Posted by Steve Lettau on Jun 07, 2017

This nomadic photographer has spent a career capturing the range of human experience

By Julie Bain from The Rotarian

Steve McCurry doesn’t run from danger. He steels his courage, calculates his risks, and plunges into it. He has seen things we couldn’t have imagined if we didn’t have the proof of his stunning photos: images captured with his camera inches from the weapons of mujahedeen insurgents fighting the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan, or his camera held on top of his head while waist-deep in monsoon waters in India. He braved toxic black smoke while chronicling the burning oil fields in Kuwait, and after shooting the collapse of the twin towers from the roof of his Greenwich Village apartment building on 9/11, he raced as fast as he could toward who-knows-what at ground zero.

Despite the horrors he has seen, though, “Nothing has dented my faith in the human spirit or in unexpected human kindness,” he wrote in the foreword to his 2013 book Untold: The Stories behind the Photographs. That spirit is evident in the compelling images of daily life he has captured around the world, from Bangladesh to Yemen. He is especially famous for his revealing portraits. Those include the one that appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985 and became one of the most famous photographs of all time: the Afghan refugee girl with the haunting green eyes.

His work in Afghanistan opened his eyes to the needs of children there, especially girls. That led him and his sister to create a nonprofit called ImagineAsia to help more of them. We asked McCurry to judge our 2017 photo contest, while sharing insights into his own fiercely independent journey as a photographer who sheds light on cultures around the world. Frequent contributor Julie Bain met with McCurry at his studio in New York City.

Q: How did you come to photography as a career?

A:  I was an athletic kid. I’d play sports with the guys, and we’d climb trees and be outside as much as possible. I had a lot of freedom to run around and explore. My uncle and my father did some photography as a hobby. But a more important influence was when I lived with a family in Sweden for a year as part of a student exchange program. The boy in the family was an amateur photographer. So I bought an Instamatic camera, and on the weekends we’d walk around, observe things, and take pictures – often of people. 

I discovered I had some artistic sense, so when I went to college at Penn State, I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker and do cinematography. But it’s so competitive, and if you’re going to have any chance, you have to be in New York or Los Angeles – or be crazy smart like Orson Welles. I wasn’t that great, and I didn’t know how to get a job in film. So I got a job as a newspaper photographer.

Q:  What did you learn from doing newspaper photography?

A:  Not much! [laughs] I learned the basics of working with a camera and the craft of shooting: how to go into a situation, work with people, and take a picture in a limited amount of time. But what I was photographing didn’t help me understand what’s important or how to photograph life. If I had had a mentor who would say, “Go out and see what interests you in the world,” it would have been far more useful. 

I applied to some larger newspapers, but that wasn’t happening. I thought, “I like traveling. I like exploring. Maybe photography and travel could go together.” So in 1978, at 28 years old, I quit my job and decided to do my own thing.

Q:  How did you start?

A:  I had saved a little money, so I bought a couple of hundred rolls of film and a one-way ticket to India. I spent about six weeks in Goa and thought it was very exotic. But it still wasn’t easy to make good pictures. Some people are great at it right away, but I needed to cultivate the craft, train my eye, learn to understand light. It was trial and error, looking at books, studying other work. I would think something looked great. Then I’d get the film back, and what was on the film wasn’t what I thought I had photographed. But I learned by doing.

Q:  You traveled through India, selling photos to small magazines to support yourself. But when you journeyed into Pakistan in 1979, near the border of Afghanistan, your life changed. You saw thousands of refugees fleeing from the pro-Soviet coup in Afghanistan and the subsequent Soviet invasion. A ragtag group of insurgent fighters who spoke no English invited you, a young photographer from Philadelphia, to come with them and document the war. How was that possible?

A:  For some reason, they just trusted me. They dressed me in native robes to disguise me. I went in with just my camera bag, and that was basically it. Villages were being bombed, and people were fighting for their villages and dying. I thought it was an important story, and it wasn’t really being reported.

