The Nine Lives of Steve McCurry

An interview with the cameraman celebrated for his ability to be inconspicuously candid in his work, which has taken him to hot spots around the world.
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McCurry is there, but he's not there, as is his knack for remaining an inconspicuously candid cameraman. It's a beautiful moment, the kind that lets those of us too busy to notice pause for a moment and see who we are. A master infiltrator of the human condition, McCurry has a way of finding the 'us' in 'them.' It has helped to make him one of the world's top photographers since he emerged as a premier hot-spot shooter in the late '70s.

Slipping over the border of rebel-held Afghanistan in 1979 disguised as a local tribesman, he was one of the first to capture scenes of that epic tragedy. His powerful images of innocents caught up in conflict were published around the world and led to work for Time, Newsweek, Life and the publication he's most associated with, National Geographic. McCurry has shot 18 stories for Geographic, including seven covers.

McCurry's frontline work in Afghanistan and in other dangerous places around the world has won him a reputation as one of the hardest of hard-core troubleshooters. He's been arrested in Pakistan and Burma; mortared, shot at and robbed in Afghanistan; beaten up and nearly drowned in India; and almost killed in the crash of an ultralight in Bosnia. Yet through it all, he has managed to come back with photos that speak of dignity and humanity-even in places seemingly devoid of it.

The Philadelphia-raised photographer has won numerous awards, including Life magazine's 1998 World Photo prize, and has authored three books. His latest, due out this spring, is The Portraits (Phaidon Press Limited), a cross-cultural collection from 20 years of adventure. His other volumes include Monsoon and The Imperial Way (with Paul Theroux), his photo-essay on India by rail. McCurry is based in New York, but good luck catching him there. He was in Hong Kong when we spoke for this interview. -JOE ROBINSON

Q: Maybe it's your journalistic background, but you seem to tell stories more than most photographers. What are you trying to communicate to the viewer in your photos?
The first thing to me is the human aspect of the picture, to try to convey some sort of empathy with the subject and, secondly, the composition and the form of how that picture's put together. I like to have the photo communicate what it's like to be that person. I want to have some sort of insight into the human condition of the subject. That's the most interesting part of the work, as opposed to something which is just composition and form and color. I like color photography, but when the picture's just about color, I don't think it really goes very far. I think it really needs to say something about a person or give some insight into their life or how their life is different than mine.

Q: Most of your work has come in Third World countries where you would be very conspicuous and your subjects, I would think, very self-conscious of the camera. What's the secret of taking candid pictures in these places, like in a train compartment in India?
If you're in a train compartment six hours, eventually people will become bored. A lot of it is just having the patience to wait it out, because there's an initial period where people are curious and they crowd around. Part of it is just being patient and waiting until people decide to look somewhere else or get bored with you. Then there's the other thing of going into a village where there are crowds of kids around. Sometimes if you work really fast in the beginning, you can get something, or sometimes there are crowds around me, but you just don't see them in the picture. Sometimes there's ten or 20 people following me around. I think it's just being very persistent. It might be 80 percent of your time isn't productive, but if you get a couple of times in the course of the day where you can get what you need, that's good enough.

Q: The ultimate place to hone those skills is India. You've spent a lot of time there. What's the attraction for you?
India was the first place that I really started working intensely. I just think it's so different from how I grew up. You have this extreme range of class and caste and rich and poor, and people tend to live their lives out on the street, whereas in the U.S. people tend to do everything indoors. There's just a fascination. Sometimes it's shocking, but it's always interesting. You never get bored. If I walk down the street in Cleveland, I feel like it's all very familiar, like I've seen it before, and it doesn't intrigue me. India's a much more intense experience. Q: Sometimes a little too intense. Tell me about the incident when you were nearly drowned.
In Bombay during the Ganesh Chaturthi festival they march these images of Ganesh into the sea. So I was photographing this, standing in the water, and there was a group who took exception to that. When they submerse that idol, they don't want it to be photographed. So this band of youths came over to me and started getting angry, saying I wasn't supposed to photograph this. They grabbed my camera, which was around my neck, and pulled it underwater. Of course, my neck was connected to the camera. Then they all started hitting me, and I got separated from my assistant, who actually had all my camera equipment. Then I started getting nervous. The sun had already set, and I was a little bit more than waist-deep in water, so I thought, if they drown me, who's going to know, who's going to care? I tried to get back to the beach but they still kept hitting me, and then the people who had agreed to let me take the picture felt bad and came over to rescue me.

