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Talk Asia

Interview with World-Famous Photojournalist Steve McCurry

Aired September 28, 2012 - 05:30   ET



PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voiceover): You may not recognize his face, but you will likely recognize his work.

Meet Steve McCurry, one of the world's most respected photographers and the man who captured the face of the "Afghan Girl" - the photo that would become the cover of "National Geographic" and one of photography's most iconic. Arguably his most famous shot, but just one example of McCurry's talent for capturing moments in times of conflict.

STEVE MCCURRY, PHOTOJOURNALIST: I'm interested in people - how people are different, but yet how people are the same.

HANCOCKS (voiceover): And capturing human emotion in portraiture. This week on "Talk Asia", magnum photographer, Steve McCurry opens up about being one of the first to document the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

MCCURRY: I met some refugees. They told me because war was raging, literally, right across the border.

HANCOCKS (voiceover): Finding the young girl in that iconic photograph.

MCCURRY: We didn't know her name, didn't know her tribe. Practically nothing.

HANCOCKS (voiceover): And why he was reported dead, twice.

MCCURRY: I mean, when does the government call your home with that kind of news?


HANCOCKS: Hello, Steve, welcome to "Talk Asia". If I can start from the very beginning. What was the initial thing that got you into photography? When did you first realize you had a passion for it?

MCCURRY: I had an uncle who was kind of a hobbyist photographer. And I used to look at his pictures and I thought that this really sounded like something I wanted to do. And when I started to travel - when I became 19, I traveled to Europe and lived in Europe for a year.

And when I was in Europe, I lived with a family and one of the children in the family was also a photographer. And we used to go out and take pictures in Stockholm and walk around and come back in the evening and develop the film. That was really where I thought, you know, this would be a great marriage of travel and photography. This is really something I could do for the rest of my life.

HANCOCKS: Do you remember what your very first photograph was?

MCCURRY: My very first good photograph was in Mexico City. And I was walking on the street. And there was a man sleeping in front of a furniture store. And he was exactly below this brand-new sofa in the window. But he was asleep on the street. And he was - the juxtaposition between him, this sort of homeless man, and this brand-new sofa was, I thought, a perfect kind of image. That's what, really, I think, set me on my way to being a professional photographer, in fact.

HANCOCKS: Now your portfolio is immense. But you always do portraits. What is it about that kind of photography that grabs you?

MCCURRY: I'm interested in people - how people are different, but yet how people are the same. I mean, we all dress differently and speak different languages and maybe have different religions. But down deep, fundamentally, we still have this sort of common shared humanity - this commonality. And that difference is what really fascinates me.

HANCOCKS: Photography is quit an invasive art form, though. I mean, you have to go up to a complete stranger and say, "Can I take your photo?" You have to build some kind of a trust in a very short period of time, so that they can give some appearance of feeling natural. I mean, how do you do that?

MCCURRY: I think most people actually want to have their picture taken. I think most people, you know, if you kind of win their confidence and their trust, then people will open up and allow you to photograph them. I find that, once you explain what you're doing and you kind of bring them into your process, people are very happy to sort of cooperate and sort of stand and let you take their picture.

You usually have this sort of a period of a minute or two where people will kind of give you that amount of time. And then, they kind of - their curiosity runs out and then they have to go. So you have to work quickly, get your shot, get your picture, make them relax, and then that's it.

HANCOCKS: Can it ever be completely relaxed, though, or completely natural if there is a camera there?

MCCURRY: Well, the object is to make this seem very ordinary, very matter-of-fact. Sometimes I just start to fiddle with my camera so that they take their mind off of this whole event. And I try and almost slow everything down and then I start to get what I want, because they're starting to not pay attention to themselves. They're kind of just sort of looking at me fussing with my camera.

HANCOCKS: So what's the best photo that you didn't take? The moment that you just missed and you thought, "Oh, I'll take a photo of that", and it's gone. Do you have a lot of those moments?

