Steve McCurry: The Middle East captivates me the most

I’ve always been drawn to travel writing. Richard Burton and Paul Theroux are both inspirations to me. I studied cinematography in college so I have an appreciation for the craft and legendary directors like Federico Fellini, Orson Welles, and Francis Ford Coppola.


A Life in Pictures, “the definitive volume” on your life, is written and prepared by your sister, Bonnie McCurry. It is unusual that an artist’s biography is written by their siblings. How did this project begin?

My sister was helping an editor who was publishing a book in Italy about my work. He flew to Philadelphia to work out some errors and during his visit, asked if she’d be willing to provide more pictures from my personal life. As a joke, she said that she was saving them for her book. He was intrigued and from there the project evolved. They met in Scotland not long after their initial meeting and spent three days discussing the structure of the book, looking through photos, and outlining the chapters and titles.

In 1978, as a young journalist, you made a bold decision and bought a one-way ticket to India. Could you please tell us about this turning point in your life: Why India, what was your inspiration? Have you ever felt regret?

I first planned a trip to India because I had already done assignments in Africa, Latin America and Europe and I wanted to venture somewhere new, ideally in Asia. I chose India because I found it the most complex in terms of religion, tradition, and geography. The trip was supposed to span just six weeks, but I ended up staying for two years because there was so much more to take in than I could have imagined. Since then, I’ve returned more than 80 times. I feel no regret. It’s a visually and culturally astounding country.

When you look back at your spectacular career, which one of your works makes you most proud?

I think of my photographs almost like my children. You like different pictures for different reasons. The assignment which was most fulfilling was the Gulf War. Both human and environmental in nature, it was a story that impacted the entire world. It was an epic and profound experience to document it.

“The Afghan Girl” is one of the most popular photographs in the world. Does it overshadow your other works? The woman who is the subject of the photograph is alive. Do you still follow her story?

Rarely a day has gone by in the years since I took the photo that there’s not a phone call, e-mail or query about her. I don’t think it overshadows my other work, I consider it a gift. It’s an honor to be associated with an image considered to be iconic around the world and I’m proud to have made it. Over the years, my sister and I have maintained a relationship with Sharbat. We’ve tried to support her and her family and provide them with the essentials of a comfortable life in Afghanistan. We keep our communication with her private for the sake of her own peace and safety.

Everything is more digital now in the world of photography. How did the digital turn affect your work and life? Do you miss the times of dark rooms and vivid colors?

It hasn’t changed the way I see or the way I photograph. It certainly changed my process. Shooting digital allows me to work in extremely low light, play with color temperature, review images as I shoot, evaluate the composition and focus. All of these elements are major developments. Of course, there’s nostalgia about things of the past — but I prefer to look to the future. I still see the art of making good images in very simple terms. The quality of any great photograph will always come down to the intuition of the person who’s taken it.

Your career in photography shows us that you have been a photographer of high budget and special projects. For instance, you visited Afghanistan several times, used a mobile laboratory or a helicopter to go to the photo shooting locations. Put differently, you showed the sector the importance of your work. Is photography still an expensive job?

Photography isn’t more expensive than it has ever been. Perhaps the equipment and the storage require additional investment.

Who did influence your work other than photographers; any writers, directors, philosophers, etc.?

Unsurprisingly, I’ve always been drawn to travel writing. Richard Burton and Paul Theroux are both inspirations to me. I studied cinematography in college so I have an appreciation for the craft and legendary directors like Federico Fellini, Orson Welles, and Francis Ford Coppola.

We are exiled journalists from the Middle East. You have been in the region several times. How does the Middle East differ from the other parts of the world for you, from an artist’s perspective?

It’s the part of the world that captivates me the most. There’s an unmatched depth of culture and geography. Their traditions date back thousands of years. In other parts of the world, the colonial period overshadows ancient cultures, but what’s interesting is that these regions already had fairly advanced civilizations and religions through history.

You have been to Turkey a number of times. “Time in Turkey” exhibition was one of those occasions and you met Ara Güler during that visit. Ara Guler died a couple of months ago and Fevzi Yazıcı, one of the directors of “Time in Turkey,” is serving life in prison because he was the design director of Zaman newspaper. Do you follow the political turmoil in Turkey? Would you like to comment on the latest developments?

I do follow current events in Turkey as well as the rest of the Middle East. I don’t have any more about Fevzi Yazıcı’s case, I always enjoyed working with him on my various trips to Turkey. We had spirited conversations about how pictures were used in newspapers’ layouts. I found the charges against him deeply disturbing, he is a decent and honorable man.

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