Though he is best known by his iconic photograph of an Afghan refugee girl in 1984, Steve McCurry has covered many areas of international conflict, and India, “the ground zero for photographic material,” since 1978. McCurry spoke to HT at the Jaipur Literature Festival about his craft and his new book, Steve McCurry: India. This new portfolio of emotive and beautiful work features 150 previously unpublished photos, taken across the Indian subcontinent, along with images that have become known across the globe. Reproduced in a large format with captions, and an introductory essay, India features a range of colour pictures illustrating this most colourful of countries, capturing the lives of everyday people in extraordinary settings: from the Ganesh festival on Chowpatty beach in Mumbai to the Kolkata railway station at dawn to the flower markets of Kashmir and the streets of Old Delhi.
You received an enthusiastic welcome at the JLF. The session moderator called you ‘the darling of photography’.
I am always grateful for this kind of reception. This means that they identify with my observation of the world, the kind of photographs I take. It is heartening to know that my photographs have touched so many people across the world.
Tell us a little about your new book, Steve McCurry: India.
This is the first book that is fully on India, though most of my earlier books have always had some bits of the country in them. That’s not surprising because I have come here more than 80 times and many of the places and situations are significant to me. This is sort of a diary about my time in India.
Has technology made life easier for a photographer?
Yes, it has definitely. But still it is the person behind the camera that is most important. Technology is just an enabler. For example, you can write a novel using a notepad. There is no problem in that, but a laptop just makes things simpler. But finally it will be about the quality of your novel and what you write. The same is the case with photography.
You have come to India so many times. You are now an insider. Yet, how do you keep your interest intact? Doesn’t everything look familiar?
It’s a cliché but I always set the bar higher. I always want to click new photographs. I am always willing to learn and experiment too. If I don’t get anything new to shoot, then I explore a different street to look for a new shot. I don’t give up.
After taking a shot, can you say with certainty that it is a perfect one? When you took the famous Afghan girl’s photo, did you know it was special?
When you are a young photographer, you can’t spot. But with experience you understand which one will work, how it will look in print, whether the colour and the light is perfect. It’s is possible to pre-visualise the photograph and how it will look in print. When I photographed the Afghan girl, I knew the photograph was special but, of course, had no idea that it would be so popular across the world. It was a once-in-a lifetime situation.
As a foreigner in India, how do you blend in to take the perfect shots?
When I go to a new area initially people are inquisitive and they ask where I am from etc. But, eventually, they settle in and then I start my work. Besides, I really don’t go in with huge camera and lenses. Actually, my camera is pretty small.
You have photographed so many cultures. Before going to a new country, do you read about its culture?
Yes, I do but not much because there is something to say for going in with a fresh mind and eye. It helps if there is an element of surprise. I tend not to over-think or over-research. I just go and wander around without a plan and it’s amazing just how pictures reveal themselves.
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