The voice of a photographer
exists in their images. As
witnesses to history, those
perceptions change over time.
After three decades of work, I wanted
to ask Steve McCurry how his
experiences working in Asia have
shaped his world view.
Last year, at a book signing at Phaidon Press, I had a chance to meet Steve McCurry. We exchanged a few words while he inscribed a book for my girlfriend and I. It would have been great to chat longer, but the eager line of fans prevented a bigger discussion. Afterwards I wrote to Steve’s studio to ask him for an interview. The response….deafening silence. After a few follow up emails I had almost given up. he’s a busy guy and I am not a major publication, so I was not surprised. But a few months later, I got a link alert from my website. Turns out my article of Steve’s book signing was now on his site. In a last attempt I reached out to the studio again, and his assistant was happy to set me up with an interview. Was it good fortune, luck, or just patience, who knows. But Steve had agreed to meet with me for an interview.
They warned me that his schedule was very packed because he was preparing for another trip to Asia for a few months. When the day arrived, Steve was only going to have time for a phone interview. Ideally I would have liked to meet him because I personally do better with people face to face. I am not Barbara Walters and have no gift for interviewing. I am a photographer who does better in person. But…under the circumstances I was happy to get a slice of his time.
In the questions below I would like to try a different format because like I said, I am not a journalist. Knowing that Steve was pressed for time, I had to keep the questions simple and straightforward because one never knows when the person on the other end feels like calling it quits. The interview is arranged with:
1) The Question
2) Steve’s Answer
3) My thoughts on the answer.
(001) Henri Cartier Bresson was a big influence on you. When you started working with him and Martine Frank (his wife) at Magnum Photo, what was it like, not as an admirer but as a colleague?
He was a wonderful photographer, we can appreciate his work and his photography. He has made a big influence for 60 some odd years. But by the time I got to Magnum, Cartier-Bresson was not doing much photography. Most if his time was spent drawing and painting. As a person, he was great. When I was in Paris, they would have me over the house and we became good friends. But his influence was felt more through his images than our interactions at Magnum.
As we have seen here on the site, Cartier-Bresson influenced everyone, Steve included. I have never worked side by side with someone who was an influence on my work. Its never happened. Though I have met a number of people who were influential. Half of the time the experience is a positive one, where I gain new insight about their work. This usually comes from our conversations. Other times the meetings are less eventful. I have heard horror stories of people meeting their photographic idols, but I have been fortunate not to have any bad experiences. I wondered if working with Cartier-Bresson made a difference to Steve’s work. It did not. Ok, so maybe I am off to a rough start, lets see if I can recover from this one.
(002) What is an image you made where a group of elements came together and affected your work moving forward?
There was no individual image or a period of time that affected everything from that point forward. The changes in my work have been gradual, spaced out over a number of years and countless projects, each with their own set of requirements. I can’t really point to one photograph specifically that changed it all.
Not sure about you guys, but for me photography comes with a series of epiphanies. There are images, both good and bad, where something clicked. Looking at a contact sheet upside down or reviewing images on the computer, I have noticed elements that were not apparent while taking the picture. There have been a handful of images that jumped out and said, “Do this more, it works” or “That is a wreck, stop making that mistake.” Moving forward, the images were stronger than before. I think its the reason that a number of famous photographers like to say, “My best picture is my next one.”
For Steve, these realizations did not occur in a single image. His work has evolved over time. That evolution requires a level of self awareness that could be beneficial to younger photographers. What I did take from this, is that photography is a process and should not be rushed. Your development can be accelerated, but there is no formula for becoming a great photographer. The changes in his work came somewhere in the 1,000,000 + frames that he has shot, but for now they will remain a mystery. So far, I am 0 for 2 with the chance of recovery seeming slimmer as the minutes elapse.
(003) What is the big mental shift in how you worked over the years?
I don’t photograph any differently than I did back then. I travel to a place, work with the locals, and see what emerges. That much is pretty consistent over the years. As I return to places, the familiarity with people can be a help, but I can work anywhere. In terms of my photography technique, I hope to be more preceptive. Working in the field where things are constantly changing I hope to notice light, shapes, and designs that I might have missed in the past. Also I hope to have better reflexes than I used to.