MCCURRY: Every day there's regrets and missed opportunities and pictures I wish I had made or could make. You see the picture, you raise your camera, and it's already passed. But I think you just have to - you can't dwell on it, you can't think about it. It's better to let that stuff just sort of wash over you and not think about it. Because, in photography, we have much more kind of failures than successes. I mean, if you edit your work, you know, you go through you know thousands of pictures and eventually you find a few good ones. I mean, they're all good, but you're looking for the extraordinary.

HANCOCKS: Now, this is probably a tricky question and one I doubt you'll want to answer, but which photo do you like the most? Which photo are you most proud of?

MCCURRY: Well, I think of my photographs almost like children. And you like different pictures for different reasons. The best pictures are the ones that are the ones which were the easiest to make. I remember shooting out of my car window, sitting in the back seat of a taxi in Bombay, and literally raising my camera, making two exposures, and getting one of the best pictures I've ever made.

As opposed to, you know, trekking through the Himalayas for 10 days and finally getting to the place and taking the picture. Being in the right place at the right time in photography is key. I mean, that's everything.

HANCOCKS: Now, you're based in the United States. You live in New York.

MCCURRY: New York City.

HANCOCKS: But you've traveled extensively around Asia, specifically. I mean, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cambodia is just a few of the places. What is it about Asia that really draws you?

MCCURRY: For me, Asia's home. To me, this is the part of the world that I love. There's such a depth of culture and geography and there's so much variety. When you think of places like sort of Afghanistan and that world, and then just sort of next door you have India and Nepal and Tibet. Their cultures go back thousands of years - architecture, the language, the way people dress - everything is so distinct. There's such a unique culture here. Unlike, say, Europe or the United States, which has become this homogenous kind of a globalization of culture.


HANCOCKS (voiceover): Coming up, Steve explains how he tracked down the Afghan girl who catapulted him to photographic fame.

MCCURRY: I thought there was absolutely no way we would ever be able to find her.




HANCOCKS: So, the exhibition is "Between Darkness and Light". What does that mean?

MCCURRY: For me, photography is - light is so important to a picture and I love to photograph at night or when the light's very low. And to get a nice, interesting mix of shadows and light and shape. To me, that's where I think most of my work is done.

This is the "Blue City" of Jodhpur in Rajasthan, India. And there's this custom, this tradition where many of the people paint their homes blue. Not everybody, but many people do. And it's just this - this poetry, this harmony. I photographed this scene just after sunset. And the shapes and the design and the colors - it's just so beautiful to me. And the architecture is so - you feel like this could be 100 or 200 years ago. Every building is another family and there's lights and all sorts of - I just think there's so many little stories just in that one photograph.

Yes, this is actually - it's holy. It's a Hindu festival in - particularly in Rajasthan, where they get together and they dance and they're drinking and they're carrying on. And throwing a lot of color - the color's not only, sort of like a powder, but there's also - they mix it with water. And they're just throwing it everywhere. If you walk through the streets of any part of Rajasthan, you're just going to get covered in coloring. It's just crazy. It's like this big party that goes on all day.

HANCOCKS: Sounds wonderful.


HANCOCKS: Now, you worked for a newspaper when you first left university from Pennsylvania State University, but your first freelance gig was in India. What did you find when you got to India? How did it affect you?

MCCURRY: India was like another planet to me. It was like stepping into another time. Everything was different, but that's what I loved about it. I loved being shocked and everything was sort of like, incredible. And it really gets you out of your comfort zone in every sense. And you really feel alive and everything is so kind of vibrant.

I've been back to India, I would say 80 or 90 times since that first trip. And there's still many places I haven't seen and yet to go to.

HANCOCKS: Is it right that you were supposed to go for two months but you ended up staying for two years?

MCCURRY: My first trip to India was actually scheduled for about six weeks and I suddenly just fell in love with the whole subcontinent, South Asia. And that six weeks turned into two years. I literally didn't come back - I was in India, I went to Pakistan, I went into Afghanistan twice, Nepal. And I just didn't want to - in fact, when I went home after two years, I returned back to Afghanistan a month later and stayed for another six months.

