Magnum and National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry is arguably one of the top photojournalists working today. David Clark looks at his busy and productive career
© Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos – Jodhpur, India 2007
Steve McCurry is widely acknowledged as one of the world?s finest photojournalists and a master of using light and colour. He has spent his professional life exploring the world with his camera and his extraordinary portfolio of work ranges from contemplative landscapes and penetrating portraits to hard-hitting images of the tragedy and brutality of war. Much of his work records and celebrates cultural diversity in our rapidly changing world.
McCurry, now 60, became a photographer in 1975 after graduating from Pennsylvania State University. ?At that point I decided that whatever I did in my life, I wanted to explore this world we live in,? he said in an AP interview in 2004. ?I wanted to see everything and take in different cultures. I wanted to wander and observe life.?
Since then, he has travelled extensively around the world on assignments and has been both a member of the Magnum agency and a senior contributor to National Geographic magazine for many years. His awards are numerous and include the Robert Capa Gold Medal in 1980, four First Prizes in the 1985 World Press Photo competition, three more World Press Photo awards in 1992 and the Lucie Award for Photojournalism in 2003.
McCurry initially aimed to become a documentary filmmaker, but discovered a preference for the still image after shooting pictures for his college magazine. After leaving college and travelling around Europe for a year, he worked on a newspaper for two years before turning freelance and travelling to India. The trip was intended to last for a few months, but he stayed for two years.
Shortly before the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan at the end of 1979, he illegally crossed the border with Pakistan disguised in traditional Afghan attire. He shot some of the first images of the conflict and hid his films from the Russian authorities by sewing them into his clothing. The resulting pictures were published in major magazines worldwide.
These pictures effectively launched McCurry?s career, and he initially worked for Newsweek before later joining the staff on National Geographic. Since then he has covered wars in countries including Cambodia, the Philippines, Kuwait and Iraq, and continues to photograph the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.
His work has sometimes involved danger and he has twice been reported killed. He has been beaten up by a drunken mob during a religious riot in India, arrested and chained in Pakistan, and has survived a plane crash in the Balkans. The plane ended up submerged under ten feet of water in a lake, but McCurry swam to safety. From a photographic point of view, he also has a knack of being in the right place at the right time: he returned to his New York home from a long assignment in China the day before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.
McCurry is best known for one stunning image, which was shot in Afghanistan in 1984. It is a portrait of a 12-year-old Afghan girl whose parents had been killed and who was living in a refugee camp in Pakistan (see right). The girl?s haunted, intense eyes, which seemed to symbolise the suffering of the Afghan people, made this picture internationally famous.
?This is a young girl who has spent most of her life in the back of a truck,? McCurry told AP in 1999. ?You can?t really be normal if you live this wretched existence. This little Afghan girl comes from a brutal country, yet here?s a little bit of beauty in all this devastation.? After many years of trying to find out what happened to the girl, McCurry eventually located her safe and well in 2002. ?Finding Sharbat Gula and her family was one of the most memorable moments of my life,? he has said.
His assignments are all shot in colour. He particularly enjoys shooting in low light, and although he uses digital capture he still prefers to use 35mm transparency film. He has an archive of between 800,000 and 1,000,000 images and estimates
that 90% of the images have been shot on Kodachrome.
McCurry is based in New York, but travels for around nine months of each year. ?My life is shaped by the urgent need to wander and observe,? he has said, ?and my camera is my passport.? He particularly enjoys travelling to south Asia for its ?strong connection to the past? and ?the juxtaposition of the ancient world with an ultramodern way of life.?
Many of the images he has captured on his travels are portraits. They are shot in natural light and record usually fleeting connections with people from the numerous and diverse cultures he has encountered. His subjects are often pictured in very different and sometimes outlandish traditional clothing, but these sensitive and often incisive images serve to emphasise the similarities between people and the common ground that links very different cultures and races.
?Most of my images are grounded in people,? McCurry has said. ?I look for the unguarded moment, the essential soul peeking out, experience etched on a person?s face. I try to convey what it is like to be that person, a person caught in a broader landscape that you could call the human condition.?
- 1950 – Born on 24 February in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- 1974 – Graduates from Pennsylvania State University and travels extensively around Europe
- 1976 – Begins a two-year stint as a newspaper photographer
- 1978 – Starts his freelance career and travels to Asia
- 1979 – Crosses the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan to capture images of the Soviet invasion
- 1980 – Wins the Robert Capa Gold Medal for ?best published photographic reporting from abroad requiring exceptional courage and enterprise?
- 1984 – Shoots the famous portrait of the Afghan refugee, later identified as Sharbat Gula. It is later published on the cover of National Geographic and becomes famous worldwide
- 1985 – Wins an unprecedented four First Prize awards in the World Press Photo competition
- 1986 – Becomes a full member of Magnum Photos
- 1992 – Wins three more World Press Photo awards for his images shot in Kuwait during the First Gulf War
- 2001 – Photographs the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center
McCurry?s many books include The Imperial Way (1985), Portraits (1999), The Path to Buddha: A Tibetan Pilgrimage (2003) and
In the Shadows of Mountains (2007). His most recent book is The Unguarded Moment: Thirty Years of Photography by Steve McCurry (2009).
McCurry?s official website is www.stevemccurry.com. It features numerous galleries of work shot throughout his career, a biography, a blog, a print sales section and details of McCurry?s workshops. There?s more of his work on the Magnum website, www.magnumphotos.com.