When you photograph on the road, there is a lot of down time. Invariably, I reflect on the trip, my life, and everything in between. Shooting on the road can be a mental game, and I wanted to see how Steve views the time in his head. It sounds like he started working his career using the resources of the local communities. This works well and is something he has maintained. Its explains why he continues to travel to the same places because they probably unfold more after each trip.
While he said there were no single images that influenced all the work moving forward, I did understand that he studies his contacts. Like all of us, he has missed shots and learned from his mistakes. The light, the design, and the timing are things that everyone struggles to capture well. Its reassuring in a way to hear a Magnum and National Geographic photographer like Steve say he wants to improve his reflexes. There is always room for improvement, even when you are at the top of your game like Steve.
(004) Looking at a place like Afghanistan were the situation seems worse than it was thirty years ago, do you feel like images can actually help a region or is that some myth that photographers have in their earlier years that dissolves over time?
There is a possibility….maybe…but its not likely. As photographers we can make small changes. Photography can make a difference in some ways, though mostly indirect. It can have an effect on public opinion, or attitudes about certain things. It can bring visual exposure to an event that might have been forgotten. But it is not a policy maker and it doesn’t relieve anyone’s suffering. It helps kickstart initiatives, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg for affecting lasting change.
Take the theme of “The Circus”, which has been explored by Diane Arbus, Bruce Davidson, and others for about one hundred years. You have to ask yourself, “What you want to do?” If you are going to re do a theme, it needs to be done better or in an original way. Everything has been photographed by this point. Coming at a theme with a fresh eye or a new perspective is a must. You have to find something new to say about the subject.
Take an idea like the homeless or AIDS which are done over and over again. They are subjects that need to be covered and addressed as on going stories or problems. So there are constant opportunities for new angles. Themes of civil unrest and human rights are on going issues which need constant attention. Its a mistake to say its been done before. Just because XYZ have done work on AIDS so I am not going to do that..thats wrong. Look at what’s important to you. Work in areas where you feel passionate and try to bring some light to those issues in your own way and your own voice. We have to continually address these problems, so its an on going story.
Finally I feel like I asked a decent question, whew. This was a passionate answer from Steve and opened the interview up a bit. As a photographer, I wonder, can an image really make a difference? What is that difference? How can it be quantified? Or is photography a self indulgent exploration of my own interests? These are not easy questions to answer. Considering the number of influential pictures Steve has taken, I wondered if he felt like his pictures “made a difference,” however we define it. It seems like his pictures have raised awareness and probably been influential (I know they were for me). Though he did not seem to feel like it was a photograph that ended a genocide or stopped a famine.
(005) You have worked inside many rural communities who have a intimate connection to their environments. What are the things that people living in a place like New York could learn from someone living on a farm in Cambodia?
A farmer in Cambodia has more time for friends and family. They have more leisure time, there is a lot less stress and there is a lot less materialism. When you are staying in rural Burma, for example, and want to visit someone’s home its easy unlike New York City. If you want to look inside their home, they are more happy to invite you in on a moments notice. Their hospitality is amazing. If you tried this in the West, I think people are liable to call the police. The mindset is completely different.
When I tell people where I am going, 7 times out of 10 they say, “Oh I heard it is dangerous, or isn’t it very poor there?” Rural communities, in any country are often the most welcoming. The hospitality and generosity of people who have very little is shocking. I wondered if Steve experienced the same things. In such welcoming environments, its easy to see how he could get lost for a few months working in remote locations.
(006) What has your exposure to the major spiritual practices in the East done to your personal philosophies?
I have been very influenced by Buddhism. One of the major tenants of buddhism is compassion for your fellow human beings and animals. There is also the idea of impermanence where everything is in constant flux. Things live and then they die. These are some of these fundamental principles that we learn in life.
Being in monasteries and religious places is enriching and if you can learn a lot. I think its a great fun, and a nice sort of space to be in. Being in a place, like Tibet, Burma, Laos, or Thailand has allowed me to witness how people live. Its something that you have to experience yourself. To see their lives, in person, creates a calm or serenity that pervades the environment.
