theindiaphile: Tell us about the first time you went to India.
Steve McCurry: Well I went to Delhi for the first time in 1978, after travelling extensively in African and Latin America. I wanted to really take a look around, explore with my camera, and get a feel for the place. That was it really. No plan, but just to hang out.
theindiaphile: Did you immediately feel it was a photographer’s paradise?
Steve McCurry: Definitely. It’s immediately striking culturally, the colours, the landscapes, the various religions, the monsoon. I was already fascinated by the monsoon actually, having lived through two and so the seed of that book was already there.
I was struck by how dramatic and vital the monsoon was in India. To the economy, of course, because it was mostly agriculturally based, but also to the lives of the people. This contrast between immense heat and the relief of the rain. I went to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Indonesia, and Australia, and then to India. It was an amazing project to work on.
theindiaphile: Did you already have a deep interest in Buddhism by this stage? I’m struck by how often you’ve photographed Buddhist subjects over the years…
Steve McCurry: Yes, I’m fascinated by Buddhism, although I wouldn’t, perhaps, call myself a practising Buddhist. I’d spent time with the Tibetan community in Kathmandu and it made a big impression on me. Their approach to non violence is very special, and they retain a great joy despite all they’ve been through.
theindiaphile: You shoot in digital and film. What’s your preference?
Steve McCurry: I prefer digital. You can shoot much lower light, it’s more flexible. It takes some of the technical problems away and frees you up to do what you want to do. Which is to be in the moment and interact with your subject. That’s the joy of it.
theindiaphile: Did you still just go off on your own and get lost, despite being well known these days?
Steve McCurry: Oh absolutely! That’s the most fun. I’ll never stop doing that. I also do tours these days; we take people to India, Tibet and Burma on photography tours. I basically lead others places that I have been to before that I feel are visually and culturally rich and interesting. We do workshops and so on.
theindiaphile: I think what sets a lot of your work apart is the sense of vulnerability which you allow in your subjects. Is that part and parcel of what it takes to be a good photographer: to allow that kind of openness to manifest?
Steve McCurry: Well I keep it simple and generally just try and treat people with the utmost dignity and respect when I’m photographing them. But also to try and create an atmosphere of trust. I find humour to be an interesting device: with humour you can break the ice and get people to participate and to work with you in support. So a good laugh helps me out.
theindiaphile: One of your Indian photos I love is the one of the steam train. What a shot! Can you tell us how that came about?
Steve McCurry: I’d made proposal to National Geographic to do a story on a train journey across India. But I wasn’t aware that the train went to close to the Taj Mahal – there’s an enormous rail road yard across from the Taj and there were many steam locomotives that would be shunted back and forth on this particular track. When I realised this I literally spent around 3 days from dawn till dusk photographing in the yard and the stations surrounding it, hoping for the kind of shot that I eventually got. The workers there were great actually and most cooperative and they gave me permission to wander. And then this magical moment happened which became that image.
theindiaphile: Can you tell us about your forthcoming book, The Iconic Photographs – it looks very special
Steve McCurry: I’m excited about it. It’s a look back at 30 years of photography and I’ve gone through and edited my work and come up with a kind of poetic journey through South East Asia that I kind of explores a place which is so fascinating to me. A place that you can go back to time and time again and the depth of culture that you spend a lifetime. It’s going to be a large format book with a slip case and I hope people will enjoy it. It’s a limited edition and something like half of them have already sold.
theindiaphile: Which photos have really touched you during your career?
Steve McCurry: I think The dust storm is a picture I’ve really enjoyed looking again. And of course the Afghan girl is a picture you can look at again and it has longevity about it .You can’t forget it….
theindiaphile: Do you have a favourite place in India?
Steve McCurry: I think Rajasthan and Ladakh are special destinations. I go back to both of those again and again. India is a wonderful place to be a photographer, it has everything! And then the food is amazing too, I love that rich vegetarian food, so I always look forward to going back and partaking in that…..