A Life Well Travelled

Steve McCurry

Issue 5 - 2016
· Images Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos

The man behind the iconic
Afghan Girl photo talks to Lisa Grainger
about the journeys of his life

Issue 5 - 2016
· Images Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos

The man behind the iconic
Afghan Girl photo talks to Lisa Grainger
about the journeys of his life

Cruising from the Hamptons into New York City on a vintage boat with Steve McCurry, I start to feel slightly sorry for the photographer. He is one of 20 guests on a trip organised by the watchmaker Vacheron Constantin, for whom he is travelling around the world, taking images of man-made objects. Yet despite the fact that it’s a glorious summer’s day, and we’re sailing beneath iconic bridges and skyscrapers, what most guests want to talk to him about is a haunting photograph he took almost three decades ago.

Afghan Girl, his portrait of a 12-year-old refugee with piercing green eyes that graced the cover of National Geographic in 1985, is widely considered the world’s most recognised photograph. But although it led to his signing with the Magnum picture agency, McCurry believes it is far from his best work. “I have about a million others I like a lot better. But people like to label me as a war photographer. And she represents something about the inhumanity of war that people identify with. I guess if she becomes the lead to my obituary, it’s something I have to live with because it was the start of a great journey for me.”

McCurry has had more journeys than most. Having been fascinated by foreign cultures growing up in Philadelphia, and read books about travel (a favourite is the biography of the British explorer Richard Burton, who travelled the world in the 1850s and spoke 25 languages), the first thing he did after college was to backpack around Europe. At the end of his trip, he landed in Soho in London. “Soho wasn’t like it is now. It was a boho place and I ended up in a youth hostel, which I thought was the coolest thing in the world. I slept under the pool table.”

Having caught the travelling bug, three years later he hiked around Panama to learn Spanish, taking his first proper camera, a Miranda, and returning with hundreds of photographs, “which are somewhere in a box”.

A year later, he went to Africa, taking a boat down the Nile to Aswan, then going to Sudan, Uganda, the Masai Mara, then Mount Kilimanjaro, which he climbed. “That was the biggest journey I’d ever done,” he says, “and no one did stuff like that in those days, so it was pretty difficult.”

"To me, being a photographer is like being a poet. It’s about telling stories"

Having done all this by the time he was 27, he found it difficult to settle. For a while, he took a job on a newspaper in his home town of Philadelphia. But by 1978 he again got itchy feet and set off for India on a journey that would change his life. Not only did he discover Asia, which he says is “the place I’ve learnt most from”, but he cut his teeth as a war reporter. Disguising himself with a salwar kameez, beard and turban, he journeyed into Afghanistan to report on the Soviet-Afghan conflict, smuggling his rolls of film out in his coat lining. Within a couple of years of leaving America, he’d won the Robert Capa gold medal for his reporting. Then, with the picture of 12-year-old Sharbat Gula, he made his name as a photographer.


In the successive decades, he says, little has changed in what he looks for in a photograph. “Taking photos is about telling stories. To me, being a photographer is more like being a poet than being a historian or anthropologist. I’m not trying to record how people rest or eat or dance or clothe themselves. I’m capturing scenes and people that say something to me.” One trick of getting a good picture, he says, is to have compassion for the people you’re shooting. “That girl – who, by the way, my sister has built a house for, and who is a mother of three now – told a story. It shed light on what it’s like to be in her situation.”

It definitely helps, he says, to have the permission of people you’re shooting.

-“Some people don’t want you to photograph them; they get very angry and upset. Others perceive that you’re taking something from them. Of course, you can’t ask every single person on the street permission; sometimes I’m in a place for hours, just watching, capturing life. But if you’re taking a picture of their face, as a portrait, you have to ask. Sometimes they say no. They’ll have a good reason: maybe they’re having a bad day, or lost their job… but if people are amused or interested and like you and are having a good time, they’ll agree.”

Whether you should pay people or not is up for debate, he says. “If you pay children, you’re told they won’t want to go to school if they can make money from tourists. If you don’t pay a shepherd, and his sheep have scattered all over the hill because he’s been posing for you, you’ll be accused of exploitation. So whatever you do, you can’t win!”

The way you get great pictures, he says, is to “find things that excite you. People should take pictures of everything: their lunch, garden, the sky; not just friends and obvious things. You have to have a connection, respond to something. Then others will too.”

He, for instance, discovered Buddhism on his travels around Asia, and has taken thousands of photos of Buddhas, monks, monasteries and spiritual spaces. “I found the people’s devotion incredible. There’s a serenity there, an emphasis on compassion.”

Where next? “I’m off to Ethiopia again, but there are lots of places I haven’t been to and would like to: Iran, Madagascar, Mongolia, North Korea, Kyrgyzstan…”

Wherever he goes, he comes back with something. “When you travel, you’re constantly stimulated because wherever you are, life can be surprising. So you’re always learning. And if you’re stimulated, and open to what’s going on, you’ll get great shots.”


Steve McCurry’s round-the-world journey can be viewed at overseas.vacheron-constantin.com
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