A world traveler and visual communicator who’s photographs are recognizable to people all around the world – Steve McCurry has spent decades creating a body of work that will forever be a part of a global history. Transporting the viewer into far off lands where entirely new worlds may be discovered and explored. Rather than a search for glory, this man’s story is about the guts of the matter – and an authentic journey through his own curiosity and the subjects he feels must be shared.
CM At what moment did you realize your love for photography or appreciation of imagery?
SM I started photography when I was about 19, I was in Sweden living with a family. We used to go out on the weekends, walk around, and take pictures. That really started me on the idea of a wandering story that I had never really experienced with a camera. That was really the beginning and from there I started with film making but eventually decided that photography was more my personality.
CM At what point did you decide the kind of subject matter it was that you wanted to capture? You have quite a signature…
SM It was pretty immediate. Photographing people, observations, and wanderings. It must be people. Human behavior has always fascinated me; human nature and how we relate to the environment/ animals was the part I wanted to explore.
CM Do you find that people in general are open to being photographed or is it something you have to nurture?
SM I’ve never had a problem. Most people are more than happy to be photographed if approached in a respectful way.
CM Do you travel alone or with a large team?
SM I pretty much go alone. I have a driver and a translator – you need someone who can speak the local language if you don’t speak it. You need someone to be your guide, as well as someone who can be an assistant, if need be.
CM With fashion photography there is a process to how an image is created – what sort of process do you undergo when creating your work?
SM There is no lighting or anything like that. I just walk around and photograph things; it’s just me looking at the world and deciding what’s interesting. What I want to remember, what I want to record. Things that I think are important, stories that need to be told- that kind of a thing. The process doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that you put your work on the table and people in the world decide whether or not that says something about life. Does it make me laugh? Does it make me cry? Does it delight me on some level?
CM Funny enough, your work itself shares those statements.
SM If it gets too precious, I kind of lose interest. It’s great that there are so many different voices out there, and so many people photographing different things. It would be boring if we were all doing the same thing.
CM That’s something that I find very fascinating about your work, along with a few others who have accomplished such a signature. Very few people are able to achieve a certain visual voice today that is unique to themselves. How have you managed to do that?
SM Work in the way that you feel best tells the story or makes for the best portrait. As far as portraiture goes, I feel as though there is a certain way to work that is going to tell the best story. I think you just have to find the right light for you and the right way or place that gives you pleasure, which gives you fulfillment and joy in your work and makes you feel like your making a difference in the world. It’s not all about examining the lint in your navel. There are times where you need to photograph things in the world that show injustices and things that need to be fixed, and then you need to go to places where things are troubled because people need to be informed about the world in which they live. The way people are informed is by writers and photographers and the like. We need to leave the world having tried to make a difference.
CM Is there a conscious part of creating the work that you do that allows for you to capture people, places, and things that would otherwise depict a potentially sad scenario, somehow managing to make it look beautiful regardless of the fact?
SM That’s completely just the way I see the world. It’s not intentional to try and beautify pain and suffering. I think photographing color- it may tend to make things look a certain way, but I always want to give people their dignity and to respect people. I’m not so much just interested in blood and guts; I think for me it’s more the human story. Refugees or a war zone or some social unrest. I did this piece on domestic workers who have been violated and beaten and tortured… these women go to work in the middle east and they end up getting beaten or raped or left unpaid. It’s horrific. That’s a story a journalist asked me to participate in, and that was something I wanted to speak out against.
CM That’s an incredible gift to be able to capture those situations and show them in such a manner. I’m sure the emotional resilience required for such a thing does at times flicker, leaving you feeling frustrated or powerless to change it all…
SM We can only do what we can do, even if in only a small way.
CM It is, of course, a very different world than the one you grew up in. Surely, all of the traveling and experiences along the way have affected you in some manner. What do you think those ways are?
SM Well, hopefully, I’ve grown and have more empathy with people. I think when you travel the world, you get a sort of world view. If you travel different parts, you can start to see the big picture. It’s a real learning experience.
CM How do you go about deciding where you are going to go next?
SM Just looking at the news, reading about places to capture, or places that I’ve always wanted to go to. That type of thing.
CM What’s your relationship with the idea of escape? Is it something you achieve through these travels or your own photography?
SM Whenever you get lost in a place, or when you are somewhere and you are completely caught up in the moment and fully present, you’re not thinking about yesterday or tomorrow. I think that is escape for me. I don’t travel to escape- I like my life in New York, but we are all so preoccupied with so many things in our brain, I think that when you’re in a place other than home you can get caught up in that experience and end up submersing yourself and everything else falls away. Leaving you in this incredible surrounding. All of the cares and worries about whatever…suddenly disappear and all that chatter and noise in your mind suddenly subsides.
CM Well said. Do you find that social media has lead to an increase in mind clutter or has had any sort of effect on the way we consume and digest visual content or images?
SM What about words? You have all these people texting around the world – I don’t hear people talking about that. They say we are overwhelmed with pictures…Are we overwhelmed with words? People are emailing pictures around the world as well as texts. Does it have any meaning? Is anyone taking the time to write a great song, essay, or short story? Film script or a play? We can all do that, but I don’t do it. I send my friend a text though. That’s not going to end up ruining literature?
CM Wow. I suppose we do tend to want to analyze and breakdown where we are, where we came from, and where we are going – but perhaps it’s really not all so complicated as that.
SM I think it’s great that everybody is taking pictures with their phones, but I don’t think that it takes away from anything. I don’t think that if someone is sending a text message it’s going to compete with some great novelist or anything.
CM In a lot of images when google searching your name, you are seen chatting with the locals. Do you often spend time familiarizing yourself with the different cultures and people captured in your pictures? Perhaps finding common ground of some sort…
SM Humor has always been a wonderful device to connect with people. If you can get people laughing and smiling or make the joke on yourself… Humor is really universal in many cases. Everyone wants to be entertained and laugh and have a good time. Once you can get your relationship off to that kind of a start, it’s disarming and helps people realize that this is amusing or that somehow you’re an interesting person and then they want to linger. As opposed to, “This person is a little needy and they want something.” In which case, people tend to become quite uneasy and guarded. Nobody is having a good time in that situation.