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Steve McCurry: go deep, wait for things to happen

an interview by Enrico Ratto – translation by Elisa Chisana Hoshi

Steve McCurry, you work on many projects, you have exhibitions in many places in the world simultaneously and also write many books. I guess that aside from a great staff, you also have many deep values that you wish to share…

I think the most important thing in life is to communicate your joy. It’s important to live your life in the direction that you feel will lead you to fulfill your dreams and values, everything that is meaningful to you. Do things that you consider important in a way that when you look back you see something that makes sense, just like in a puzzle.

What does a book like “The stories behind the photographs” add to your photos?

I think that it gives a whole new dimension and another side to my work. I think that meeting the public in person, presenting the book, adds a more spontaneous approach than pictures seen in a magazine or an exhibition could ever have on their own. It’s a fundamental way to show my personality.

Books, exhibitions, works for magazines: in which of those are you able to better express your work?

It’s difficult to say. It’s like in the human body, which part is more important than another? A leg, an arm, a face… everything is equally important in my job, and I can’t separate all the elements from each other.

Ferdinando Scianna says that photos have little or nothing to do with paintings, that photos are not canvases but pieces of literature. What do you think about that?

There are many different elements in a photo. First of all, a photo certainty tells a story, it’s a narration of a person’s behavior in his own world. That’s why I partly agree with Scianna, also because he shoots in black and white. Me, however, I shoot predominantly in color, and there are aspects in color – for example the way colors work together – that lead people to compare them to a painting. People often don’t know the story behind a photo, just like they experience with a painting: what they see is all they know. I think that photography is a medium that serves the purpose of telling a story in the most immediate and universal way possible.

What do you need to tell the public a story: a single shot or a whole reportage?

I hope to be able to communicate a story through a photo. Reportages drag you deeply inside the story, but a story can definitely be told through a single shot. Each and every photo tells different aspects of a story: if you put them together they will complement each other.

This year’s World Press Photo was won by John Stanmeyer’s shot, which shows two of the pillars of this age that we are living in: communication and travel. Are those the pillars of your life too?

They certainly are. There is no doubt whatsoever, communication and travel are the bases of my life. Nine out of twelve months of the year I am traveling, and I am taking pictures the whole time.

You are part of a generation that traveled to find stories. Traveling nowadays is much more simple and accessible. Is it still necessary to travel far from home to take pictures or can we find depth next to our home, in our family or just down our street?

Today it’s certainly possible to tell powerful stories close to home. I think that it all boils down to what you want to experience in your life. I think that every photographer chooses what to explore at different times in his life, and it’s such a personal choice. Taking pictures of your own family, neighbours, road and city is a completely respectable choice. Besides, sometimes the events come close to you. I myself reported on 9/11 in New York, that was something happening close to me in places that I knew very well.

Are there times when you are not intrigued by a place, to the point where you say there is nothing around?

Sure, it happens all the time. The challenge is to continuously go deep, devote time to do research, waiting for things to happen while observing a place for a longtime.

When you arrive somewhere, what do you wait for before you shoot?

I look for the right moment, the right light; I try to work out a good photo. All this requires experience, ability, talent and sense, the capacity to recognize a strong situation or a unique face. Perception is crucial with people. I don’t study much before starting a project. I go there and I discover, I think it’s much more amusing to stay fresh towards the places that I’m about to visit. Having just a basic idea, to be free to move around with a fresh head.

If you look back on your archive, do you think that your story has evolved or that your projects change from time to time?

I think that there is continuity and all my works are connected. I have always worked in an area between Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Tibet and Sri Lanka, where everything has a very particular origin. I believe in people that can charm us, in humanity, in relations between people and their habitat. That’s what interests me.

Your first photos where in black and white, why did you then start shooting in color?

At a certain point I thought that it was more logical to use color, from the eighties onward a color picture probably makes more sense. The world is in color, and colors convey much more information.

How do you live with an icon, with the world saying: “Steve McCurry, the one who took the picture of the Afghan girl?”

Actually, I don’t think that people only know me for that photo. There are, however, a lot of people that haven’t studied music and know Beethoven, just like many people that are not interested in photography know that picture, the Afghan Girl. It’s like that, and that’s fine with me.


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