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Steve McCurry: Khumbha Mela Festival, Haridwar, India, 1998



By C.B.Liddell

BANGKOK, 20 JUNE 2007— Some well-known photographers struggle to capture the surly sneer of an over-made-up supermodel. Steve McCurry, by contrast, has made a career out of getting ‘close up and personal’ with an entire continent. Culturekiosque caught up with the legendary lensman on a photo shoot in Thailand to find out more from the man whose iconic image of an Afghan refugee on the cover of National Geographic in 1984 became not only a symbol of the defiance of the Afghan peoples to the Soviet invasion but also a symbol of humanity’s endurance.

"In New York people are trying to assimilate, and to some extent conform to the laws and the customs and the traditions. You simply don’t get the same kind of raw, original culture that you get on the streets of Calcutta or Kabul. "

Last year McCurry published Looking East , a near life-sized collection of some of his most astounding portraits from his many years working in Asian countries, including the famous shot of Sharbat Gula, the young Pashtun orphan he encountered in 1984 at the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, and whom he tracked down 18 years later to find married with three kids. Why has this one picture become so famous, even more than all the other outstanding shots he has taken over his long career?

"I think it’s a combination of several things," the 57-year-old Philadelphia native answers. "First of all she’s a very beautiful little girl. I think there’s an ambiguity, a mystery about her expression. I think there’s a kind of haunted, troubled quality on one level, but there’s also fortitude, perseverance, respect, and pride to her look. It’s clear that she’s poor. She has this torn shawl. But with her poverty she has this dignity."

Steve McCurry: Sharbat Gula, Nasir Bagh refugee camp, Pakistan, 1984

Ambiguity, in this case the girl’s expression, has always played a vital part in art, going back to the Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile. But there is another ambiguity at play here as well, one of whether the girl is different from us or similar to us. To most Westerners, Afghanistan is the end of the Earth, a dangerous, mysterious place where they assume the people to be completely alien. Yet McCurry’s picture shows a girl who, with a change of clothes, could effortlessly blend into any Western society. Surely, this is also part of this image’s appeal for Westerners?

"Well, that’s a good point," McCurry responds. "Afghanistan, being the crossroads of culture, there’s a segment of the population that came down with Genghis Khan, the Hazaras. Then you have a very strong Indian influence. Then some of these people, you would swear they were Western European. If they were walking down the street in Munich, Paris or Milan, they would look like the local people. There’s an interesting mix of cultures in Afghanistan and I think her face and her look illustrates that. It’s not an identifiable look. It’s a sort of a mix. She looks kind of Western and she looks kind of Afghan."

But ultimately the main appeal of McCurry’s work is that he shows us something different from our one-size-fits-all, modernist global, urban world. In his beautifully taken photographs, he shows us a continent of incredible diversity. This has always been the region’s main attraction for him.

"There’s such a variety of culture, and there’s such a range between different countries and regions," he enthuses. "The difference between Pakistan and Afghanistan was so radical, and then from that culture over to Nepal and Tibet. I found such interesting religions, from Islam over to Buddhism, Hinduism, the Sikhs, the Jains, the Parsees, all sorts of things."

Steve McCurry: Kabul, Afghanistan, 1992

But this is not the Politically Correct ‘diversity’ that we hear so much about in the West – a superficial, hothouse phenomenon, cosseted ironically by the anti-Eurocentric agenda of liberal-left, middle-class Whites and financed by public funding. The diversity that exists on the rugged face of Asia, by contrast, is one that stands on its own two feet; a diversity that has established itself through centuries of struggle, and adaptation to harsh environments and the pressures of neighboring groups. Although McCurry praises the multiculturalism of Western cities, there is a sense that the diversity is not as authentic as it is in Asia.

"There is an amazing mix of culture in New York, but it’s completely different," he explains. "In New York people are trying to assimilate, and to some extent conform to the laws and the customs and the traditions. You simply don’t get the same kind of raw, original culture that you get on the streets of Calcutta or Kabul. In a place like Tibet, Buddhism is a very important part of people’s lives. I think of these monks who prostrate themselves from their village to Lhasa, and sometimes it takes months and even years. That’s a very different situation from life in the States or Europe. In India there are literally millions of people who live on the streets. In New York there are probably a few thousand. In India there are millions of families who live their entire lives literally on the streets in cardboard boxes. That’s a significant difference."

McCurry’s work is all about documenting these fascinating and authentic differences. From a turbaned Sikh schoolboy in Kabul with a rubber-ended pencil sticking out of his blazer pocket that hints at the residual influence of British colonial influence on this region, to the ancient face of a Tibetan monk whose leathery wrinkled skin seems to reflect the rugged landscape and dry air of Tibet, McCurry’s portraits often succeed in giving us a sense of the history, geography, climate, and culture that shaped his subjects.

