras and history for us. These are the images that have the power to rally people to a cause and to champion change. That to me is real power.
What do you think it is about photographs that makes them so powerful?
Unlike video, which is continually in motion, pictures you look at, stare at, and come back to time and time again. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul, and, while the expression may be trite, I find this to be a very true concept. We connect with one another in person via eye contact and there is a real power in that shared moment of attention, in which you can occasionally catch a glimpse of what it must be like to be in another’s shoes.
I think this is one of the most powerful things about a photographic portrait. You can hold and prolong that moment in the privacy of your own leisure. At just the right moment, when a person is relaxed and has a good rapport with the photographer, their eyes will tell you everything.
What do you hope to convey through your images?
I hope to show that there are more similarities among people than there are differences.
by Lauren Weinberg
Taken from the Glass Archive – Issue 7 – Power
Posted: 24 May 2013

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