In the early 1980s, photographer Steve McCurry scrawled a reminder to himself across the cover of one of the notebooks containing his many to-do lists: “You have to get into the water to make good pictures.”
At the time, it was a literal note—McCurry was busy shooting monsoon season in India—but with the perspective of four decades, it can also be read as a guiding principle for his life’s work. For the past 40 years, McCurry has been on a nearly non-stop adventure, wading into the cultures and conflicts around the world that have sparked his curiosity.
Over the course of his career, McCurry has become the closest thing to a household name that there is in the world of news and travel photography thanks in large part to the viral sensation of his famous 1984 “Afghan Girl” cover for National Geographic.
He has documented many of the defining events of the last half-century—9/11, the fall of the Berlin Wall, decades of conflict in Afghanistan—and he has published a shelf-full of books of his own projects and collaborations with others.
But a new book, A Life in Pictures, now available from Laurence King Publishing, gives the most comprehensive look at McCurry’s life and career to date.
Written and organized by his sister Bonnie, who has earned her spot in the pantheon of artists’ assistants who were key to making it all happen, the hefty new tome gives a new perspective not only on the way McCurry has built his body of work photograph by photograph, but also a sweeping view of the events he has documented, the events that have shaped our modern history.
“To have a front row seat and to be a witness to history has been quite a profound and incredible experience,” McCurry told The Daily Beast. “To actually see [an event] as it’s happening…to actually see it for yourself is a whole different kind of experience. It’s been an incredible life.”
It takes a particular kind of person to craft a career like McCurry’s. He has not only faced extreme hardship (McCurry often traveled, ate, dressed, and prayed with subjects like the Afghan mujahideen), but he has also defied death on more than one occasion in his single-minded quest to tell stories through the perfect light, the perfect composition, and the perfect timing.
Even at 68, McCurry is always on the go. He carved out time for this interview at 11:30 p.m. while in the middle of a book tour in Italy. While he is happy to discuss his past work, his lens is focused on the future and he sometimes has trouble putting into words his thoughts on the broader scope of his career—although that may have been the effects of jet lag coupled with the late hour.
McCurry said that, in the hands of his sister, this book is one of the more personal accounts of his life, with Bonnie writing about many things that he doesn’t normally talk about. “We’ve been working together for 30 years and she knows all the everything in my career, my personal history, and so I think that she can basically put something together that nobody else could,” he said.
From virtually his first moments of life, McCurry has had to develop his independence and resilience to deal with the twin tragedies of his mother becoming largely disabled soon after his birth from what would later be diagnosed as multiple sclerosis, and a fall when he was five that resulted in a life-long injury to his arm.
McCurry’s propensity to wander was established at an early age. Bonnie recounts multiple occasions on which the family was relieved to find the missing boy (he had taken off to explore the nearby woods) or shocked to discover where he was spending his days (miles away in a forbidden side of town). She said that whenever the young Steve would get bored during church, he would take off, roaming the streets while his family sat obediently in their pew.
In 1978, McCurry unexpectedly kicked off his career when he left his staff position at a small newspaper in King of Prussia, PA, for a six week trip to India. He came back two years later.
It is perhaps this love of wandering that has allowed McCurry to take advantage of the surprising number of coincidences that have occurred throughout his career. Many of the world-altering events he has documented have seemed to take place right where he happens to be at the time.
Take the conflicts in Afghanistan that have been raging for over three decades. In the late 1970s, McCurry was traveling through South Asia when he met some Afghan refugees who told him about the conflict in their country.
He soon found a mujahideen group who agreed to let him accompany them on their journey back to Afghanistan. McCurry ended up being one of the first photographers to shoot the civil war, and he was on the ground when the Soviets invaded the country. His decades-long work in Afghanistan has come to define his career.
Then there are the devastating photos he took of Ground Zero in the aftermath of 9/11. The photographer had just returned to New York the night before the terrorist attack, and was working in his Greenwich Village studio when he heard that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center.
After shooting the scene from his roof, he made his way to lower Manhattan, skirting police cordons and first responders to take photos of the debris-filled lobby and the blown-out windows of the buildings.
“I just thought it was important that somebody document what was going on. There had to be a record, there had to be somebody to photograph or film it just so that we could remember what it was like, what happened,” McCurry said, crediting impulse and instinct for driving him to Ground Zero more than anything else. “If things aren’t photographed, then there’s no proof or documentation.”
While his body of work as a whole may argue otherwise, McCurry has never liked the labels “war” or “news” to describe the kind of photographer he is. He prefers to think of himself as a storyteller, and he says that reporting from conflict zones is now mostly in his past.
It is perhaps this distinction that led to a controversy in 2016 when Italian photographer Paolo Vigilione noticed that one of McCurry’s photos in a local exhibition looked as if it had been photoshopped. Further inquiry led to more examples of McCurry tweaking photos to achieve a more ideal composition.
In the wake of the scandal, McCurry made the distinction that he does not consider himself a photojournalist, a profession that has stricter guidelines on altering photos, though that nuance is often hard to establish in the eye of the beholder.
As the accusations continued, McCurry also vowed to take a more “minimal” approach to photoshop, even in the work he does while on personal trips.
“I think that photography is in many ways your personal vision, your own point of view,” he told The Daily Beast without addressing the issue directly. When pressed, he added, “In life, I think we’re all imperfect people, we all make mistakes now and then, and we always try and do things in the best possible way, and sometimes there’s certain times when you should do better than you did. But I think that my pictures reflect the places that I go.”
The profession has changed since McCurry made his first trip to India in 1978, and it is more dangerous than ever for photographers in many of the places in which he established his reputation.
But then again, his native country has changed as well. In 2016, McCurry traveled through the south with his close friend, the writer Paul Theroux, for a book the two were working on, Deep South. McCurry grew up spending time at his grandmother’s home in South Carolina, and he said the changes he saw throughout his trip were “In some ways…dramatic and in other ways it seemed like a time capsule.”
But he doesn’t see the progress he witnessed as a sign of hope for the country. The protests in Charlottesville banished that notion altogether. “If you had told me that there were going to be people walking in the streets with torches, I would have said that’s impossible. That could never happen. But it did.”
After photographing people and conflicts around the world, McCurry has seen the beauty and the ugliness of humanity, and he recognizes it in what is happening in America.
“I think that there are these sort of negative tendencies, racism, that’s just in our psyche, and I think they need to be kept down,” McCurry said. “All over Europe, most places in the world, there’s the same potential for this kind of negativity. And it just has to be contained and people need to say, ‘This is not acceptable,’ and ‘You can’t walk around celebrating Nazism.’ People have to take a stand.”
But whatever the classification, it’s his one-to-one connection with his subjects, what Bonnie calls his approach of “get[ting] close enough to look in someone’s eyes” that sets his work apart and that moves viewers.
“It’s been, I think, enriching,” McCurry said, struggling to find the words to describe his career. “I think most people would try and avoid a lot of the places I’ve gone to, whereas I’ve made a point to seek them out…I don’t know, it’s just in my DNA.”
When asked what’s next, McCurry lists off a string of destinations: Madagascar, Armenia, Central Asia, Antarctica.
“It’s such an incredible, visual part of the planet,” McCurry said of that last spot. “I think if you have the opportunity to go, it would be a pity not to do that. I think it’s just so rich, so dramatic, and it probably won’t even exist in 100 years.”