Steve McCurry is one of the most prolific and important photographers of our generation, and one that has captured the state of our changing world since the 1970s. At seminal points in history – from the Johnstown floods in the late 70s to his breakthrough journey into Afghanistan in the 80s, to the Gulf War in the 90s, to the falling of the twin towers in New York on September 11 2001, McCurry has been there, camera in hand, documenting these momentous events for posterity. His work – raw, emotional, at times harrowing and always unapologetically real – has provided some of our best insight into the both the differences and similarities of humanity the world over. Alongside the publication of a collection of his life’s work in Steve McCurry: A Life in Pictures we meet the iconic image maker to talk photography’s place in a changing world, near death experiences and the moments that still haunt him.
You have travelled so much in your career, how have you seen the world change in that time and how has this affected your photography?
Instant and unrelenting communication such as the Internet and smartphones have had a dramatic effect on our society because people now have access to world news and current events right in the palm of their hands. Younger generations are increasingly more culturally connected. There was a time when I was traveling to countries like India and China and mere phone calls were extremely difficult to achieve. People communicated mainly by telegrams and telexes.
Are there any specific destinations that are almost unrecognisable to when you first started your career?
I’ve visited Kabul more than fifty times over the past 40 years and I’m continually amazed by how the city has changed over time. It’s a unique dichotomy because part of the city has fully embraced modernism and globalisation. There are luxury shopping malls, high rise apartment complexes, and ostentatious villas being built every year. But still there remains a large gap between upwardly mobile elites, and uneducated people living in dire poverty. A large part of the population struggles to make a decent living. The population of Kabul has increased rapidly over the past decade and is considered one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Currently there’s an environmental crisis because of air and water pollution which affects the citizens of Kabul, putting their health at risk, and, by some estimates, killing nearly 3,000 people per year.
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"I look for that unguarded moment and try to convey some part of what it is like to be that person, or in a broader sense, to relate their life to the human experience as a whole."
You are known for your incredible portraiture. How do you work with your subjects to capture the essence of who they are? And what continues to fascinate you about the human face?
Most of my images are grounded in people. I tend to photograph people who have something distinctive or compelling about their expression. Many of these portraits are the result of chance brief encounters which lasted for only a couple of minutes from beginning to end. I look for that unguarded moment and try to convey some part of what it is like to be that person, or in a broader sense, to relate their life to the human experience as a whole. We humans connect to one another via eye contact — there is a real power in that shared moment of attention, when you catch a glimpse of what it must be like to be in their shoes.
Your work has taken you into some harrowing situations – are there any of your images that you find particularly and personally haunting to this day?
The child labor portraits I captured in countries like Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan still haunt me today. Especially now that I’m a parent and fully aware of the comfortable life my family has living in a country that banned child labor and created laws to protect them.
There is another experience when in an asylum in Kabul in 1992. The treatments were practically medieval. There was a man with his leg chained who was considered to be dangerous. After photographing him and wandering off to another part of the courtyard, I looked back to see that he had a stone that he was using to injure another inmate. We wrestled him to the ground and took the wounded man to the hospital, but the vision of the stone bouncing off his head stays with me. That was a disturbing experience.
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"As a photographer, you are not on the job to judge. The goal is for the pictures to speak for themselves."
When in difficult situations photographers are there to capture these moments for posterity but have there ever been times where your morality has conflicted with that? How difficult is it to be nonpartisan?
The important part is to photograph in the most authentic and respectful ways to provide honest pictures that reflect the integrity of the situation. You are not on assignment to take sides politically, but to report what is happening at that moment in time. As a photographer, you are not on the job to judge. The goal is for the pictures to speak for themselves.
Your book is titled A Life in Pictures – could you pick out three moments in your life’s work that still stick out to you as the most surreal experiences?
It was an unforgettable experience to work in Kuwait in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. The Iraqi army burned 600 oil fields when they fled. Animals were disoriented and lost in the wasteland. There were many dead Iraqi soldiers who had been abandoned on the battlefield.
I was doing aerial photography in Slovenia and the plane crashed in Lake Bled. I found myself strapped in, upside down, and underwater. I had forgotten to ask how to undo the seat belt because it wasn’t a regular plane. I thought I was going to die. I slid out underneath the seat belt across my throat. I ripped the helmet off my head and swam out. It still scares me when I think about it.
Certainly September 11, 2001, was one of the worst days in my life. I watched both towers collapse and disintegrate, assuming that thousands of people had lost their lives.
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"Important events need to be recorded; they become a historical document, a primary source."
What are some of the images by other photographers that you find the most powerful?
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Hyeres, France, Eugene Smith’s Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath and Dorothea Lange’s The Migrant Mother.
What do you think the most important role of photography is in 2018?
Important events need to be recorded; they become a historical document, a primary source. A picture can galvanise people into action. An example is the small Syrian refugee boy whose body was washed up on a beach. That picture triggered a worldwide response, and many people had a much better understanding of the risks people are willing to take to escape from a war zone. Some government officials realized they needed to advocate for the people who had no voice.
Steve McCurry: A Life in Pictures is out now, published by Laurence King. For more click here.