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RIDE LIFE #features: Steve McCurry, the all-seeing camera

Monday, December 12th, 2016 | T: lamono

Many consider Steve McCurry a photojournalist, probably one of the best. Nonetheless, his very rich career, which has spanned for over thirty years, demonstrates that his craft goes well beyond that: he is a proficient storyteller. His snaps materialize our dreams, capturing all those places we’ve fantasized to visit but might never will. Anyway, there they are, frozen in time, waiting, challenging us into action. An insatiable traveler, nothing seems to stop him, not the passage of time or the fulfillment of having shot THE image; The Afghan Girl, a photograph that has gained such veneration, it’s now iconic. Those green eyes now belong to the collective memory of many generations; staring intently and deeply, fixed in that enigmatic face bursting with contained emotions. McCurry is back with On Reading, his most recent book published by Phaidon, an ode to the pleasure of reading, translated into a collection of photographs where the written word is the protagonist. Its concept is simple: even if the world is collapsing all around you, as long as you have a good book in your hands, nothing matters. This issue is dedicated to the whole style life around living on the road, to the freedom that comes from being in constant movement, discovering something new with each step. Who better than Steve McCurry to talk about this topic? Go ahead, master. T: Antonella Sonza

The Afghan Girl is an iconic photograph. Do you think having shot an image so recognizable and famous around the world is a blessing or a curse? It’s an honor to be the photographer who took that iconic picture. It has stood the test of time, which is a testament to the picture, but especially the subject, Sharbat Gula. It is amazing to me that this picture is known all over the world. After all these years I still find the image powerful.

You have traveled around the world a thousand times. Which place has been the most special for you? Which one would you like to visit for the first time? South Asia —including India, Tibet to the North, Sri Lanka to the South, and Burma to the East— has been one of the most important places where I’ve worked over the course of my career as a photographer. India was the first place I traveled to as a young photographer, and I’ve returned there many times, drawn to its rich mix of cultures and customs. India was an incredible discovery for me. It was where I encountered new cultures and learned more about Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism. I have visited India more than any other country, and since my first visit in 1978, I have seen India’s economic and social transformation. You cannot find another country with such a rich and varied geography and culture amid chaos and confusion. Over the years I never get tired of India nor run out of new things to see there, it is always interesting. China has also very been important to me, and has such great depth; in its own way, China is just as fascinating and interesting to me as India. Madagascar and Iran are two places on my travel wish list; I’ve wanted to travel there for some time. Also, I’ve been traveling to Cuba, and making some new images there. Havana is a time capsule of the 1940’s or 1950’s, and has amazing architecture. There are few places I’ve yet to travel, and Cuba was one of those places until only about six years ago. By the time I had started my career in photography in the ’70s, the U.S. and Cuba had already cut all diplomatic ties in 1961. Since 2010, I’ve made multiple trips.

You are in Barcelona and Madrid introducing your new book with Phaidon, On Reading. Tell us about this book, how is it special for you? My new book, On Reading, shows people from around the world, young and old, rich and poor, all reading: books, newspapers, magazines. They are reading while in train stations or in temples or in parks. Reading is one of the things that connects us all together, that reminds us that we’re all the same: our shared humanity. I’ll give you two examples of how reading has been important and inspirational in my life, and the connections made from reading. On my first trip to India, I was sick with dysentery and confined to a bed, after going through a series of painful injections for rabies, I read The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux. I loved that book, and thought it would be a wonderful picture story. Several years later, Paul and I collaborated on the project —I shot the photos and Paul provided some text— that would end up becoming my first book, The Imperial Way (1985). Another story: In 1961, when I was 11 years old, I read a photo story on the Indian monsoon in LIFE magazine, shot by the celebrated Magnum photographer Brian Blake. Twenty years later, inspired by Brake’s photographs, I traveled to Asia to capture the same monsoon weather phenomenon. Those photos from my travels through China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka would become my second book, Monsoon (1988). Earlier this year, I was proud to be part of The Asia Society Hong Kong Center’s exhibit Picturing Asia: Double Take – The Photography of Brian Brake and Steve McCurry, which featured not only my own monsoon images but also the Brian Brake photos that I first saw as an eleven-year-old boy in the pages of LIFE

RIDE LIFE reminds me of one my maxims, which is FOLLOW YOUR PASSION

1041_02, Bencota, Sri Lanka. 1995, SRILANKA-10008NF5. Tourists lounge poolside as elephant passes. Retouched_Kate Daigneault 09/15/2013

Do you use Instagram as an immediate photographic tool or to showcase your work and news? Digital photography hasn’t really changed the way I see or the way I photograph. It has certainly changed my process — allowing me to work in much lower light and more difficult situations than I could in the past— but the same truths apply to any image regardless of the technique that went into crafting it. There’s impermanence about all things and nostalgia about things in the past, but I prefer to look to the future. So I do use Instagram and Facebook as resources to share news and my work. With social media, some people are much more guarded nowadays of being photographed. They know an image can go viral, or be posted on so many websites. Twenty years ago, I don’t think many people carried a camera around: even as a photographer, I often didn’t have a camera with me. Now, with cell phones, everyone is always carrying a camera with them. And many cell phones shoot better quality photos than some of the old cameras did. I’ve actually been publishing some of my cell phone pictures in photography books, so the cell phone has become a serious tool for the art of photography. We can all now document our lives fairly effortlessly: friends, families, birthdays, weddings, dinners. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the images are all good, just as most of all the texts and emails are not literature. Most of what we’re writing in text messages is not great poetry, but it could be, in the same way that it’s possible to make good photographs with the cell phone. With all the new images being taken, it doesn’t mean everyone is going to be a great photographer, just as all the texts and emails don’t mean everyone is a great writer. But I like to believe that we are all becoming more visually literate.

Do you think we can see any representation of yourself in your photographs? Is that possible when you are capturing reality? When I travel to places, I photograph the things that interest me, that intrigue me. Those are the footprints or personal signatures in my work, a kind of poetic vision. The photos become my memory of the places, and often they are focused on people and their humanity.

Our magazine has a motto: RIDE LIFE. What does it mean to you? ride life seems to imply that life is a great journey, and riding life is an action where you can pursue your passions. That motto reminds me of one my maxims or life philosophies, which is follow your passion. One of the most important lessons that I always remind myself is to look for situations and be involved in things I have passion for and care about, stories that have meaning. At the end of the day, the pictures that I care about and I think are interesting and successful, are pictures and situations that I felt very deeply about. One needs passion to do your best work, to be involved in situations that give purpose to your life. My work, my art, my photography: is something I’ll do until my last breath.

After On Reading, which projects are you up to? Where I travel to and what I’m working on is constantly changing and too numerous to list. I’m always working on the next book project, including a long-term book project on Buddhist culture, and on new exhibitions around the world. After all these years, I still have an insatiable curiosity about the world, which is essential for a photographer.

00038_18, MKS Steelworks, Serbia, Yugoslavia, 11/1989, SERBIA-10004. Man takes a break at MKS Steelworks.

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