In India, you’re shocked and astonished and amazed all the time: Steve McCurry

In India, you’re shocked and astonished and amazed all the time: Steve McCurry

Steve McCurry on the first photographs he took in India, what draws him to the country and his new book.

A train passes by the Taj Mahal
A train passes by the Taj Mahal

Thirty-eight years, more than 80 visits and countless images — photographer Steve McCurry’s love affair with India is an old one. The 65-year-old New Yorker’s came to India in 1978 (which ultimately led him to Afghanistan in 1979, where he produced his most iconic work), and since then, McCurry has made the country his own. His frames bring together a distinct play of light and colour, creating extraordinary subjects out of the ordinary and mundane — be it the India by Rail series, or the Monsoon series.

On October 26, his book dedicated solely to India, titled Steve McCurry: India (Phaidon), will be released. It will comprise 96 photographs, some easily recognisable (women in red saris huddled in a dust storm in Rajasthan, for instance) and some not, along with an introduction by author William Dalrymple. It will be followed by an exhibition at The Rubin Museum of Art, New York, in collaboration with the International Center of Photography, on November 18. As he surveys his commitment to India in the form of portraits, landscapes and documentary images in upcoming projects, the award-winning artist opens up about India and more.

Excerpts from an interview:
You came to India for the first time in 1978. Do you recall the first photograph you took, and where?
I have a very vague recollection. I landed in Delhi. From there, I went to Dehradun and continued on to Mussoorie. I had to do a story on village health workers. I have this recollection that it was snowing and there were monkeys walking about in the snow. I was struck by the fact that the scene was a little unlikely. People who hear about the country often think about its tropical weather and heat. But here it was, snowing. But it’s been so long ago that it could have been a dream. Of course, I took pictures but I don’t know where they are now.

Your work often places the present with the past. Take, for instance, your 1983 photo of a train passing the 17th century Taj Mahal. You also have an academic background in history.

© Bruno Barbey
© Bruno Barbey

Do you consciously try to connect to the past?
As a photographer, a tourist or even as a traveller, one of the most fascinating things about India is that the past and the present are already juxtaposed. You have state-of-the-art technology, yet on the other hand, you still have areas that take you back, even though they are not as they were 100 years ago. Sometimes these two collide. Similarly, you also have extreme wealth and extreme poverty. When extremes collide, it is visually arresting.

You have been visiting India for more than 30 years. Do you feel like an insider now?
I feel very comfortable and very much at home with the culture and the sights of India. But even in New York city, where I live and pay taxes, I am not really familiar with other small sections of the city. Take me there and I feel like a tourist, an outsider. It’s such a vast city and I’m looking at it from an outsider’s eye. In the same way, although I feel very comfortable in India, I always feel like a bit of an outsider. In my opinion, the only place you can only feel like you belong is if you lived in a small village and you knew everybody. But if I get off onto a wrong station in New York, you might as well have put me in the middle of Kolkata.

After you took the photo of the Afghan girl, you tracked her down and revisited her. Do you often revisit the people you have photographed?
Often, when I’m photographing on the streets, my encounters with people are brief. Imagine being in a village in India and somebody comes down the path and I take photos. Then they continue on their own way and I go my own. Although it’s a great picture, but who was that person? If I come to India after a year or two, I may not be able to get back to the same village. I spend a lot of time in trains in India and there are so many people in transit. I take a lot of photos but I didn’t take their names because it’s not that important. It would be tedious to revisit people. I would say that I happened to revisit a few by accident, but I haven’t consciously sought out people. That’s rare.

A devotee carries a statue of Ganesha off Chowpatty Beach, Mumbai; a boy in mid-flight in Jodhpur; a tailor carries his sewing machine during a flood in Porbandar
A devotee carries a statue of Ganesha off Chowpatty Beach, Mumbai; a boy in mid-flight in Jodhpur; a tailor carries his sewing machine during a flood in Porbandar

In the years you spent on the frontlines in different countries — be in the Afghan civil war, the Islamic insurgency in Philippines, or the Iran-Iraq conflict — have you encountered moments that you let go of because the subject was too sensitive?
I haven’t stopped myself from photographing unless I think people don’t want me to photograph them. You have to respect that. If you have the opportunity to help somebody, put away the camera and help, obviously, like a normal human being. Otherwise, you have to photograph whatever is in front of your lens. You can always decide what not to use when you come back to your studio or office. I don’t think you should censor yourself. The only time I have put the camera down is when I wanted to respect the subject’s privacy.

Coming back to India, you’ve explored a multitude of themes and subjects —be it floods, faith, monuments and so on. Is there a certain element that draws you to this country, the one thing that connects its diverse cultural landscape?
If you come from outside and these are things you haven’t grown up with, it’s so visually rich that your mind becomes active. Usually, when you’re walking, you’re not thinking about the surroundings, you’re not marvelling. In India, you’re shocked and astonished and amazed so often. Whether you’re walking down Connaught Place or Marine Drive, you’re in a constant state of euphoria. For a photographer or a writer, there is so much material that is wonderful, strange and bizarre.

You also have a background in cinematography. If not photography, would you have pursued that?
Absolutely! I would have loved to be a documentary filmmaker. Since I left school, I never had the opportunity to do that. I never pursued it but I think it would be great fun and a challenge to make a documentary or even feature films. There’s so much more you can do with the entire process of sound and editing.

Is there any other country that has fascinated you as India has?
Tibet, Burma, Ethiopia, Cuba and Afghanistan. However, India has the most depth compared to any other country in the world. Countries like Russia and China are enormous too but India is on another level. It’s changing and dramatically so, since I first went there.

What are your current and future projects?
I’m actually going to be in India for a book tour, around the time of the Jaipur Literature Festival. The book, India: Steve McCurry, will come out this time next month. My next book is going to be about “reading” in different cultures. Then I’m going back to Cuba next month to continue my work there. I’m also working on three-four books simultaneously.

The democratisation of photography is changing the way the lens is being used. Do you adapt to the new technology or do you consider yourself a purist?
You have to adapt. I’m using my cellphone camera and I’m going to be using those photographs for my next book.