Steve McCurry on Photographing India for 30 Years

Plus photo tips and his most memorable image of the country.  
Holi Rajasthan India Steve McCurry
Holi celebrations in Rajasthan, India, 1996. © Steve McCurry

Steve McCurry’s most recognised photograph may be that of a green-eyed Afghan refugee girl. But, perhaps fittingly given a surname that evokes visions of Asia’s flavourful dishes, India remains one of McCurry’s fondest subjects.

His photographs are singular in their ability to deliver a striking impression; to capture a moment and a sense of the here-and-now. He has won the World Press Photo award an unprecedented four times. McCurry’s Afghan girl is said to be as iconic as the Mona Lisa, so famous that he even owns numerous artistic renditions of the photo that people have sent him or sold around the world.

The American photographer first visited India in 1978, having quit his newspaper job, with a handful of assignments and on the look-out for a place to start a freelance career. What was to be a few weeks’ travel to Goa, Mumbai, Rajasthan and Pushkar turned into a long-lasting relationship. So much so that in 1997, McCurry did the cover story for National Geographic on 50 years of Indian independence.

ganesh visarjan

Man carries a statue of Ganesh into the water, Bombay/Mumbai, India, 1993. © Steve McCurry

In the country for the Jaipur Literature Festival and to promote the release of his book India, a selection of his work over the past 30 years, McCurry spoke to National Geographic Traveller India.

Is there a certain kind of India that you seek?

The places are clichéd for a reason. If a place is heavily visited, I think you need to have a different angle, a different sensibility. There’s a reason why writers and photographers and filmmakers go to the places that are the most inspiring or the most visual or that have the most meat.

For me, and I think what charms and amazes everybody, is the fact that you have this disparity: the richest people in the world but you also have some of the poorest people in the world. Then, you have all this culture: you have a predominantly Hindu culture that goes back thousands of years but you also have Buddhists and Sikhs and Christians and Muslims and Parsis and Jains, and there are all these festivals and histories, and so it becomes quite a depth of culture, and not to mention geography. You could go to a place like Banaras and the thread of history and culture goes back—I’m not sure you could say this about another place, that the living tradition goes back thousands of years.

Is colour intrinsic to the way you want to portray India?

The world’s in colour so it makes more sense to photograph in colour. I think some places like New England or Germany, colour is not central to the story. In the West, we have monks—Franciscan, Benedictine—and they dress in grey and black. In India, or say Tibet, colour’s really integral to the story of Holi or a Hindu temple or a Tibetan monastery. I think often that the story in the picture should be the hero; the colour should be important but the story should tell the picture and move us emotionally or make us learn something, take us on a journey.

What draws you to a portrait?

I think we’re all fascinated with each other; we all have the same face but yet we’re all different. That difference is fascinating because so often there’s an incredible story told on our faces. I’d be very happy to just take portraits for the rest of my life.

What’s the most memorable picture you’ve taken of the country?

It may be a little boring, but I think it’s the picture of the Taj and the train, because it captures a time and an era. It captures these old steam locomotives which no longer operate, except maybe in Kodaikanal or something. To me, it’s a historic picture, we have this image of India in a particular time and I think it kind of speaks to that.

agra-train

Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India, 1983. © Steve McCurry

How did you pick the photos for India?

The pictures go over 30 years. I look at the pictures as pages from my diary, pictures that were important to me—I remember a particular time or moment or situation that had meaning for me, it’s really more of a personal book, The book shows what was fascinating to me about this country and why I’ve come back so many times. India’s always the place that you love, it’s the place that is sometimes very maddening, it’s the place that is full of mystery and contradiction but it’s always a surprise. You’re always learning something. You want to be growing and experiencing new things and that’s one of the big draws of India. India’s kind of an extreme place and a lot of people become obsessed, and other people can’t deal with it and it’s an overload.

What’s the most recent India photo in there?

It was a story we did on nomads; we picked the Rabari in Rajasthan and Gujarat and the nomads up in Ladakh, and the Gadaulia Lohar in Gujarat—they’ve settled for maybe a generation but they still keep their wagon, which is sort of a symbol, that’s their identity.

women climbing a step well

Women climb up a stepwell, 2002. © Steve McCurry

Are there places in the country that you still want to visit?

