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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Unguarded Moment

Steve McCurry’s personal approach has created a career of stunning photographs of people from around the world

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There’s little shelter from the dust-laden winds that drive across the bone-dry plains of Rajasthan, India, 1983
“I think you do your best work when you’re in a particular frame of mind,” he says. “If you’re out taking a walk, a leisurely walk, a walk where you aren’t really going anywhere, you’re just kind of there in the moment and appreciating that particular unique city. Maybe as a traveler. As a pilgrim. An explorer. You’re just out. That’s the kind of space you want to be in. You have to be childlike in your fascination or in your curiosity or in your playfulness with things around you and people around you.

“One critical element of all this,” McCurry adds, “is you have to engage your surroundings. As you move through the situation, as you move through those streets of Jodhpur, you have to engage—the people, a dog or a cat or a cow or a child. I think you have to interact with these things and stop and talk with somebody or play with somebody. That’s really important because then you’re inside of your surroundings, you’re inside the situation, you’re not an observer, you’re not on the outside looking in. You’re in it. When you’re inside of it, you’re not separate. You’re one with the thing, with that place. And a lot of it has to do with interacting with the situation.

“Clearly, I’m a foreigner,” he continues. “I might be a foreigner, but I’m still a human and I’m still playful with people, and that commonality can be the point. I’m dressed in a particular way, you’re dressed in a particular way, we don’t speak the same language, but we actually have more in common just because we don’t speak each other’s language. If I come up and put my arm around you and make a joke, you’re going to laugh, and suddenly we’re sharing a moment, even if we don’t understand the language. Then you have that kind of bond, that connectedness.”

McCurry’s wandering approach is fundamental, but on assignment for National Geographic his time on location is finite. These two pressing issues are in direct opposition, which can make settling into the appropriate frame of mind a challenge. It’s made even more complicated because success requires, as much as anything, the patience to wait, or the discipline to return later to find the perfect moment.

Debating monks at Bylakuppe, Karnataka, India, 2001
“When you’re on assignment but you do have time constraints,” he explains, “you just have to try to relax. If you’re out shooting from early morning until the sun goes down, you can’t do better than that. Nobody can. You’re seeking out situations and places and light that are going to work for your pictures. You intentionally go to a particular location based in large part on the light; a lot of your routine is based on those kinds of variables. And when you’re wandering around, you can see one thing and decide, well, the light’s not right, the moment’s not right, whatever, and you can continue walking down the street and find another situation.

“There are times when you go back five, 10, 15, 20 times to the same street or the same location,” McCurry continues, “because you’re seeking something out, you’re looking for something or waiting for something to happen. Every day, there’s different light and you’re in a different mood, it rains, it’s sunny, your frame of mind is different, so you go back, and magically things happen. And sometimes they don’t. But you go back.”

The place to which McCurry has continually returned more than any other throughout his career is Asia—India, in particular. The vibrancy, the ornament, the people—all are a draw to the photographer who wants nothing more than to explore and experience. India has continually provided the ideal subject.

“India has been one of the most important places that I’ve worked and photographed over the past 30 years,” he says. “It was the first country that I traveled to as a young photographer, and I found it so unique with its varied cultures and customs and regions. The mix of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity—and to see how they all intermingled—was a constant source of fascination. I was in Ladakh, India, recently living with some nomadic shepherds. I was struck by how little their life had changed. With the exception of some solar panels to create light and their Jeep®s parked next to their tent, life seemed the same as it may have been hundreds of years ago.”


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