Q:  Did you have any idea what you were getting into?

A:  I had never been in an area of conflict. I’d never been in any kind of disturbance anywhere. But I knew I was heading into a war zone, and when you’re young, you take risks. We were very close to Russian MiGs dropping bombs, troops firing mortar rounds. People dying around us. We had no armor or protection. 

Q:  How did you handle the trauma? 

A:  You sort of get used to it. You start to feel impervious to the bombs in a way, but you still feel vulnerable and afraid. It was really scary. The thing about a mortar round is they shoot it up in the air and it can come straight down. So even if you’re behind a wall, you can’t hide behind it. You can’t hide.

Q:  Despite your fear, did you feel like you had found your life’s calling?

A:  Yes, and I became obsessed with the story, the people, and the situation. You become familiar with everything, so you want to go back and back and back to cover and photograph it. 

Q:  How were you able to get your film developed and sent home?

A:  I was dressed as an Afghan, and I sewed the exposed black-and-white film into the folds of my clothes. Once back in Pakistan, I gave some film to some travelers to take back. My girlfriend at the time was able to send it to a couple of publications. There wasn’t much interest until the Russians invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. When that happened, suddenly my pictures were much more valuable, and I started working with the Associated Press, the New York Times, Time magazine, and others. I slipped in and out of the country many times.

Q:  The photos from those trips established your reputation, and in 1980, when you were only 30, you won the prestigious Robert Capa Gold Medal Award for best photographic reporting from abroad. While you did projects in other countries, Afghanistan kept calling you back. In 1984, when you were visiting refugee camps along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, you spotted a 12-year-old girl in a dusty tent being used as a classroom. What drew you to her?

A:  I saw her and instantly knew that she had a very special look, an incredible face. She had piercing green-blue eyes. I photographed some of the other girls in the classroom, but I knew that she was the one who was going to be important. But I only photographed her for a couple of minutes. The picture looks still, but there was a lot happening around her. Photography is like a performing art. You aren’t still; you have to run around, jump around, and move. You have to be quick to get a good picture.

Q:  Because of all the attention that cover of National Geographic got, do you think that changed people’s thinking about what was happening in Afghanistan – that it gave a face to it or made it more relatable?

A:  There was such a dignity in her look. I think there was fortitude, perseverance. I think she had this kind of proud, direct gaze and she wasn’t cowering. Her expression is kind of neutral: She’s not frowning, she’s not smiling, but it’s more of a minuscule look on her face of, maybe, curiosity about being photographed. But she was an orphan and a refugee. Her life was very difficult. So I think this ambiguity and mix of emotions help to make a rare picture. There’s also the shawl, the background, and the light, which play into the mood of the picture. If the picture had been taken at another time of day, it wouldn’t have had the same power.

Q:  It was only much later that you learned her name is Sharbat Gula. You went back and found her nearly 20 years later, and she appeared on the cover of National Geographic again in 2002, shockingly aged from her hard life. Have you stayed in touch?

A:  Yes, my sister Bonnie visited her just a few weeks ago. We’ve been directly involved with her for about 15 years. We bought her a home. Her husband died of hepatitis C, and she is fighting it, too. Being a widow in Pakistan or Afghanistan is no joke. There’s no safety net. A steady income from us helped her and her children to survive. Without that, I think it would have been a very different story. Now she has been welcomed back by the Afghan government and given an apartment. She met the president and the president’s wife. If it had not been for the picture, it’s safe to assume that none of that would have happened.

Q:  How do you connect with the subjects of your portraits? 

A:  I think you can establish a relationship or connection very quickly. But there’s no real association between the amount of time you spend and the quality of a picture. People always ask, “How do you get your subjects to do what they do?” I don’t know. I think you just come with your empathy, or the way you see something special or unique in a person. It’s a combination of craft, psychology, and perception of human behavior. I would say much of my work is those “found moments” on the street where it’s a brief chance encounter. 

