“Are you married, do you have your own family, are you single?”
This was the line of questions I was asked by Steve McCurry, one of the most famous photographers in the world, within less than 2 minutes after walking into the conference hall of the Carlton Hotel in New York where the interview was going to be taken. I was the interviewer and he the interviewed.
Strangely enough, I did not mind him asking. I smiled; there was nothing ostentatious in his attitude.
When I walked into the room, Steve McCurry was on the phone to one of his staff arranging a trip abroad on the 10th of January. It was the 30th of December (2011), McCurry was coming from a long photo session, and the following day he was going to make three portraits of families from Europe, within the project Hotpoint Family Portraits. I wanted to walk out and return when he would have finished his conversation, but he invited me to sit on his right hand side, at a large conference table.
He was dressed in black: jacket and shirt, trousers and shoes. Nothing striking. And he did not have his camera with him. When he finished his telephone conversation he started interrogating me: “Do you live in Bucharest? Are you a blogger? Do you know my blog?”; then – as I confessed not having seen his latest blog post – he invited me to take a look on the telephone. “It is about old age”, a series of touching photographs with elders in various poses, in various corners of the world. He particularly liked a photograph from Macedonia, with two elders (a man and woman) leaning against each other as they climbed up a mountain path.
“You may find just as beautiful things and people in Romania too. You must come”, I said as he was passing his finger on the telephone screen for me to see the rest of the photographs…
That’s when he asked: “Are you married, do you have your own family, are you single? What would your boyfriend say if you went on a trip with me? Would he feel threatened?” …and started laughing…
Steve McCurry (61) is one of the most famous photojournalists, holder of major awards in photography for his testimonials from the main conflict zones in the world. The “Afghan Girl”, the photograph featuring on the cover of National Geographic Magazine is one of the most recognized photographs in the world, possibly also because 20 years later, McCurry returned to Afghanistan to search for her, without knowing her name, only relying on her photograph and her green eyes, and this experience was recorded in a documentary film. Actually, portraits are his “personal brand”, as he manages to grasp on each face expressions that tell as much as a novel or a film.
When you meet for the first time someone you are going to portray, what are you looking at?
There are people with very powerful faces, they have emotions on their face, faces that tell stories. Some characters can be read on the face. I am fascinated with what a face can tell. Because every each of us has several “faces”… Some are very common, others very beautiful, but beyond it you sometimes see faces with something archetypal on them, something extremely powerful…
And how do you convince them? I guess many are shy… They are common people and you convince them to look
into the camera and the result is such a natural image…
Not quite… You can have people relax. I think everybody wants to be liked, we want people to like us and if you walk up to somebody and tell them “I think you are awesome, extraordinary and I would very much like to portray you because you seem to be such a wonderful person”, most people would stop for you on the street… Most agree exactly because you placed them there, you gave them that position…
Because they have an ego…
Yes, but also because they want to participate, to be helpful, and especially not to let down. If someone tells them “you are so beautiful”, they won’t tell you not to take a photograph of them, although they might not agree with what you are saying. It is the information they want to honour by accepting they’re photographed.
Sometimes they don’t know who you are, they don’t know your work.
It is not important who I am. I am simply another person just like them. You must win their confidence and you sometimes can be convincing and then when they see how excited I am they can get excited. They want in, they want to share the experience… because ‘look this guy is holding a camera, he seems like a good person, he’s well mannered… I should help out.” But you must choose the right time, the right words. When we speak, our expression changes and you can lead the way.
If I’d be talking to you about something serious now your expression would turn serious; if I am funny – tell a joke – you are likely to smile. Even if out of politeness. You can help people turn the way you want them to. Then, you need to be experienced to quickly understand reactions of the body, the moment you’re asking for something, how to relate with certain type of a person, the light, the background… And how to manage it all in a few seconds…
But sometimes they don’t speak English, they’re poor Indians or countrymen from Paraguay or street children in
This doesn’t matter, because if I laugh or act congenially, you will smile…
So you’re an actor?
I wouldn’t say that… Look, we just met. Really, we actually just met. (He laughs) I may choose to tell you any story – a funny or a sad one – and get what I want from you – in terms of your facial expression. It’s not about acting but about sharing an experience with somebody, and relate to them, create a connection in a certain sense…
After graduating college, Steve McCurry went to University to study cinematography and filmmaking, graduating however magna cum laude in theatre arts in 1974. For two years he worked for a magazine but resigned to become a freelance photographer. His career was launched when he illegally crossed the Afghan border before the Russian invasion and recorded Taliban life in its most intimate stances, often facing death “naively” as he later confessed. His photographs featured on the covers of Paris Match, New York Times etc., and has since faced death in some other occasions.
If you were to choose a photo to describe your life, which would it be?
Life is so complicated, it is difficult to describe it in one sentence, or one idea… (takes a few long moments to think looking down at his shoes). Maybe the photograph of the child running on an alley between two walls painted in children hands… That might be the image to represent me (ed. note, the photograph makes the cover of the book Steve McCurry: The Unguarded Moment )
Your name is always mentioned in relation to the “Afghan Girl” but I am sure that there are many other
photographs you have taken that you like just as much.