HANCOCKS: So you made your name in Afghanistan with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan back in '79. How did you actually get into the country?

MCCURRY: I was in a small hotel in Northern Pakistan in 1979. I met some refugees who told me that this war was raging, literally, right across the border. And they invited me to go in and photograph. And I thought, well, that sounds like an adventure.

So I went in with them and spent two weeks. And I had never been in a warzone. I'd never been shot at. I must admit I was a bit frightened about you know, the whole thing. But I just - it was the, I would say, the story really got under my skin. And I had to go back time and time again. Maybe 30 times.

HANCOCKS: Were you aware, at the time, of how important it was that you were taking these pictures and you were actually getting them out to the world?

MCCURRY: I just was just on a kind of an expeditionary kind of exploring kind of wandering around. But a few months later, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and went over - basically took it over. And my photographs, which were already some unsold, suddenly were being published in every major magazine and newspaper all over the world. And almost overnight, I suddenly started selling work and my work was being seen. And it was on Page One of the New York Times and all the major news magazines.

HANCOCKS: Your most famous photo, the one you're known around the world for, the "Afghan Girl" - what was the story behind that photo?

MCCURRY: In 1984, I was doing a story on the Afghan- Pakistan border and, at that time, there were three or four million refugees, which had fled into Pakistan, because there was this systematic destruction of all their villages by the Soviet Union and the Afghan Army.

One of these refugee camps outside of the shower (ph) I was in one morning. I was wandering through the homes and the tents and I heard voices coming from this one tent. I wandered over, went inside, and there was a -- it was a girls' school. I noticed this one little girl in the corner of the room, in the tent. And she had these really incredible eyes, which - there's kind of a haunted quality to her gaze. And she peered into my lens.

And after a couple minutes, she got up and left - walked away from my camera. And that was it. That was all I got. But I knew that if the picture was in focus, if there wasn't, you know - that this could be really something special. And, indeed, it ended up on the cover of the "National Geographic".

HANCOCKS: Now, you did go back in 2002 with "National Geographic" to try and track her down again. Why was it important to you to try and track her down?

MCCURRY: Because there's such strong interest about this Afghan girl. You know, who is she? What happened to her? What's her story? We decided to go back and to make a concerted effort to locate her. We didn't know her name. Didn't know her tribe. Practically nothing. And I thought there was absolutely no way we would ever be able to find her.

But I did remember where I had photographed her. And we were able to locate the teacher who had been in the classroom that morning. And eventually, there was one man who came forward and said, "I know where her brother's living". And that was basically the clue. That was - we found the brother and the brother brought her to meet us. We had an incredible translator who - we established very good rapport with the elders of the refugee camp.

HANCOCKS: Now, this is the one photo that you will always be associated with. It's the one you'll be remembered for. Is it ever frustrating to think that the most famous work you've done is decades ago?

MCCURRY: Well, I always look at the glass half-full. I think you know how great it is to be associated with that picture. I'm very proud of that picture and I think if that's my kind of legacy - if that's the first line of my obituary, then you know, I'm OK with that.


MCCURRY: In the past, I'd always flown somewhere else to photograph a warzone. This was a case of just, literally, taking the elevator up to the roof of my building and photographing the collapse of both towers from the roof.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thousands of police, fire, rescue officials have converged on the scene -

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- no one's talking. They were just staring at each other with their arms dropped to their sides. A pin could drop -

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- that there have been attacks in two American cities, New York and in Washington. The Trade Centers here, in New York have been hit by airplanes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- tower, the front tower - the front portion of which -

MCCURRY: Where I live, actually, just up the street from Ground Zero - from the World Trade Center. And when I heard what happened, I dashed down there immediately, and I grabbed my cameras, ran down, and spent the entire day photographing at Ground Zero. And then went home and then went back again the next day and shot again the next day.