The Northeast. I did a story, actually, in 2005 in Mizoram, on rat infestation, because every 50 years the bamboo flowers, bringing impending doom. [In 1959, the phenomenon drew a horde of feasting rats that went on to decimate all crops, causing an unprecedented famine.] The difference from 1950 was that now there was infrastructure ready to deal with tens of millions of rats. I saw some people eating rats but I never saw one live rat in the whole time I was there. So I showed where the rats may be, I showed the bamboo, I showed some scientists working on it. A writer has the possibility to talk in historical terms, but I can’t do that, I have to show the here and now.

How do you approach someone for a portrait?

When you approach somebody you need to come with a relaxed, friendly, nonthreatening approach. You need to get a bit charming. If you’re asking somebody for their time on the street, first of all, they have to be willing to stop what they’re doing. You have to bring them into your process and they have to trust you; use a bit of humour and if you create a positive atmosphere then you can start from there. You have to be quick because people generally start to get impatient in a minute or two. There is a part when people get all excited and self-conscious, a bit self-aware, so you have to kind of reassure them so that they relax. Once they’re relaxed, their demeanour and face become more genuine, the camera kind of disappears and they’re less self-conscious. This doesn’t apply if you’re in a refugee camp, I’m talking about approaching somebody anywhere in Nariman Point or Dharavi. You just have to get people to be themselves. I usually have a guide and translator; we’re very respectful, we come in and explain what we’re doing. I’m very conscious of making people comfortable and making them feel like this is a good thing.

What was your most meaningful work?

The assignment which was the most fulfilling was the Gulf War. It was a human story, an environmental story; it was a story that impacted the entire world and it was full of drama and visually, just incredible. I think the monsoon and the train stories [in India] were certainly among the best and I would put my work in Afghanistan at the top.

bike-rides

Bicycles hanging on the side of a train, West Bengal, India, 1983. © Steve McCurry

How do you pitch a story to National Geographic?

I would write a proposal in which I would try and show the visual potential of the story—not just in words, but say we were going to do a train journey from Amritsar to Calcutta, I would list out exactly what I thought would be visually interesting. But you have to research, you have to make sure that something similar hasn’t been done recently. You have to know your client.

How do you come to an understanding of a new place?

The best way is to do a little bit of research, to get a sense of where the good pulls of opportunity are, but then to just get there and literally walk around and discover it for yourself. If you over-research a place, you have too many preconceived ideas when you get there; if it’s not the way you read about it then it’s kind of disappointing.

Stands over two sleeping people

An elephant stands over two sleeping people, 2012. © Steve McCurry

Has being a photographer changed your outlook as a traveller?

No. For me, the worst part about travel is getting to the airport and getting through security, getting on the plane. It’s just a hassle, excess luggage and delayed flights and misconnections and lost luggage. But, this is life. On the other hand, when you think about how people travelled a 100 years ago, when you go from New York to Hong Kong, it would take weeks and would probably be much more dangerous than flying. We complain about these things but if it was a 100 years ago, the travel would have been far more interesting.

Where do you like to go on holiday?

I still like to go someplace that’s comfortable—good hotel, good food, relaxed. I don’t like to go to a beach and sit, I’d rather go to London or Paris or Rome or someplace that has some charm or character. It doesn’t have to be urban—I could go to the Grand Canyon or Phoenix or Tucson, Arizona—someplace that you feel comfortable and have a relaxed experience. The difference when you’re working is you’re on a schedule and you have to get up early and you have certain responsibilities but even then, it can be a pleasurable experience. The most fun is just getting up when you want and going where you want and doing everything at your own schedule. I may not use the camera but I always have the camera with me. You never know, if some unforeseen news event or something amazing happens.

Steve McCurry’s work has featured in every major magazine in the world and frequently appears in National Geographic. He has authored over a dozen books, most recently India, published by Phaidon/Roli Books. India features 140 photos, many previously unpublished, and includes iconic images that are famous worldwide.

  • Saumya Ancheri is the former Assistant Editor of NGT India's web team. She loves places by the sea, and travels to shift her own boundaries. She tweets as @Saumya_Ancheri.

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