But, although showing differences is vital to McCurry’s work, his working methods stress our common humanity.

"The first thing you need to do when you approach people is to see them and relate to them as real people, not somehow quaint or foreign," he emphasizes. "If you can just relate to people as real people and establish some rapport, whether you joke around with them or whatever, people respond and open up, and are happy to be photographed. I don’t think there’s any mystery or trick about it. I think a lot of times the mistake people make, is that they see these people as different. But once you break that ice they’re like anybody else. They just happen to be working in a field or as a monk in a monastery. The thing that fascinates me is that we’re all playing these different roles but we’re all part of the same human race. We’re the same, but we do things in different ways. We eat different food live in different houses speak different languages."

Steve McCurry: Kyaikto, Burma, 2004

Despite these common human elements that bind us together, McCurry’s success and his safety depend on a careful understanding of the very real differences between the peoples and cultures of the different regions he visits. One of the most significant, he has noticed, is the religious difference between Buddhism and other religions.

"If there was one religion I admire, it’s Buddhism," he confides. "With the Buddhists that I’ve encountered, there’s compassion, there’s a respect for all life, and there’s lots of peace and serenity. There’s a non-judgmental quality. If you look at all these statues and images of Buddha around the World he has this very loving, very compassionate atmosphere. There’s this real sense of wisdom and acceptance. There is this love that exudes that I think people find comforting. Also in most Buddhist cultures, women have a place of respect and very equal status."

His positive experience of Buddhism contrasts markedly with his experience of Islam, which he has seen under especially difficult conditions in the Afghan War and the first Gulf War.

"With other religions there’s a kind of violent energy," he says. "Often if you don’t conform, or you don’t respect ‘our way of thinking,’ then there’s violent consequences. In Buddhist societies you don’t find that. If you desecrated a sacred text or a temple, there would be a tempered response."

In the destruction of the giant statues of Buddha committed by Afghanistan’s Taliban government in 2001, McCurry has seen and photographed such desecration. But, for him, this has proved the superiority of Buddhism.

Steve McCurry: Bamiyan, Afghanistan, 1993

"Buddhism has this whole sense of the impermanence of life," he says of this act of cultural vandalism that shocked the World. "There is a cycle. Things are born and they pass away. Buddhist monks make sand mandalas and then they destroy them, because the World is continuously in flux. I think Buddhists were more surprised at the destruction of the statues than angry. Part of the problem of Islam is that people get so emotional about religion, and they’re so quick to want to defend it by violent means, because they feel that they’ve been disrespected."

For someone who has made a career out of photographing the rich colors and varied shapes of Asia, McCurry has done remarkably little work in Japan. None of the portraits in Looking East feature Japanese subjects. Is Japan perhaps too westernized to be photogenic?

"I’ve been there many times," he replies. "The most recent time, I was doing an assignment for National Geographic in Kyoto as part of a worldwide survey of Buddhism, and I visited a few Zen monasteries in Kyoto, and went to Kamakura. But in Japan, something like Buddhism isn’t really that vital for people’s lives. They may consider themselves Buddhist, but I don’t think it really matters that much to them on a daily basis."

In addition to Japan losing touch with its traditional culture, another problem for McCurry may simply be the pace of life. Much of his best work comes from simple patience and waiting for the photo to happen, something that is not always easy in fast-paced megalopolis like Tokyo.

"Well, certainly it’s more fun to wander through the streets of a small village in Tibet, where most people walk and are on the street, than it would be in Tokyo," he comments. "I’m not sure how many people in Japan spend time out on the street as opposed to driving round in their cars or their motorcycles."

Perhaps the real reason, however, is that Japanese people are just too self-conscious in front of a camera to be natural. It is this search for unaffected naturalness combined with the exoticism of authentically diverse and unique cultures that has led McCurry to explore the by-ways rather than the busy, modernizing highways of Asia, and, in doing so, he has succeeded like no-one else in capturing the face of this remarkable continent.

Steve McCurry: Lhasa, Tibet, 2000

"Most of the time people are very happy to meet me," he sums up. "They don’t think of me as a photographer. They don’t have any concept of journalism. They just think of me as some strange guy from some other part of the world, with a camera."


Looking East: Portraits by Steve McCurry
Text by Steve McCurry

Hardback: 124 pages
75 colour photographs
275 x 380 mm, 10 7/8 x 15 in
Phaidon Press (September 2006)
ISBN-10: 0714846376
ISBN-13: 978-0714846378
$39.95 US

All images copyright © 2007 Steve McCurry. Used with permission.

C. B. Liddell is a Tokyo-based journalist who writes on culture for the International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun newspaper. He last interviewed the American jazz pianist Keith Jarrett for  

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