Q: Are there certain rules you try to abide by in religious settings to keep these emotions from getting out of control?
The best rule is to have somebody with you who understands what you're doing and can communicate that in the local language if things get rough. I've always believed that if you go into a combat situation but you know the capabilities of the people you're with-and the other side-and you have a sense of what's going on, then you'll be okay. You also need a sense of the landscape and terrain, so you can get away if it gets too hot.

Q: It doesn't get much hotter than Afghanistan. What's the approach going into hot spots like that?
The key is you have to go a bit slow to try and get a good understanding of the situation. And then you need a really good local person, who can give you a sense of the realities, where you can go, problematic places or situations you don't want to be in. I don't usually stay in a village very long. In a place like Kashmir, I won't stay overnight and I'll come in unannounced. I'll never tell my driver how long I'm going to go for. I won't tell him where I'm going until it's time to leave, because I don't trust anybody except this one particular local person. It's a combination of your own intuition and gut feeling and relying on a local person to give you good advice.

Q: What about war zones, though? How do you deal with situations that go wrong there?
They broke into my hotel room once in Kabul at two in the morning. I was the only guest in the hotel [during pre-Taliban fighting in 1992]. They started knocking on the door. I turned on the light and got dressed and started yelling out through the door, 'U.N.! U.N.!' I went over to the window and noticed there was a guy cutting my screen with his knife. He had a bandanna over his face, kind of a giveaway that I was in deep trouble. The other problem was that there was a lot of celebration fire going on outside, because this was just after they had taken over the city from the government. There was all this gunfire, so I thought, if these guys shoot me, the gunfire wouldn't mean anything to anybody. So I just opened the door and let them in, because I figured if I pissed these guys off, then they're going to think I'm a problem and will just shoot me. I went into the bathroom, and then they went through all my stuff like it was a rummage sale. Fortunately, I had my cameras safely tucked away and my money and passport under the carpet under the bed.

Q: You've been shot at, robbed, nearly drowned-my question is: Why? What's the lure of dangerous places for you?
In the case of Afghanistan, it's a story I've been following since 1979. I've gone back 18 times. One of the things that interests me is this amazing drama-in the beginning this invasion force, the Soviets, and people trying to keep their nation from being swallowed up. It was this noble cause against overwhelming odds. Why do I do it? Certainly the human drama is overwhelming. The stakes are so high. It's like life, I imagine, in the Civil War or the Revolutionary War. There's something about these monumental moments in a country's existence when things we're normally preoccupied with-career, family-become secondary to this larger freedom struggle or, in the case of Afghanistan, just survival. How people react and how the human spirit can either wither or be resilient is a very fascinating thing.Q: After years of being in the middle of life-and-death dramas is there an addiction that develops, where you keep getting drawn to the excitement of these extremely sharp and pointed moments?
I think there's a lot to be said for that exact thing. When you're dealing on that kind of level, it's hard to go and do an annual report. Everything else tends to be kind of bland and not as satisfying. You're not only dealing with the photography and trying to make meaningful pictures and pictures that communicate, but there's that survival aspect, trying to do good photography and good journalism, but just trying to survive. There's a satisfaction that one gets when you're able to make it through the day.

Q: How did you get so involved in Afghanistan?
When I was in Pakistan in 1979, just wandering around doing small odds-and-ends magazine assignments, I met some Afghan refugees in a small village called Chitral in northern Pakistan. They told me their villages were being destroyed and wanted me to help get the word out. So they smuggled me into Afghanistan with the hopes that I would be able to give them some kind of press coverage. It was an amazing experience, being under mortar fire, machine gun fire, visiting all these people whose villages had been destroyed. That was really the first time that I got involved with major magazines-Time and Newsweek.

Q: What kind of fears did you have going into the heart of a civil war?
There was a lot of fear just in leaving Pakistan in disguise and going into another country. Here I was crossing an international border without a passport, going into a forbidden area and then into a war. It was absolutely frightening. When they're lobbing mortar rounds into the area and they could land anywhere at any time because they're not particularly accurate, you know you could be history at any moment. After about five days, though, I started to get more confidence. There were times I wished I wasn't there, but I figured as long as I'd got myself into the situation, the time to bail out was before I left New York. But now I was here to do this, and I wasn't going to back down. Once I'd spent a couple weeks there and took a bunch of pictures, and had success, getting published in the New York Times and Time, I went back ten times in the next two years.

