Steve McCurry's most difficult assignment

He's been in every war zone on the planet but Iraq was to prove his most difficult challenge
Al-Shaheed Monument, Baghdad, Iraq - Steve McCurry
Al-Shaheed Monument, Baghdad, Iraq - Steve McCurry


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Tomorrow's edition of Ultratravel, the Telegraph's luxury travel magazine, carries a great piece written by Phaidon and Magnum photographer Steve McCurry. Steve spoke to John O’Ceallaigh about his memories of shooting in Iraq under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. 

It was his first visit to the country and he was supposed to do a story about the whole country. However, when he got there he was allowed to shoot only in Baghdad – and, as Steve says, "a truncated version of it at that."

"It turned out to be the most difficult assignment in my life," the photographer recalls. "Had I known what I was getting myself into, I would never have gone on the trip. We were there for six weeks during June and July, when it was brutally hot, with sandstorms sweeping in over the city. And I could photograph only when I was accompanied by somebody from the Ministry of Information. He’d usually come late and have lunch at our hotel, which we would pay for, then we’d go out and take pictures during the hottest, brightest part of the day.

"In the end we got enough pictures for the story, but every day was a struggle. There was no cooperation, a bit of hostility, and lots of suspicion. Once, we were arrested for photographing a billboard showing Saddam Hussein. 

"Our minder was afraid of us photographing things that might get him into trouble – he freaked out when I took a picture of a donkey. But this monument, a memorial to Iraqis killed in the Iran-Iraq war, was one of the things they were happy to promote.

"I only had about 30 minutes there, and then we were driven away, but the rewards were huge. Baghdad is flat, colourless and generally without interesting architecture, so it was like a vision to see this enormous turquoise sculpture appear, like a lotus flower opening up."

Watch out for the full interview tomorrow, check out our extensive online Steve McCurry content, browse all his books in the store and read our editor's introduction to his latest Phaidon book, Untold The Stories Behind the Photographs.


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