CHANCES ARE YOU’VE SEEN A STEVE McCURRY PHOTOGRAPH OR TWO. THE 61-YEAR-OLD, NAMED BY THE GUARDIAN AS “ONE OF THE WORLD’S GREATEST PHOTOJOURNALISTS”, HAS BEEN TRAVELING THE WORLD TAKING PHOTOS FOR FOUR DECADES. HIS MOST FAMOUS IS PROBABLY AFGHAN GIRL, THE SHOT OF A GORGEOUS, GREEN-EYED GIRL IN A PAKISTANI REFUGEE CAMP THAT HE TOOK IN THE ‘80S AND GRACED THE COVER OF NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC. SINCE THEN HE’S BEEN TO ALMOST EVERY COUNTRY IN THE WORLD, TAKING PHOTOS EVERY STEP OF THE WAY, IN HIS OWN STYLE OF VISUAL REPORTAGE. THE RESULTS HAVE BEEN COLLECTED THIS YEAR IN STEVE McCURRY: THE ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS, PUBLISHED BY PHAIDON.
THE PRACTICING BUDDHIST AND GREENWICH VILLAGE RESIDENT CHATTED TO DIRTY FROM TURKEY, WHERE HE WAS, AS USUAL, AT WORK.
TEXT Kirsten Matthew
DIRTY: YOU GREW UP IN PENNSYLVANIA – WHAT WAS YOUR CHILDHOOD LIKE?
STEVE MCCURRY: I was pretty active as a kid. I remember this boundless energy, running around, exploring and playing with my friends. After high school I turned that same energy into a passion for travel. When I was much younger, I traveled through Latin America, Europe and the Middle East.
D: WHERE ARE YOU BASED NOW?
SM: I live in New York City—I’ve lived in Greenwich Village for more than twenty years—but I travel a considerable part of the year.
D: HOW MUCH OF YOUR TIME IS SPENT TRAVELING?
SM: It would be difficult for me to come up with an exact amount of time, but whatever it is it’s probably more than it should be and more than anyone else I know. I can’t think of anything more interesting than traveling and photographing, and exploring this fascinating world that we live in.
D: WHEN DID YOU FIRST START TAKING PHOTOS?
SM: I started photographing when I was 19 and living for a year in Europe. After my return, I studied filmmaking at Pennsylvania State University, but continued to photograph and took a series of fine art photography classes, and began to work for the school newspaper. I started looking at books by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. Once I got out of school, I decided I was more interested in pursuing photography than filmmaking.
D: WHY DID YOU BECOME A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHER RATHER THAN A COMMERCIAL OR FINE ART PHOTOGRAPHER?
SM: I was drawn to the work of the FSA photographers–Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Robert Frank—who were photographing the world and exploring this incredible planet that we live on. I’ve always had a curiosity for different cultures and wanted to try and tell their stories. It fascinates me how people adorn themselves, how they dress themselves every morning and present themselves to the world. In some cases, the work of these photographers has even had such an impact on public opinion that it has sparked wide changes in policy, and in some way made life better for the people photographed.
D: WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST EXCURSION AS A DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHER AND HOW DID IT COME ABOUT?
SM: When I started freelancing in 1978, I went to India with a one-way ticket, a few thousand dollars and two suitcases. One suitcase was full of clothes and the other suitcase was full of 250 rolls of Kodachrome. I went, and I was only going to go for six weeks. That six weeks turned into two years. During those two years I was one of the first photographers to document the civil war in Afghanistan, and as a result my work was published in the New York Times and in major magazines around the world.
D: IT WAS IN PAKISTAN IN 1984 THAT YOUR MOST FAMOUS PHOTO—AFGHAN GIRL—WAS SHOT. AS YOU TOOK IT DID YOU KNOW IT WAS A MONUMENTAL PICTURE WHEN YOU SNAPPED SHARBAT GULA IN THAT REFUGEE CAMP?
SM: I’m not sure I knew it was a monumental photograph, but I knew it was a powerful one. Before Afghan Girl was published by National Geographic, there was a discussion about whether the image was too disturbing. The editor at the time, Bill Garrett, put it on the cover. Its success proved that it was the picture that best illustrated the article, and also a picture that has stood the test of time.
D: HAS THAT PHOTOGRAPH BEEN A BLESSING AND A CURSE? HAS IT PIGEON-HOLED YOU IN ANY WAY?
