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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It's a classic Steve McCurry photo. The scene: an Indian train compartment typically stuffed beyond fire department regulations. Four fellows in lotus postures are sardined together up on a straining luggage rack. Five more are wedged hip to hip onto the seat below. Nine people with nine different expressions on their faces-some spacing out, one trying to get the tiny ceiling fan to work, another meditating, a couple looking out the window, another gazing out the aisle. No one is looking at the camera or the American photographer squeezed into their midst.

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.