Taking pictures with Steve

Text: 
Antti Kirves
Photo: 
Antti Kirves

When the camera has been in Steve McCurry’s hands, it feels special. A little heavier.

He is compact. Not small, but like he was made to be a travel photographer. One that fits in everywhere. Does not take space, physically or otherwise. There’s something timeless about him; part old-time adventurer and part modern-day immortalizer, all in the same package.

“Are you on Facebook?” asks Steve McCurry. He is typing absent-mindedly into his mobile phone and muttering an apology without raising his eyes, as one does when concentrating on something other than talking.

He is not short of friend requests. For many people McCurry, 60, is the world’s most important living photographer. It’s a matter of taste, of course. But he has been given just about every award that a photojournalist can dream about.

At least it’s no exaggeration to say that he has taken one the world’s best-known portraits. Everyone knows the picture of the green-eyed Afghan girl and the story that continued about 20 years later when McCurry went to find the girl who had grown into a woman. There are those who think that the girl was not treated fairly at first. Even Finnish press photographers were still grilling McCurry about the ethics of taking pictures when he came here in March in conjunction with his exhibition.

Get the most out of life

It has been a long day. There have been press conferences and tens of questions which McCurry has already answered hundreds of times before. It’s the third time he is visiting Finland but he does not respond with stock answers. Sitting in the auditorium of the Helsinki City College of Technology, he thinks carefully about what to say.

“We are all part of the same human race but we do things differently. How we operate with each other, how we dress, what kind of customs and religions we have… Exploring those differences is fascinating. Meeting people is about sharing things and maybe on some level about making the world a better place.”

He talks about experiencing life, exploring the world and photography as an adventure. Even everyday things that you usually pass by without noticing can on closer inspection gain a huge significance.

 “When taking pictures you don’t think about yesterday or tomorrow, you are in the moment. We spend such a short time on this planet and in this life, and we’ll all die soon anyway. You have to get the most out of life.”

McCurry is especially known for his photographs from Asia and has been just in Afghanistan about 30 times during the past 30 years.

He has travelled the world for most of his career as a photographer for National Geographic. He got in the magazine with a portfolio that he had been photographing in India for two years.

“It was a combination of luck and perseverance. Photography is hard work. There are no magic tricks.”

Ugly is beautiful

McCurry is politically correct in an American way, not aggressive but neither withdrawn. A good-natured self-confidence shines through everything. He speaks with experience and says a lot, but does not chatter idly or aim to shock with his stories.

When questioned by the Finnish photographers, the biggest gasp came when he told them that he only uses one lens on his travels, a 24–70mm zoom. Not exactly provocative.

His photos also tend not to be stark. Compared to the roughness of younger photographers he seems more classical. Although the subject matter of his images may be tough, the end result is always refined – and almost without exception, colourful.

“I have photographed in black and white and like it a lot. For me the world is in colour, however. My clients also want colour images.”

McCurry’s images about the horrors of war or the World Trade Center attacks, for example, show human suffering and the ugliness of the world in a beautiful form. Sometimes the photographer’s psyche has been under duress. In these tough situations emotions take over but the photographer has to remove himself emotionally from the situation enough to be able to operate the camera and to work.

 “I work on autopilot, relying on instinct. The emotions surface when I look at the images afterwards. Sometimes it is unreal. I have been so removed from the situation at the moment the picture was taken. You have to get over the depression to keep going.”

He’s also had some moments of luck. When he found himself stuck in a seatbelt on an aeroplane that had landed on a lake and turned upside down, the end was near.

“I couldn’t remove the seatbelt. The plane started sinking. I couldn’t breathe. I was sure that I was going to die. By a miracle I managed to crawl out from underneath the belt.”

Grenades have exploded next to him. Once he woke up to raining glass when a 200kg bomb that had landed nearby smashed in the windows and the window frames of the room.

Light at the end of the tunnel

The interview is over and it’s time to take a picture of McCurry.

“Of course. Where shall we go?” He begins to stir – a man who would undoubtedly like to be out taking pictures and not travelling the world just talking about photography.

I ask him how he would take the picture. By now everything changes. His gaze become alert and he starts scanning the surroundings. There is clearly excitement in his eyes.

“I would look for a clean background and suitable light. I would try to find pools of light,” he mumbles again, focused, already striding a few metres ahead.

It’s quite likely that they will appear from somewhere. He is known for finding light.

“Available light has not been a conscious choice but the most natural, simplest and efficient way of working. Using a flash feels like work, it takes away some of the fun.”

Now we are far from the balmy sunsets of India or the early morning light of Afghanistan. McCurry’s head is spinning as he searches for light in the bleak lobby of the college.

“Give me that camera for a moment.”

He swings the heavy camera nimbly to his eye. The style is original; he broke his right arm as a child and it has not worked properly since. That’s why his own camera has a handle fixed to the tripod mount and he relies on automatic focusing.

He has given up film and photographs everything digitally, usually with Nikon cameras but sometimes also with a medium format Hasselblad.

“Maybe ten years ago film still had its place but no more. I like to photograph in low light. With a digital camera I can select the film speed on the fly, take handheld pictures almost in darkness and get publishable pictures. There’s no doubt that I’m taking better pictures now than when I was using film. Almost everyone photographs digitally, even Salgado.”

Like Sebastião Salgado, McCurry has been a member of Magnum, but he prefers to dispel the mystique associated with the legendary picture agency. Apparently no jobs come through the agency.

“I don’t think that clients are interested if the photographer is in Magnum. They just look at the portfolio. In France even the man in the street might know what Magnum is, but in New York it’s good if one in a million has heard about it.”

McCurry turns the camera towards me. One frame.

“Slightly that way, thank you.” Another frame.

These pictures are not going to be the next Afghan girl but it doesn’t matter. When he returns the camera, it feels different. A little heavier.

Passion and compulsion

Isn't his step not getting heavier? Doesn’t he ever get bored? 

“Never. I don’t feel myself to be any different to 20 years ago. I’m still interested in the same things as before. Photography is my passion and compulsion. I don’t have a family. I have decided that this is how I want to live my life. It suits me.”

McCurry studied filmmaking in college but film required the involvement of too many people. Photography was more spontaneous.

“I prefer to work alone and to make my own decisions. When I come to a crossroads I look right and left. I go where the light is better.”

Most of all he likes to photograph life as it is, as a fly on the ceiling. Portraits, however, are always created through the cooperation of the photographer and the subject.

“That’s when I make contact and explain what I’m doing. I don’t snap frames and run away without saying anything. If someone does not like to be photographed, I don’t try to persuade them. It creates bad karma.”

He leaps down the corridor and looks at the shafts of light thrown against a wall by the lamps from the ceiling.

“Hey, what about this? This could be something interesting.”

It’s like two musicians, one from the Rolling Stones and one from the garage, meeting for the first time at a jam. Neither is in a hurry anywhere when they are playing the same song.

We only stop when I have the picture.

“Don’t forget to choose the right one,” he smiles from behind his moustache and shakes hands with his left hand.