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If there ever was a Mount Rushmore for photojournalism, rest assured, you would find Steve McCurry on it.
Yeah, the average Joe out there may not be familiar with the name but they sure will be familiar with his work.
Remember that shot of the Afghan Girl? The one that adorned the cover of National Geographic twice and is so famous that anyone, from your grandmother to your children, can recognize it? Yup, that was by Steve McCurry.
The photograph ranks among the most iconic shots of this age and is one of many of Steve’s photographs that can be found in any art photography gallery.
Born in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Steve McCurry studied film at Pennsylvania State University, graduating cum laude.
After graduation, he began working at the Today’s Post in King of Prussia, Penn where he developed an interest in photography. He was tasked with shooting events like Kiwanis meetings and high school graduations where he picked up the basics but he quickly realized that this wasn’t what he wanted to do.
After two years, he resigned from his role at Today’s Post and left to India where he worked as a freelancer.
Rabattu Shepard, Rajasthan © Steve McCurry
Today’s Post may have kindled Steve McCurry’s interest in photography but he really launched his career only after he found his way to Asia.
It was here in hustle and bustle of old India that McCurry learnt one of the most important aspects of photography; learning to wait and watch. He later said, if you learn to wait, people forget about the camera which then allows you to photograph the soul.
Holi festival, Rajasthan © Steve McCurry
After about a year in India, he traveled to the north of Pakistan where he met a couple of Afghans through whom he learnt about the war brewing up in Afghanistan.
What did Steve McCurry do? He made a quick exit back to the safe waters of India.
Nah, just kidding. He disguised himself in native attire and snuck through the border into Taliban controlled region of Afghanistan with the intention of photographing the war and the growing tensions in the region – this was shortly before the Russians invaded mind you.
When he departed from Afghanistan, he sewed rolls of film into his clothes – these rolls held images that would go on to establish his career as a photojournalist as he was one of the first to photograph and raise awareness about the war. He made subsequent trips to the warzone and was awarded the Robert Capa Gold Medal for Best Photographic Reporting from Abroad for his coverage of the fighting.
Welder in a Ship Breaking Yard, Mumbai © Steve McCurry
In 1984, as he was traveling across South Asia, National Geographic approached him with the view of exploring and photographing the steadily growing refugee camps along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border for a feature article.
Between August and November of the same year, he journeyed to the northwest of Pakistan exploring the thirty-odd camps just outside Peshawar.
As he explored the Nasir Bagh refugee camp, he peeped into a tent after hearing laughter and realized it was a school classroom. With permission from the teacher, he started to take some pictures of the students and then spotted a girl on her own in a corner. While that was quite unremarkable, what stood out were her deep piercing eyes. They caught his eye and he took a few portrait shots of the girl and continued his tour of the camp. Funnily enough, Steve McCurry didn’t even get a good look at his photos and it wasn’t until much later that he saw the final image and realized how captivating it was. Once those hauntingly green eyes were put on Nakt Geo’s cover, the Western world was able to understand the struggle and pain that many were going through in those camps – the image was powerful and helped stir attention to what was happening.
Afghan girl © Steve McCurry
This theme continued. Over his career, Steve McCurry’s reporting took him to warzones across the world including the Lebanon Civil War, the Iran–Iraq War, the Gulf War, and the Islamic insurgency in the Philippines, to name a few. As you may expect, he has been in close shaves many times. He almost drowned in India, was shot and robbed in Afghanistan, was arrested in Burma and miraculously survived an airplane crash in the region that is now Bosnia.
Train station at Old Delhi © Steve McCurry
But, although I might have implied it, his work wasn’t solely restricted to war zones. For instance, he has dabbled in a lot of fashion photography and was commissioned to shoot the 2013 Pirelli calendar in Rio de Janeiro. A fascinating detail of his fashion photography projects is that he always insists on clothed female models. He also had another requirement; these models must be involved in humanitarian causes. McCurry said that such requirements ensure he can do good work without compromising his values and vision.
Camel and oil fire, Kuwait 1991 © Steve McCurry
Steve McCurry loved to focus on the human toll of war. Not only did he wish to display the effect that war has on the landscape but he was also focused on the destruction caused to the people who live in the region.
His images tend to be grounded in humans and he is always on the lookout for that unguarded moment when the person’s true feelings and their soul peeks out. He basically tries to show how it feels to be that person in that scenario i.e. the true human condition. Steve McCurry firmly believes that this human condition is true for all and is something that falls outside the boundaries of language, religion or ethnicity – something worth pondering?
Shaolin monks training © Steve McCurry
In 2005, Steve McCurry made a shift to digital capture from color slide film. He said this shift was due to the ease of editing, especially on the field along with the ease in sending photographs to his editors. Unlike most photographers, he didn’t reserve any nostalgia for this change as he declared that the quality is much better and that it is easier to work in low light conditions.
He is known to do a lot of research before he even touches the camera, sometimes visiting close to a dozen villages in the region before deciding on the most suitable location.
Train station Agra, 1983 © Steve McCurry
His work has been published on magazines around the world and he is a contributor to the National Geographic.
He is of course, most known for the photograph of the young Afghani girl. National Geographic’s most famous photograph, it has been used by Amnesty International and others to display the plight of war.
The photograph displayed the struggle of war and the effect it has on people – if you think about it, it perfectly encapsulates Steve McCurry’s approach and style to this work. It can be considered the emblem of his career as it is in line with his vision of what he wants to achieve as a documentary photographer: depict the lives of others and raise awareness about universal issues.
Mother and child at car window, Bombay © Steve McCurry
His incredibly shrewd approach to photography has led to him being responsible for some of the most iconic photographs of his era such as the now familiar shot of the Taj Mahal among many others. His eye for detail, his emphasis on the rule of third, and the counterpoise of background and foreground have allowed him to shoot perfectly composed photographs that have inspired many modern-day photographers.
Boy in the mid-flight, Jodhpur © Steve McCurry
He is the recipient of countless awards such as Magazine Photographer of the Year and was twice crowned the winner of the World Press Photo contest. Since 1986, he has been a member of Magnum Photos. He also recently released a limited edition photography book that is well worth a look.
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