Steve McCurry interview: "I've got 140,000 photos on my phone"

McCurry: The Pursuit of Color
Holi Man.Rajasthan, India, 1996 (Image credit: Steve McCurry)

For more than forty years, Steve McCurry has traveled the world capturing the people and places he’s visited. From refugee camps in Afghanistan to the jungles of Uganda and the streets of India, McCurry’s compassion for his subjects is unwavering.

Steve McCurry: The Pursuit of Color is a documentary directed and produced by Steve’s long-term friend; filmmaker Denis Delestrac. McCurry has dedicated four decades to telling other people’s stories but The Pursuit of Color is the story of his extraordinary life – the beginnings, the hardships faced, and how his career took off. 

From an early age, McCurry knew he wanted to travel, but didn’t know how. He left home at 19 and headed on his first of many trips to India, the place that sparked his desire to see the world at the age of 12. Starting from scratch, McCurry had to find his own path and resources but he was completely free.

Film still from McCurry: The Pursuit of Color (Image credit: Steve McCurry)
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Steve McCurry

Steve McCurry has been an iconic photographer and photojournalist for over fifty years. His photo Afghan Girl, has been featured on the cover of National Geographic several times, and he has photographed many assignments for the publication. McCurry and has been a member of Magnum Photos since 1986, and his body of work spans conflicts, ancient traditions, culture and travel, yet always retains the human element.

“I felt like I had all the time in the world. Everything was fresh and new. It’s very exciting to go out and photograph something for the first time. One of my first foreign trips was to Mexico. I enjoyed being able to walk around and photograph without any deadlines, any assignments or any pressure; the world was a blank canvas.”

Even those unfamiliar with McCurry will know the portrait Afghan Girl. The powerful photo of refugee Sharbat Gula was made in 1984 when Steve was tasked by National Geographic to document the refugee crisis on the Afghanistan border. In The Pursuit of Color, he explains his process and the photo’s enduring significance.

“I still think it’s an important picture and we’ve stayed in touch for the last 20 years. We speak every couple of weeks and I’ve always tried to be at her side and help her in anyway way we can. Her and her family are living in Italy now because of the unrest in Afghanistan.”

In both The Pursuit of Color and on Instagram, McCurry uses the phrase “make a photo” instead of “take a photo”. Within the photography community, whether you make or take a photo is an ongoing debate – one that McCurry first encountered when he studied cinematography at Pennsylvania State University.

Fishermen at Weligama, Sri Lanka, 1995 (Image credit: Steve McCurry)
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“This argument of making or taking goes back 50 years, I remember talking about it in college in 1972” he recalls. He uses an example of someone snapping a quick photo of the Eiffel Tower as taking a photo but someone who is looking at the light and composition as making one. “A snapshot of a cottage is pure representation of the thing you’re photographing, perhaps making refers to more considered composition.”

While McCurry's recent work has focused on the positive power of humanity in series like The Power of Play and Reading, McCurry’s career truly started in the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan where he was hired by Afghan troops to document the war about to start with Russia. Witnessing suffering in his early days during time spent in war zones led to an interest in the human condition and the consequences of war.

“You just have to find someplace inside yourself and realize that the purpose of it is to shed light on a situation and hopefully people will be more informed about the world we live in. Maybe it can create positive change, so it's good to get it out there. Everybody deals with it in their own way.”

Although camera technology has advanced massively since he owned his first camera, a Miranda, McCurry has remained at the forefront: “I never missed a beat really, going from film to digital for me was sort of seamless.” 

Smartphones have undeniably made photography more accessible and McCurry, an adopter of new tech, is here for it. 

“To be able to document our lives, friends, family events and vacations so easily is great. I think having a record of our lives is really valuable, I’m a big fan, I’ve got 140,000 photos on my phone!”

Steve has no plans of slowing down despite now having a young daughter. Balancing work in this field and a family is challenging but Steve has found a way to make it work.  “We all travel together, last year we went to Italy, Spain, Portugal and Iceland so it’s great I love traveling with them."

McCurry inspecting film slides - screen grab from The Pursuit of Color (Image credit: Steve McCurry)
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It’s hard to imagine McCurry doing anything other than photography. Seeing the world through his eyes is exciting, colorful, emotive, and sometimes challenging. The Pursuit of Color explores his motivations and desires surrounding the principles of photography, but it’s the unique opportunities presented to him through his work that he enjoys the most; “The best part of my job is to be able to wander and explore the world that we live in, to go to places I have dreamed about and meet interesting people. Also to have the opportunity to document vanishing cultures”

A career in image-making was inevitable for McCurry, “It has always been about the story for me, and film is another medium to convey a story about a particular time and place”. The art of storytelling transcends the medium that carries it, and the stories that McCurry makes in front of the camera are as captivating as his story behind it. 

McCurry: The Pursuit of Colour is available on Dogwoof on Demand (opens in new tab) on 19 October.

Camels in Burning Oil Fields.Al Ahmadi, Kuwait, 1991 "I was sitting on the hood of my car, about 30 feet from the fire as we were driving through the desert. I saw the camels come into view and immediately visualized the image. The smoke was black and there was a little space where you could see the fire; I followed the camels until they walked past and were silhouetted." (Image credit: Steve McCurry)
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