Q: What drew you over the border in the first place? What was on the other side that you'd risk your life for?
I was trying to make the transition from being a news photographer in Philadelphia to becoming more of a magazine photographer. I'd quit my newspaper job to work in India. It had gotten very repetitive. We had a huge area in suburban Philadelphia, and we'd have to do five or ten high school graduations in a season, the Lions, Kiwanis, ladies' clubs. I just decided this wasn't the way I wanted to spend my life. I saved some money, quit and went to India. I'd been reading about the Afghan situation in the newspaper. It seemed important. These guys were really scared and nervous and worried about the future of their country.

Q: Did the travel or photography come first?
The travel predates my photography. After high school I went to live in Europe for a year. I did some traveling, a little bit in Europe, the Mideast, Africa, Central America. I have a feeling that it could have been a need to travel and have this gypsy existence that led me into photography.

Q: Was there something about your upbringing that made you want to seek out more chaotic, less orderly places?
I was always kind of active and a bit rebellious. I grew up in the suburbs and didn't travel anywhere until I was 19. I think maybe it was all a bit too bland. I figured I'd go to a new part of the world where I hadn't been. I was going to spend three months in India, and then I was going to go to Cyprus or Turkey. But I ended up spending two years in India without ever coming back. I had a fair amount of money saved, about $9,000. When you're living on $5 a day in India, that goes pretty far. I was able to survive for about two years. There was the occasional small magazine story, but when I got into Afghanistan, I got into the major league of magazines.

Q: When did you get into photography?
When I was at Penn State, I started out studying film history-cinematography-and went from that to filmmaking and graduated with a degree in theater arts. While I was in filmmaking, I started doing a lot of still photography and working for the school newspaper and drifted into doing stills for films. I started looking at a lot of photography books-by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. Once I got out of school, I never was involved in filmmaking again.Q: Your work is associated more with National Geographic than anything else. How did you break in there?
They asked me if I could get into Baluchistan in Pakistan. I assured them that I could, but after we had lunch, I was convinced I hadn't made a very good presentation of myself. But they ended up giving me the assignment and another story on a Pakistani tribe called the Kalash. I ended up spending six months working on the Baluchistan story, and they wound up killing it because the text wasn't good. I had been put in jail with my guide for that story. After the first night, this guard put us in leg irons connected to a column.

Q: What was going through your mind then?
I was certain that they were going to deport me. I was really depressed, because I thought I had blown my career with National Geographic, but apart from that, I was thinking, how long am I going to be here? I could be here for weeks or months. I thought maybe they're going to make an example of me and keep me here indefinitely. They weren't feeding us. We had to give money to guards and prison staff to bring us cookies or tea. But after four days, they let us go without an explanation. They didn't deport us, so we went right back to work. Then Geographic killed it. But they did use the Kalash story, and then I did another one and another one, and now it's been 18 years of working with Geographic.

Q: How many rolls of film do you shoot for a Geographic story, and how many shots get used in the piece?
I'll shoot about 500 rolls, and they'll select maybe 20 or 30 shots out of that. It's not that the other ones aren't good. The others are quite usable and will be published at other times.

Q: So that's about, let me figure this out, about 18,000 slides. How long does it take to get that many shots, or to know a place photographically?
At Geographic we used to spend more time on a story, but now an average would be maybe ten weeks. By the time I leave a place, I do feel like I know it pretty well-although you can't go everywhere and do everything. The last story I did, in Yemen, I was there for 12 weeks. It's such a vast country that you have to look for representative situations or ways of dealing with the different regions. You pick one city or one village in each region, because if you try and do everything, you just go crazy. I'm doing another story on Angkor Wat, which is small and contained, so you can see everything inside of three days.

Q: Do you prefer that to taking on a whole country?
I prefer to work something in a smaller area, instead of doing all of Russia, or all of Sri Lanka or Burma. Burma was a bit overwhelming. It's such a huge area, and I tried to do most of the journeys by road-the airline was so unsafe. I'd rather take my risks in a car crash than in some plane going down.

Q: What were your impressions of Burma?
It was really interesting, a country in a time warp. You feel like you're back in the '50s or '40s. The military junta there assigned two minders to travel with me virtually everywhere to make sure I didn't photograph things that would be unfavorable to the country, like soldiers or forced labor scenes, which are quite widespread. They didn't want me to come back with any pictures that showed people with leg irons on. They did stop me twice, once at this place where there was forced labor going on. But I was able to go back on my own. I photographed prisoners dredging a moat around a palace. There were hundreds and hundreds of these guys like ants, with soldiers watching over them to make sure they did their work. They didn't like me photographing, so they arrested me. I knew they would want my film, so I took my film out of the camera on the way to the interrogation and put in a roll of Kodak, which can only be processed in one place in all of Asia.

