Cambodian Toddler

Photo Masterclass: Steve McCurry on the Art of Shooting a Portrait

Nat Geo's veteran photojournalist discusses his craft in 6 photos with Ashima Narain.

In portrait photography there are no rules. Most of my portraits aren’t formal situations. They’re found situations. I compose on the spot. But I’m always on the look out for someone with a striking face. People’s eyes really do say so much about them and their life experience.

The first thing you need to do when you approach people is to relate to them and establish some rapport, whether you joke around or whatever, people respond and open up if they are comfortable around you. I try to go beyond that initial, awkward, self-conscious state. Give it a couple of minutes, and you’ll have a more natural, relaxed subject.

Afghanistan Afghan Refugees

Photo: Steve McCurry

I think it’s important not to draw attention to one’s technique and let the picture speak for itself. Let the viewer get absorbed in the emotion or the story that you are trying to tell. As soon as you start thinking about the particular lens, particular filter, some clever lighting technique, it takes the attention away from the picture. Photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Andre Kertesz would only use one or two lenses and work mostly in available light. But above all else, to be a photographer you need to have patience and discipline. Like any other craft, honing photography skills takes a lot of effort and time and practice.

1. In 1984 was working on a story about the war in Afghanistan. There were some 3-4 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan at that time. One day, at a camp very close to Peshawar, I heard voices coming from one of the tents. It was a makeshift school for young girls. I asked the teacher if I could take some photographs. In that group of girls was Sharbat Gula (right). She had such piercing, penetrating, haunting eyes. What struck me was that she looked so frightened and traumatised. I spent about five minutes photographing her. And then she quickly ran off to play with her friends.

This was one of those elusive situations where all the elements of the picture came together in a magical way. The light, the background, her clothing, her body language and her expression all fell into place in a sort of rare harmony. I think there has to be a kind of a flow and a balance not only of the colour component but also of the general composition. There’s a point at which things make sense and come to rest. But aesthetics alone will only take you so far. I think the works of art that resonate with people—the ones that are the most successful—have some emotional component, some human story that we respond to.

Bombay Ganesh Chaturti Red Powder

Photo: Steve McCurry

2. I took this image on a visit to Bombay during Ganesh Chaturti. I was looking for opportunities when I came across this boy drenched in red powder. He and his friends threw the powder all over me as soon as they saw me. After a few pictures he got really serious. It was a brief encounter, but maybe he felt this was something important. The intensity of his expression is extraordinary. I think the simplicity creates this timeless quality. It is far more important to just be in the moment, to be aware of your surroundings, and to be prepared to seize the moment when it presents itself.

Fishermen Sri Lanka

Photo: Steve McCurry

3. I had photographed these fishermen in Sri Lanka who have this unique way of fishing. I realised that the way to get the best angle was to get in the water up to my waist. I like to take pictures of so-called “ordinary people”. Fishermen cleaning their nets, monks praying, families sitting together for meals—those daily rituals inspire me. The images I make are about the people themselves, not a document of the events that they are forced to endure. For me, the goal is to find some sort of universality among people across a huge variety of conditions. If I am successful in this, the image should be universally understood by anyone who has experienced the human condition, regardless of their individual circumstances.

Cambodian Toddler

Photo: Steve McCurry

4. The most important thing for me is the human aspect of an image. So with this Cambodian toddler, I wanted to convey some sort of empathy with the subject through the composition and form of this image. I like to have the photo communicate what it’s like to be that person. I want to have some sort of insight into the human condition of the subject. That’s the most interesting part of the work, as opposed to something that is just composition and form and colour. I like colour photography, but when the picture’s just about colour, I don’t think it really goes very far. I think it really needs to say something about a person, or give some insight into their life or how their life is different than mine.

Construction Worker Ladakh

Photo: Steve McCurry

5. This man with a mask was a construction worker in Ladakh. I always try to capture the dignity of the people I photograph. We are all unique individuals. We all have our personalities, our own voice, and our own style. Finding one’s style, I think, is simply a matter of identifying what interests you, and elucidating your own perspective or point of view. In time, you start to develop your own way of seeing and then it’s your own personality coming through the camera. We all find life interesting in different ways. What appeals to me is exploring this planet we live on and meeting people, seeing different cultures and different ways of doing things.

Train Waiter Plate

Photo: Steve McCurry

6. Ever since the British built the railroads in pre-independence India, stitching the vast subcontinent together, the trains have been the organising force that unifies all of its disparate parts.

To tell the story of the community that inhabits the depots, I would go to the station every day and wander around the platform each time a train would roll in, carefully stepping over people and around huge mountains of luggage. I would start to photograph the swirl of life that assaults and saturates the senses.

When the train pulls into the station there is a mad dash of humanity. People push through the doors and climb through the windows to capture an elusive seat in order to avoid the punishment of having to stand for an entire trip that could take six hours or more. Often the trains are so crowded, the aisles so packed with bodies pressed up against each other, that you cannot even lift an arm to scratch the back of your head.

The point is, in the midst of all this, you need to just observe, to slow down and really look at and appreciate things, simple things, things we would walk by and not notice because we are not appreciating the moment we live in. What is more important than simply enjoying our time here and making some observations along the way?

In this photograph, rail workers pass a tray between the dining car and the locked first class compartment, on a train from Nowshera in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan.

Appeared in the January 2013 issue as “Portraits”.

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