SM: I’ve never looked at the photograph that way. After all these years, I still find the image powerful, and there has been a strong response to it by people all over the world since it was first published over 26 years ago. I hope that people are also inspired to learn the story behind the image, and about how hard life can be when trying to simply survive in a conflict zone. But the best part of the story is that we were actually able to help her, and continue to do so. I founded the non-profit organization Imagine Asia in order to promote advances in health and education in Afghanistan. Through the help of donations from around the world we have developed various programs to further these goals, including the donation of modern medical textbooks, the founding of a school, and the creation of Aesop’s Fables storybooks in English and Pashtun for schoolchildren.
D: IS THERE A PHOTOGRAPH OR MOMENT IN YOUR CAREER THAT HAS AFFECTED YOU THE MOST?
SM: There was a situation that haunts me to this day. I was in an asylum in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1992 and there were some inmates in the courtyard. One man had chains around his legs that were medieval. After photographing him and wandering off to another part of the courtyard, I looked back and he had this stone, and he was bashing another inmate’s head in. I remember seeing that stone bouncing off the man’s head. We wrestled him to the ground and took the wounded man to the hospital. That was an awful experience.
D: DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE PHOTOGRAPH?
SM: I was in a taxi driving through the desert in Rajasthan in 1983 while working on a project about the Monsoon. It was June, the hottest month, and I was searching for the most arid place to contrast the torrential rains in the south. A sandstorm whipped up, and suddenly the sky went dark and dusty, with a strong wind. My first inclination was to protect my equipment, but then I realized I should get out and take some pictures because the scene was so dramatic. I passed several women who had been working by the side of the road, and had huddled together for protection when the storm suddenly appeared. They were singing a religious song and were oblivious to me, but anxious because of the wind and dust. The moment lasted only maybe two minutes, then the storm passed and it was over. The picture was first printed as part of the “Monsoon” cover story for the December, 1984 issue of National Geographic.
D: WHAT’S THE MOST PRECARIOUS SITUATION YOU’VE BEEN IN WHILE WORKING?
SM: I photographed during the first Gulf War. The retreating Iraqi army left over 600 oil fields on fire. There was ordnance and land mines everywhere. The smoke, the fire and the noise made you feel like you were on another planet, or a movie set of the end of the world. There were geysers of fire from horizon to horizon. Inside the oil fields at 11 in morning it was as dark as night. Horses, camels and other animals were wandering around lost, looking for water, looking for a way out. There were dead Iraqi soldiers lying everywhere. It was like a vision of Hell.
D: TELL ME ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER YOU MOST ADMIRE.
SM: Henri Cartier-Bresson was a great storyteller. He had an incredible eye. His pictures transcended journalism and became profound. They work on many different levels. They’re timeless.
D: WHEN EASTMAN KODAK STOPPED MAKING KODACHROME, THEY CHOSE YOU AS THE RECIPIENT OF THEIR LAST ROLL. WHAT DID YOU DO WITH IT?
SM: There is a nomadic tribe in India whose wandering way of life is coming to an end. I felt that with this roll of Kodachrome, one of the best films ever made, this would be an appropriate subject, as Kodachrome was disappearing as well. I also wanted to photograph New York, and the icons that make the city what it is. Robert De Niro was very interested in this project. I shot him and I also photographed Grand Central Terminal, Union Square Park, and Washington Square Park,which are some of my favorite places in the city.
D: YOUR BOOK, STEVE MCCURRY: THE ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS, WAS PUBLISHED BY PHAIDON THIS YEAR. HOW LONG DID YOU WORK ON IT?
SM: It took a little over a year to assemble all the details, but really the work presented spans more than 30 years, so in a way it’s taken my whole career.
D: DO YOU TRAVEL FOR FUN AS WELL AS WORK, OR IS THAT IMPOSSIBLE?
SM: For me, photography and travel has always been my passion. I have had the wonderful opportunity to visit all these amazing places. I can’t imagine a better way to spend your time and life than exploring this amazing planet. Much of my favorite work has been on assignment, many of which I would have done anyway, as personal work.
D: HOW DOES THAT AFFECT YOUR PERSONAL LIFE?
SM: This is the only life I’ve ever known, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’ve made friends all over the world, and get to meet with them constantly. Obviously there are choices we make, but to me there was never any question of how I wanted to live my life.
D: WHAT’S COMING UP FOR YOU NEXT?
SM: I’m working on my next book project, a collection of short stories spanning a period of over 30 years, and I have an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome, later this year.