Q: Was this a spur-of-the-moment move, or do you travel with an arrest kit on board?
I knew that they couldn't process the film, so they wouldn't realize it was empty. I'm not sure if they ever tried to get it developed.

Q: What's your strategy for shooting a place? Do you like to go in fast when things are fresh, or do you like to case the best spots and come back later?
When I first get to a new city or country, I like to spend some time just looking around, finding out what's unique or special about that place from anywhere else in the world. I try and find that special nature of a place. If it's Yemen, I might want to look through the different villages and find out which one is the most interesting, which one is the most appealing, which one is the best example of architecture. I might go through five or ten villages and say, okay, this one looks the most interesting. Once I find out what makes a place tick, then I delve into it photographically. In the beginning, I'm just kind of surveying.Q: What sorts of opportunities are you looking for? Do you stake out certain street corners and wait for things to happen?
I might go back to a place several times. In Hong Kong the first week was heavily overcast with quite a bit of rain. So I might go back again and again. A lot of times you might just have to park yourself down on a street corner and wait for things to happen in front of you, if there's an interesting backdrop or setting. There's a lot to be said for going back repeatedly and looking at a place in different weather, light, on a weekend day or very early in the morning when the light's just coming up.

Q: There's a certain romance associated with the foreign correspondent/expat life. What's it really like out there? What's the best part, and what's the worst part?
The worst part is the customs and departure lounges and checking in and out of hotels, all that kind of transitional stuff of getting in and out of airports. I think the best part is exploring new cultures and being in places you can't ever imagine you'd be in, going down a river in Burma in a canoe or going into a teak forest with loggers on elephant-back or traveling around Afghanistan by camel. Often you're in another time, and it's like going back in a time machine. You almost feel like you're on another planet, like in Yemen. For me, it's an absolutely riveting, engrossing experience. Seeing how we all live our lives a little bit differently is as important a way as there is to spend a part of your life. You only live once, and to be able to see the world and all of the beauty and mystery and chaos is a worthwhile endeavor.

Q: What's been your closest call over the years?
I guess when I had this plane crash in Yugoslavia. I was doing some aerial photography in a very small ultralight plane, and the pilot somehow lost control of the plane and it nosedived into a lake in Yugoslavia in the middle of February. We hit the water and flipped upside down. I had a seat belt on, and I couldn't see and I couldn't figure out how to take the seat belt off. I was somehow able to struggle upside down underwater underneath the seat belt, and I was able to get out. It was absolutely frightening! I was able to swim to shore and got picked up by a boat.

Q: Do you have any trouble getting insurance?
Actually, I do have insurance. I haven't checked on it recently, but maybe I should.

Q: Is there a sense when you're surrounded daily by war that you start to get used to it and actually less fearful?

Yes. One bomb in Afghanistan landed about 30 feet from my room and blew all the windows out of the room and the wooden frames for the windows, too. And another time a mortar round went off about 15 feet from where I was. After this happens to you one or two times, you start to feel like your number's not up.

Q: What's been the impact on you personally of all these dramas, all these faces, all these conflicts?
I guess the thing that I find so interesting is that people are pretty much the same, but they just happen to wear different costumes and have different architecture and different food. But basically we're pretty much all the same. Some Tuareg tribesman in the Sahara fundamentally is not that different from someone in Hong Kong. Certainly they have different clothes and religions, but they all laugh or are sad in their families and work. The same things strike everybody funny.

Q: We go out in search of difference and come back celebrating the universal.
That's right. Everybody wants to be respected, to have a sense that you're trying to understand their culture. A taxi driver who rips you off, whether it's in New York or Bamako, it's the same dynamic. If you're clowning around with somebody in Burma, they respond the same way someone would in Guatemala. It's the damnedest thing. For women, of course, things can be very different, and that's hard to deal with. But even in Yemen, under the veil, they're wearing very stylish clothes.

Q: And what about you? Why do you have to be on the road? Why did you find your career out there?
I think it's just a sense of adventure and discovery and exploration, exploring new places I haven't been to-trying new food, seeing how Tibetans live, how they practice their religion. To me it's fascinating to learn about these differences in how we all are basically the same.

FromEscape(Dec. 1999). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from Box 462255, Escondido, CA 92046.


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