Photographer Steve McCurry captures moments with his photographs that would otherwise be lost
BY ANJA FAHS
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 3 2017)
Steve McCurry is a globally celebrated photographer who has long been an icon of photojournalism. His "Afghan Girl", the portrait of a refugee child in Pakistan, went around the world on the cover of National Geographic magazine in 1984. It gained tremendous popularity as a projection surface of our Western imagination, and thanks to McCurry it became the symbol of the Afghan tragedy in the conflict with Russia in the 80s. Today, it is one of the most well-known photographs of the 20th century.
The unparalleled career of Steve McCurry, born in a suburb of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1950, comprises countless visits to the conflict areas of the world. He depicted the wretchedness of bloody conflicts for the Magnum photo agency, documenting the horrifying consequences of gun violence in conflict regions. Yet he achieved his most touching photographs as a silent observer. He doesn’t see himself as a war photographer, but rather a “visual storyteller” who is interested in the stories behind the photographs. McCurry captures the charming moments of human interaction and faces in day-to-day situations which wordlessly express something very special. His photographs are always contemporary documents, as is the case in his new book “Afghanistan” which has just been published by Taschen. This volume shows images of Afghanistan, portraits and landscapes across four decades, from a country which has retained its striking beauty despite war and destruction.
We spoke to Steve McCurry about his moving career, the timeless quality of his work, and about what still fascinates him today about observing people and their daily lives, no matter where in the world it may be.
You have documented conflicts all over the world with your camera and have worked in the cruelest of war zones. Did you imagine your life would be like this when you started your career?
No, not really. In the beginning I was travelling in India and photographing cultural subjects. And then Afghanistan was a complete coincidence. It wasn’t anything that I was expecting or that I was prepared for. It was something that just suddenly happened by chance.
Please tell us how you coincidentally happened to be in the midst of the Afghan conflict with Russia?
I was travelling in Pakistan in the mountains near the Afghan border. I met some refugees in my hotel and we started talking. They invited me to Afghanistan because they wanted to show me what was happening in their country. So I went with them and was shocked when I saw all the fighting and destruction and what was happening to the people.
How did you cope with all the suffering and pain of the victims you were confronted with?
Your heart breaks when you see all these people. It is such an inhumane situation they are caught in. Unfortunately, this happens all over the world. I think the only thing you can do is to tell their story, show what’s happening and hope that it promotes awareness and change.
You focused on the human consequences of war, intending to not only show what impressions war leaves on the landscape, but rather on the human face. What do you find in those faces?
Some faces have great stories to tell, very dramatic, somehow they show their life’s experience. I think it is endlessly fascinating to see all the different variations of human faces. Artists, sculptors, and photographers since the beginning of time were fascinated with human form, faces and expressions.
Do you think these are your most powerful photos?
There’s a lot of different kind of pictures that grab people’s attention. By looking at people’s faces we can see hardship, joy, depression, happiness and sadness - all the emotions that make us feel life is right there. It’s a fascinating study.
Your photographic work is mostly documentary from the troubled spots in the world. But in 2013, you were shooting the famous Pirelli Calendar, which is more a sort of commercial project. How did you come up with that and how did you bring your own signature into the project?
It was great! It was a very positive experience. I’m very proud of that body of work. The models I photographed were amazing. We picked models based on their humanitarian or environmental work. They all have own charity projects or made incredible contributions to the world. These women are great examples how we all should live our lives. It’s great to be beautiful, elegant, sexy and powerful and do meaningful things in education, healthcare or in the environment, and the models all had a lot to say about the causes they care about.
We are living in the digital age. For you personally, is this a curse or a blessing?
It’s fine! It is something you just have to accept the same way when we went from the horse to the automobile. You can say “I love my horse, it has a great personality, I understand my horse and now there’s this car thing, which is way too complicated and expensive.” But does anybody who travels around continue to do this by horse?
Digital photography is far superior to film; there’s no question about it. If we had this conversation twenty years ago, you probably could have made a case for analogue or film over digital, but not today. I’m sure there is the odd person who wants to continue with film the same way there are odd writers who prefer to use a typewriter. I’m not sure if you can write a better story or novel on a typewriter. If you prefer to use a typewriter that’s your business. But don’t tell me typewriters are superior to laptops or computers.
Your photos undoubtedly helped change how we see the world. Which series of photos do you personally think are the most important ones in this matter?
The photos about human behavior, the people, what we do every day. We work, we play, we love, we sleep, we fight, ageing, dying, birth.... this is it! This is life and it is the only thing we have. Of course, there are rocks and trees and photos of beautiful landscapes - but as far as humanity goes, how we live our lives is the greatest story! What are we doing with our brief time in this world? We wake up in the morning and then what? Do we waste our time or will we do something meaningful? That is fundamental. But the interesting aspect is that what you do may be utterly important to you, but for me it might be complete nonsense. But we need to accept and respect each other. This is what I care about and what is important to me.
Your work already left an indelible impact on the world of photography. How does it feel to know that you have created something that will last forever?
It’s fine to think that the work might survive. There’s impermanence for life, eventually everything fades and disappears in the winds of time. There were great poets, writers and artists we remember, like Beethoven and Goethe. But there are at least thousands of talented people who did incredible work that, in time, literally disappeared from the pace of history. People come and go. I think you have to live your life in the way that gives you the most meaning, satisfaction and happiness.
After all those countries you visited or worked in – is there still a place left in this world where you would love to go and photograph?
I like Madagascar, a place I’ve never been to. Mongolia or North Korea just because it is so extreme and very odd. It is a very dangerous place. We are fascinated with insanity and these kinds of extreme situations. And there are some really interesting places in Russia. It’s always fun to go to a new place, meet new people. It is one of the joys of travel to see new places.
What person would you like to take a photo of?
I’ve never been driven to photograph celebrities or famous people. But if you ask me for a great person, I would have dinner with I think the Dalai Lama, or Barack Obama would be very interesting.
What will be your next project?
I’m going to the Galapagos Islands next. And I have a seven-month old daughter, so we will take some time in August to travel around a bit. I will do some work in Portugal and there are a lot of projects coming up. I think I travel now at age 67 more than I did when I was 37 years old. I find it very difficult to say no to great projects. That’s like having a great meal. You want to taste this and a little bit of that and this wine and dessert and so on. There are too many great projects to say no to – so I say yes, and end up never being at home.
Looking back on your impressive life so far – is there something you would change if you had the chance?
Yes! I don’t have any regrets, actually. But I would probably have spent more time photographing for myself. I was always photographing in my own way, but I would have preferred to work less for other people and spend more time working for myself. The problem is we all need to earn our living. But I wish I had spent more time in China or Russia back in the 1980s or early 90s. Especially when I look at the incredible changes in China today. There are a lot of places in the world that changed forever and I wish I had some kind of record or documentation about how things were before all that modernisation. But we only have one life, and you have to make choices and just move forward. I think what I chose was right at that time.
Steve McCurry has been one of the most iconic voices in contemporary photography for more than thirty years, with scores of magazines, over a dozen books and countless exhibitions around the world to his name. After several travels to India, the Middle East and Afghanistan, McCurry founded ImagineAsia in 2004. The mission of IA, a non-profit organisation, is to work in partnership with local community leaders and regional NGOs to help provide educational resources and opportunities to children and young adults in Afghanistan.
Picture credit © Steve McCurry