Interview: Steve McCurry, Photographer
Steve McCurry, universally recognised as one of today’s finest imagemakers, is best known for his evocative color photography. In Slovenia, he is one of the few to survive a free fall of a plane into the lake at Bled. His career was launched when, disguised in native dress, he crossed the Pakistan border into rebel-controlled Afghanistan just before the Russian invasion. McCurry has covered many areas of international and civil conflict, including Beirut, Cambodia, the Philippines, the Gulf War, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Tibet. He focuses on the human consequences of war, showing not only the impression war makes on the landscape, but also on the human face.
You were in Slovenia on 3 May this year to open the exhibition of your photos, have you been to Slovenia before and do you find the country interesting from a professional point of view?
I was in Slovenia in 1989 doing a National Geographic story on Yugoslavia. The country seemed very interesting for me. What happened to me in Slovenia - Bled was very difficult to forget. The small plane that we were travelling with crashed into Lake Bled and they had trouble saving me and getting me out of the water. In the end everything was resolved well and Im still here!
You are working a lot in areas of international and civil conflict and natural disasters, what is your main “drive” for going there, adrenalin, desire to raise awareness ofthe problems in those countries or a mix of everything?
While the human drama is certainly overwhelming when the stakes are so high, I’ve never made a conscious decision to travel to “dangerous” parts of the world. The attraction for me is more about the disappearing way of life in those parts of the world. Unlike much of modern society, people in Afghanistan, Burma, Cambodia, etc. live their whole lives in the open. There doesn’t exist the privacy barrier that we cling to in “modern” cities, thus resulting in a much more open and truthful experience for the traveller - an opportunity to really experience life as these people do.
Publically and definitely also in Slovenia, you are probably best known for the photograph of the
Afghan refugee girl that many have described as the most recognisable photograph in the world today. Is this somehow annoying considering all your other outstanding work?
After all these years I still find the image powerful. I think it’s that hopeless beauty conveyed in her look. She’s a very beautiful girl, but it’s clear that she’s poor - her face is dirty, her shawl is ripped - yet she has a sort of dignity, confidence and fortitude that people respond to. I feel humbled to learn that the newer generation is still learning of this photograph. I hope that they also learn the story behind the image and about how hard life can be when simply trying to survive in a conflict zone.
How do you find the idea or country for your next “working area”, are you just following the current situation or is there some “master” plan behind the decision?
For me, I think it’s just the sense of adventure, discovery and exploration - the drive to explore new places I haven’t been to, trying new food, seeing how people live, how they practice their religion. To me it’s fascinating to learn about these differences and moreso, how we all are basically the same. I find myself returning time and time again to a few places that I’ve discovered a real resonance with – Afghanistan, Burma, Tibet, India… no matter how many times or how often I return, these places always change in my absence. I’ve been privileged to watch these countries grow over time; through conflict, change of regime, modernisation. I feel a real personal relationship with some of these locales, yet I’m always aware of being somewhat detached from the locals – they have become like extended family, I love to visit them and see them grow, but they have a life all their own and one which progresses without me when I leave them.
Your photography is also good business. How do you control the business and artistic side of your work? Is it difficult to resist doing some photos onl yon a “good”client request?
I have to say that it is really on a case to case basis. But usually I choose and approach who or what I’m going to photograph.