Q:  How was 9/11, in your own neighborhood, different from the horrors you’d seen in other countries?

A:  I was at home just north of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. I had just returned the night before from Tibet. I was opening my mail when I got a phone call that the World Trade Center was on fire. I looked out the window, then grabbed a camera and ran up to the roof of the building. I photographed first the South Tower collapsing and then the North Tower. I felt such shock and disbelief, thinking, “This can’t be happening. I’m in a dream.” I knew I had to go down and photograph it much closer. 

Q:  How did you have the courage to go there?

A:  I thought about the danger. But how could I live with myself if I shied away? You have to take risks in life. I grabbed my camera bag, which I hadn’t unpacked from Tibet yet. My sister came with me, and we spent the entire day trying to photograph there. It was really difficult. The police and firemen kept trying to get us out of there, but we just kept going till about 8 that night, when it got dark. I felt so off balance. Those towers had been part of the downtown landscape for so long. Then they were just gone.

Q:  What inspired you to create your nonprofit organization ImagineAsia in 2004?

A:  I had spent a lot of time in Afghanistan and saw a lot of needs. I saw many children who were not getting any education, so initially we started sending textbooks and other books. One winter that was particularly severe, we sent coats and blankets. But eventually it morphed into a project to teach young Afghan girls to take pictures. Women in Afghanistan and in other places all over the world are often overlooked or ignored. At around six years of age they start believing that boys are smarter and that they’re inferior to the boys. The instructor is an Afghan woman photographer, and my sister Bonnie is the engine behind it. We supply the money, cameras, and training. It’s an empowering way for them to have some creative expression.

Q:  What’s your best advice for those amateur photographers reading this issue?

A:  Be curious and observe. Always photograph with your heart and photograph what’s interesting to you, with your own vision. Take the time to learn about some of the great photographers and their work. Learn about the history of photography. It takes practice, discipline, time, and effort. You’ll do your best work when you’re inspired by a story and a place. Whatever it is in the world that matters to you, that’s what you want to photograph.

Q:  You have more than 2 million followers on Instagram. Most are big fans, but you get some criticism, too. Does it bother you?

A:  There are a lot of people with way too much time on their hands. I get comments like, “You’re making money off these poor people, you piece of shit.” That’s like somebody saying the aid workers going to Aleppo are exploiting those people.

Q:  You’ve also gotten some guff about making some Photoshop adjustments to your photographs. Care to respond?

A:  If you’re working for a newspaper or newsmagazine, it’s more about information than art. I don’t work for any publications. I’m an independent visual storyteller. Ansel Adams was one of the great American photographers. There was a part of his career in which he was documenting the internment camps in California, for example. In another part of his career, he was creating his art. He used to talk about the negative as the score and the print as the performance. He was proud that maybe 40 percent of his success with print was done in the darkroom. He used filters and techniques while he was shooting, and then he did a huge amount of magic in the darkroom.

Q:  Did you feel you had to make sacrifices for your art? Did your sometimes dangerous traveling life put a strain on your relationships?

A:  I think you have to find the right person who can be with you and travel with you. But no, I never think of anything being a sacrifice. I think you do what is important to you, and you have to make choices and just move forward. Suppose I worked last night until 9. Is that a sacrifice? I could be at the movies. I could be out with friends. I could be with my daughter. My big news is that my partner girlfriend, Andie Belone, and I just had a baby girl a few weeks ago. Her name is Lucia after my grandmother Lucy.

Q:  Looking back on your career, any regrets?

A:  I think the best place to be is to have the wherewithal to decide what you want to do with your life. I get to ask, “Where do I want to go? What do I want to photograph?” Then I go do it. I do my own books. I do my own exhibits. If I’m going to have a bad day photographically, I want to have that bad day in Yangon or in Bali. Maybe I didn’t make great pictures, but I had a great day because I was in, say, Sri Lanka.