Certainly, like the photographs taken in India of the sand storms (ed. note: you may see one of these photos here), or the one with the mother and son looking out of a car’s window, in India again. The old woman at the pedestrian crossing in Yugoslavia… There are many photographs just as great but people decide what they like and you can’t control their taste.
You must have taken millions of photographs in the over 30 year’s career. Do you ever think that you might lose
We live with so many fears, fear of losing one’s life, fear of losing one’s friends… You can’t live in fear all the time, you do what you can and let life go on. I archive them and to all I can to preserve them safely, but the rest… whatever happens…
Talking about life, were you ever afraid of losing yours?
And why do you continue?
This is a question I don’t have an answer to… It is a mystery, it is the same with war photographers and journalists… I think we want to witness history, to see events which were not recorded yet. We want to be where history is being written because, after all, we live a common, boring life… And you want to see the change, the transition, you want to see how others deal with situations you will never find yourself in.
A good example is the Romanian transition, Timisoara and the Revolution – those where moments which changed the life of many people. Something like this never happened to me.
What where you doing then?
I was in Belgrade, I came by car and stayed only for 2 days in Timisoara. Those were historical moments. I was driven by the curiosity and the possibility of documenting in my own way such a historical moment, a deep change in the history of Romania. I would like to return to Romania. I would like to have stayed more than the 2 days in Timisoara 20 years ago, to have gone to several places, see more of what happened.
When he is not in some remote corner of the world to photograph wars or the human face of the most difficult, controversial moments, Steve McCurry holds photography workshops in New York or India, the country which taught him how to see life. According to his rough calculations, in 2012, he spent less than 4 months in New York, where his home is.
Did you ever think of stopping? Of quitting this profession?
No, never. Not even for a second.
Did you ever go on holidays without your camera?
No. I always have the camera with me, although I’m not always taking photographs, but one never knows…
If you were to chose a place to go to without your camera, just to relax, where would you go?
Italy maybe… Without a camera? (sighs)… Japan. There are places where I like to go, without needing the camera or my profession to visit and I like Japan… But you know it is more than unlikely for me to go anywhere without my camera.
I know… You are now working until the last day of the year.
Yes, but this is not unusual to me. Sometimes you can’t control things, and they happen when it can take place. But that’s ok, I don’t mind working on the last day of the year.
How much holiday did you take this year?
I don’t make such estimates, it’s not how I look at my days. If I enjoy life and what I do it is wonderful – with or without holidays. I don’t think about holidays, I think about something interesting, exciting – something to keep me going, to make me happy, to fill me with positive energy. This is more important to me than holidays. Then you are filled with many joys and peace and serenity. This is more important to me than lying on a beach and sunbathe or… whatever people do on the beach.
But I still believe people need relaxing…
Oh, certainly. But relaxation can come in different forms, people are different and some relax in the mountains, others on beach or in a country where they have wine…
And how about yourself?
I watch a movie…
You have met many people. Is there still anyone whose encounter can make you feel uneasy, nervous with having to meet?
Yes, but I can’t think of many of those, maybe Meryl Streep or Sean Connery… I don’t think so much about meeting stars…
I wasn’t talking necessarily about stars, but rather wanted to know if you’re ever shy in front of someone you meet…
Sure, I am sometimes intimidated by some gestures, some people. I am a very shy person in my private life but I can hide my shyness in many ways and force myself to overcome my fears and limits…
In your home do you display on walls photographs that you have taken?
No, nothing, there are no photographs at all.
But do ever accept being photographed?
I never thought about it, I don’t know. (he pauses for a while). I sometimes accept my photo being taken, but not usually, I do it very rarely.
Ok, I believe it, you are a shy.
Yes, I told you: I am shy.
We said goodbye in the hotel lobby; he was going to walk home as he lived a few blocks away and I went up to my hotel room thinking of his awkward smile while he blushed saying, “I told you I was shy”. Only later did I realize that the line of questions about my life at the beginning of the conversation was one of his tricks: it was his way of complimenting me (he was interested in my life), as well as setting his ground, somehow taking control. And that, actually, those questions spoke indirectly of his shyness. Perhaps that was why I did not mind the questions.
The following day, at the photo session for the portrait of the Romanian family within the HotPoint Family Portraits project I realised that Steve McCurry is that kind of people who want to “leave a trace”, leave something meaningful behind him – either it is a documenting of an historical event, or a photograph which will have the place of honour on some family’s mantelpiece in some corner of the world.
And I saw that despite his shyness, you can hear him say when making such a beautiful gesture as the present to the family Babos from Cluj (an album with their family photographs): “Let’s take a picture together.”
In a few days, the portrait Steve McCurry made for the Baboses from Cluj will be public, and then I will tell you about his involvement in the Hotpoint Family Portraits project.
(The photograph is a self-portrait that Steve McCurry made for the project Kodakchrome – he was the photographer to use the last roll produced by Kodak, this is frame 32. You can see more photographs by Steve McCurry on his blog.)