At their core, most religious practices are calm, compassionate, and serene. The people who tout religion on the news do not represent the majority in any way. I have found it very helpful to travel to other countries and see that different people and different religions are not actually that different. Sure the practices have their differences and there are regional differences in any culture, but being exposed to the positive sides of many religions is helpful. Buddhism also occupies a unique place in my own philosophy. Having spent time living at a Zen monastery here in the US, the life of the monk is filled with useful lessons which emerge through their silent practice. Based purely on the amount of images Steve has made of monks and nuns, I was hoping his time in religious spaces affected his personal philosophy. I think it has done just that.
(007) What it is about a place like Burma that attracts your attention?
Burma, the people are very (pause)…there is a gentleness and an elegance to the Burmese people and Buddhism is very much a part of their life. You could say the same thing about people in Thailand and Laos, that whole Southeast Asia has that sort of same kind of feeling.
When most people hear Burma, they think violent military dictatorship, repressed journalism, and human rights violations. This is all true. But underneath the troubles are people who live amazing lives and Steve seems intent on exploring the lesser known parts of the country.
(008) What effect, if any, does changing from film to digital or 35mm to medium format have on your work? Are there any specific advantages to any medium or system that allowed you to explore something that was missing in previous work?
You can work in much lower light than you could before, especially hand held. There is a new world in terms of low light photography that was not possible in film. This is a big shift. Normally, its best to get out early just to take advantage with the day. Digital photography does not get me out of bed any earlier than film did, but the low light options are great. You can always find the kind of light you are looking for regardless of the time of day. I always get out early, not that i am looking for early morning light or late afternoon light. I just like to get out and walk around the day from start to finish.
Ok, so the question got a bit side tracked. Steve has worked in film and digital for years and recently has been doing work with the medium format Hasselblad system. Maybe the question was too big, because I wondered if the camera or format made a difference to Steve. Apparently digital has opened up some new doors, but between the image quality of 35mm and medium format, there is not major difference for his work. He seems to go out, do this thing, and can work with any camera that can be hand held.
(009) When you were first traveling to new countries did research play any role in your process of learning or understanding the history of a country? Is safety ever a concern?
A country like Afghanistan feels very safe when you are there. It does not feel like something could go wrong at any minute. But there is a potential things could just erupt. There is a level of potential danger. There are kidnappings and bombings and armed robbery. Afghanistan is a good example of a place that seems like it is in flames all the time, but feels very normal.
Its always good to work with good people, fixers, translators or guides. They are a key to success projects in a place like that. If you don’t speak the local language, you can run into problems. If you don’t know the customs you need someone to help.
I always travelled with translators. It would be foolish to travel around a place like Afghanistan without one. If you are not familiar with the situation on the ground you are asking for trouble.
The behind the scenes of a photo project is often a myth. We read stories about journalists sneaking into countries, then getting arrested or killed. Sometimes work abroad seems like a free for all. But in order to produce years of successful work, I imagined that Steve used local resources. They apparently play a much larger role than I anticipated, but it all makes sense. Things can be dodgy and locals know how to navigate their waters best.
(010) What are your influences?
I am influenced by everything. Music, books, movies, travel, you name it. There is no single source for me. Going to places and meeting people has also shaped my views of life and my world view.
We were getting to the end of the interview and I had one last question. I was thinking maybe he has some odd influences like Opera or something I would have never expected. People usually ask him who is influences are, but I had never heard him talk about music, books, or movies. As it turns out, his influences are as broad as his travels.
— Thank You (Updated)
I just wanted to thank Steve McCurry for chatting with me and his fantastic assistant Dallas Raines for making this happen, in spite of Steve’s tight schedule. If you would like to see more of Steve’s work, check out the galleries on his website. There is an enormous collection of images for your to pour over.
A retrospective of Steve McCurry’s work opens tomorrow at Casal Solleric, Palma de Mallorca (16 June – 4 September). The exhibition spans the breadth of McCurry’s work over the last three decades. Phaidon was kind enough to feature the above interview in their release.
My favorite thing to do is visit Phaidon’s Store in Soho, here in NYC, because they actually like it when you come and flip through the books for hours. No rush, just grab a seat and enjoy.