Immortalized by his iconic photograph of an Afghan refugee girl in 1984 which has become the world’s most recognizable photograph, leading documentary photographer Steve McCurry has covered many areas of international and civil conflict, including 30 years of conflict in Afghanistan. He focuses on the human consequences of war, not only showing what war impresses on the landscape, but rather what it shows on the human face. The results are thought provoking photos that move and inspire viewers. He is also an articulate social commentator on the cultures and subjects he photographs.
Could you describe your shooting philosophy?
I like to celebrate people, places and culture through my photography. I also like to tell stories about my subjects through my photographs – especially those I have shot in areas of conflict; and I think this is an important aspect of photojournalism - to show people what is happening.
You are also renowned as a conflict zone photographer. What inspired you to be one?
I think covering areas of conflict is important. The human drama in such areas cannot be underestimated and I think being a war photographer who conveys these emotions through photos is a noble profession. And it may sound morbid or crazy, but as a photographer, I get an exciting adrenaline rush while shooting as I dodge bullets and shells.
What are the important traits and skills of a successful photographer like yourself?
Like in any vocation, I think you need tenacity, perseverance and commitment to your work to be a successful photographer. Creatively, I imagine and visualize photo possibilities wherever I am. I think it is an important skill to be able to isolate and recognize a picture out of a scene. For example, for the portraits I shoot – I recognize something fascinating about the way my subjects look, be it their eyes, their way they are dressed and feel some connection that grabs my attention. I think I have a good ability to identify an interesting face among even a crowd of thousands, which I think is important to my work. The challenge is to convince them within 15 seconds to be my subject. Respect is essential to establishing that trust.
I find them (the underdeveloped regions of Asia) far more visually rich than western countries.
How do you manage to shoot your human subjects in such natural poses?
I always tell people that my subjects don’t notice me around because I am so short (chuckles)! Seriously, when I first started shooting in the region in 1978, it was frustratingly difficult as a foreigner, and the people I met constantly treated me as an object of curiosity and crowded around me. After a while I developed a certain method of working where I either got my shot quickly before I am noticed; or I hung around my subjects so long until they get bored or accustomed to me and continue about their usual routines.
When you travel for photo assignments, what photos are you looking to capture? Is there a plan?
I seldom have a plan, and I feel that the times that have been the most fun and productive have been those where I literally just get up and wander around looking for situations and subjects to shoot. Its amazing how things just magically happen and pictures ‘reveal themselves’.
You are most well known for your photos of Asia. What attracted you to the region?
There’s something about the underdeveloped regions of Asia that speaks to me, and I find them far more visually rich than western countries. I feel more kinship with the rural people of this region who I also found easier to photograph and were more interesting visually. Another aspect of these places is that life for their inhabitants occurs on the street – they play, work, eat and live their lives in the open. You will not get such wonderful scenes of life like these in countries where the climate is colder and where people tend to live their lives indoors; or in developed cities where everything is organized and ordered.
Of all the countries you have been to, which one left the deepest impression and why?
Photographically, India fascinates me the most. You cannot find another country with such a rich and varied geography and culture amid the chaos and confusion. For example, Bombay and Calcutta are such crazy cities but wonderful photographic subjects. I have been to India about 85 times but never get tired of it.
Moving on to your workflow, could you tell us what equipment you use and how they have changed over the years?
Today I use a Nikon D700 DSLR and a Hasselblad medium format camera. In the old days, I mainly used prime lenses like a 28mm, a 35mm and a 50mm, but these days, I am happy with the results of my Nikkor 28-70 zoom lens that I find gives me sharp results.
For printing, I started out in the days when I would have to take my photos by subway or car to a lab to prints done. This was a tedious process involving the printing of proofs, then retouching them before final prints could be done; and during busy periods we would work from 10 am to 5 am the next morning. This is why dealing remotely with labs was always a problem when it came to getting accurate prints. Today, doing our own processing and printing on-site with my Epson printers is more efficient, much more fun, and offers greater control over the process. I can’t imagine going back to the days of dealing with a photo lab.
Could you share with us your working relationship with Epson as an “Epson Pro”?
I have a long and wonderful relationship with Epson. My studio in New York uses four large format Epson printers for all my exhibition prints and two smaller units for proof prints. For me, I must have prints of the very best quality to express my work. That is something I cannot compromise on. And my colleagues at National Geographic and I have tested and compared the output of other printers but feel that Epson’s prints are of the best quality.
I like to tell stories about my subjects through my photographs – especially those I have shot in areas of conflict.
Moving from film to digital in your line of work... Did it help or hinder?
Moving to digital has helped dramatically. In the days when I used film, I could go though between 800 to 1000 rolls of film on a single shoot of which only 20 to 25 really exceptional photos would be chosen for use. The change from film to digital technology in cameras has been breathtaking. I spent about 30 years shooting film and I have moved to digital for 4 years so far. With digital cameras you have a great leap in capability. For example you can change the ISO sensitivity settings on a camera and go into a dark environment with what used to be impossibly low light for film and still shoot photos at fast shutter speeds of publishable grade. In the days of film, I was limited to ISO 400 to 800, but with my digital camera, I can easily boost its ISO to ISO 1000 or more and shoot in situations in very little light and capture action with fast shutter speeds. One thing I miss about film is the fact that you have a tangible piece of negative or photo to view. Films and negatives are also easier to retrieve from archives.
Can you describe your life as a photographer? How are you different now compared to the start of your career?
For me, being a photographer has been an enormous amount of fun. I have had the wonderful opportunity of visiting the amazing places I have shot in. I can’t imagine a better way to spend your time and life than exploring this amazing planet. I have always been very competitive and hardworking and I am completely obsessed with my work and love what I do.
I think I am now able to ‘see’ my photos better and have a better sense of lighting now compared to when I first started 30 years ago. If I felt that I was not improving constantly, that would be a sad situation. At this point in my career I am happy to be finally able to pick and choose my assignments and I feel that all the hard work and hardships I had to go through when I first started has paid off.