Steve McCurry 'This is what I saw while I was alive'

The Magnum photographer opens up on his life and legacy during great PBS interview
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Steve McCurry - Rajasthan 1996
Steve McCurry - Rajasthan 1996

We’re always happy to come upon a new Steve McCurry interview so were especially pleased to see a recent PBS interview in which Steve talks about the great photographs in our book India and his rich experiences shooting in the Indian subcontinent. In the video Steve talks about visiting the country for the first time when he was 27. “I bought a one-way ticket and I was just going to stay there as long as it took.”

It was the beginning of a long relationship with the country, one which has resulted in some incredible photographs over the years. We’ve transcribed the interview and broken it down below into sections in which Steve talks about the country itself, his celebrated train photographs, the religious festivals he’s shot and that famous shot of the man wading through the water in Por Bandar with his sewing machine held aloft. You can browse all of Steve’s books here.

 

 

Steve McCurry on assignment in India
Steve McCurry on assignment in India

On India - I went to India when I was 27. I had worked on a local paper outside of Philadelphia for a couple of years. And I was getting a bit bored I wanted to travel, I wanted to photograph various cultures.

I bought a one-way ticket to India and I was just going to stay there as long as it took. India has such an incredible depth of culture. There’s so many contradictions, there’s so many people; the geography the religions, it’s just rich. You can spend several lifetimes and never really get to the bottom of it.

India is one of the most spiritual places in the world. These festivals and religious events are central to the life of the people. You just see them on the street. It’s the lifeblood of the city. 

I was in the city of Jodhpur during holy week. There was this group of villagers, performing and there was this one man painted green. I was on a wall, they picked this fellow up to take him somewhere and I took some pictures of him as they moved through the crowd. I think it’s one of my more successful colour pictures.

 

Agra, Uttar Pradesh 1983 Steam engine passes in front of the Taj Mahal - Steve McCurry
Agra, Uttar Pradesh 1983 Steam engine passes in front of the Taj Mahal - Steve McCurry

On Trains - I wanted to do a long-term project on the train journey in India. Eventually I got an assignment to go and do this story and lo-and-behold the writer was Paul Theroux. So here I am with this great author and we’re going off on this adventure to travel through India and the first thing I thought about was I wonder if by any chance the train goes anywhere near the Taj Mahal. It turned out the train not only went goes by the Taj Mahal there’s an entire railroad yard beside the Taj. 

So I spent a week in Agra, looking for the right angle, the right time and checking the train schedules. I made this picture of these workers on the steam locomotive with the Taj in the background. I don’t think it had ever been photographed that way before.

 

Porbandar, Gujarat 1983 - Tailor carries his sewing machine through monsoon floodwaters - Steve McCurry
Porbandar, Gujarat 1983 - Tailor carries his sewing machine through monsoon floodwaters - Steve McCurry

On the Monsoons - I did a story on the monsoon. One of the dramatic things of the monsoon season is there’s an incredible heat build up. The wind blows, the dust storms come up. So the monsoon is a relief. 

I was in the city of Porbandar photographing the monsoon during one of the floods and I was up to my chest in the water. As I was wading through the streets I saw this man walking down with a sewing machine on his shoulder and it seemed so odd and so surreal.  

Everyone started alerting this man that there’s a photographer around, and telling him to smile for the camera. He has this rusted sewing machine which is from his shop and it’s destroyed and yet he’s up to his neck in the water with this smile. The best part of the story was that the German manufacturer of the machine saw this picture and tracked him down and sent him a new sewing machine.

 

CVR Steve McCurry, Rabari Shepherd (2009), Rajasthan, India
CVR Steve McCurry, Rabari Shepherd (2009), Rajasthan, India

On his potraits - I love portraiture I love photographing people, I love the human face, I love the stories that are etched in the people’s faces. There are certain people I see as I’m walking around the street that inspire me and I want to tell that story and photograph that particular person.

When you make the portrait you come with that enthusiasm that passion and you can get into a zone where you create this chemistry and this great connection. It doesn’t matter so much how long you spend with this person – it could be a few moments but somehow you establish this connection and great things can happen. You can make a picture that really reveals something about that person’s personality and dig down into their soul.

 

Steve McCurry portrait by Bruno Barbey
Steve McCurry portrait by Bruno Barbey

On his life and legacy - What I want people to take away from my pictures is that there’s a commonality of humanity that we share and although we may look different or we may speak different languages, or have different religions, we’re all human and were all from the same family. So there’s this shared experience of being alive at the same time, I think this is a look at the world while I was alive. This is what I saw and I think I spent my life in the best possible way.

Watch Steve McCurry being interviewed hereAnd browse his many great books with Phaidon here, including India.


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