So, to me, it was - this was my home, this was my neighborhood. And in the past, I'd always flown somewhere else to photograph a warzone. This was a case of just, literally, taking the elevator up to the roof of my building and photographing the collapse of both towers from the roof. And I was in this lobby - I actually photographed, most of the day, from this lobby. On the other side, you had this view, which is actually over here, of where the World Trade Center - both towers.

And, as you can see in this photograph, the structure is still standing - there's still some - and you see these small men - these firemen and these construction workers who are trying to look for survivors. I thought maybe all of Lower Manhattan was gone. Because I couldn't see - I couldn't see through the smoke. I remember being so overwhelmed. And it was so traumatic. I thought to myself, "You know what? You really just have to go on automatic pilot". We were so emotional that you could have easily just sort of collapsed and - I wasn't trying to make great pictures, I was literally just trying to document what was happening. So I knew this was a historic time.


HANCOCKS: Now you've seen a lot of war and conflict in your time. You've traveled to many different warzones for photography. How does that change your outlook on life?

MCCURRY: I think, once you've been in an area of conflict - a civil war - you realize how precious life is and you also wonder, you know, why have I gotten myself into this situation? Why am I not, you know, doing some other kind of -

But, to me, I've always wanted to be on the front line. I've always wanted to witness history and to actually see these events for myself. Place like Afghanistan - this is life and death. This is where people are fighting and dying for their village, their family, their friends, their country. And you really see how people react.

HANCOCKS: But as with, I guess, most people who've been to conflict zones, you've had some close calls. Have you ever had a moment where you thought, "That's it. This is where it ends"?

MCCURRY: There's several times where I've been in - especially in Afghanistan - where I thought, "It's over, it's done. You know, this was really a mistake to be in this situation". I was asleep one night in a barracks, and literally within maybe 50 meters, there was an aerial bombardment and, like, a 500-pound bomb dropped, literally, outside of where of I was sleeping.

It not only blew the glass into the room, it blew the frames - the wooden frames - all over the room. And we woke up, it was dust and glass and wood all over the room. And I thought, "Am I dead?" I couldn't see. There was no electricity. I thought, you know, this is what it must be like to be dead, when you couldn't breathe.

HANCOCKS: But I understand that twice you've actually been reported as reported as having been killed.

MCCURRY: In the - twice, while covering the war in Afghanistan, there was a news bulletin that went on the wire that I had been killed. Missing and presumed dead. The American State Department, New Year's Eve, said, "Steve's missing in Afghanistan. There was a report that there was a photographer killed and we're trying to find out what, you know, where Steve is".

And of course, my family completely had a meltdown, thinking that - I mean, when does the government call your home with that kind of news? What had happened was that I had sent a message and it hadn't been sent. It was a telex (ph) and the message was never sent and nobody knew where I was and presumed that I was killed.

And the same thing happened again six years later, where a report went out that a photographer had been killed. And I had been arrested in Afghanistan. And, through a series of circumstances, the word went out that I had been killed.

So twice, my family has had to go through this situation where, you know, they've gotten this word, almost a definitive word, that I've been killed. And fortunately, it was a mistake.

HANCOCKS: That's a lot for the family to go through.

MCCURRY: Yes, it was heart wrenching, I guess.

HANCOCKS: You travel at least nine months of every year. And you've been doing this for, what, three decades? Did you ever get tired of it?

MCCURRY: A part of my life that I love the most is photographing and meeting new people, going to new places and going to exhibitions. To me that's what I really want to do. That's how I want to spend my time.

HANCOCKS: Then this is, for the foreseeable future - you can't imagine slowing down at any point?

MCCURRY: I see doing this right up to my last day. I think one day I'm going to be off photographing and I'm just going to keel over, and that'll be the end of the story. But if there was a way to go, I think that would be the best way. Just out wandering around somewhere and - yes.

HANCOCKS: Steve McCurry, thank you very much.

MCCURRY: Thank you.