‘Between Darkness & Light’
“Between Darkness and Light” runs until Oct. 21 at Seoul Arts Center. — Ed.
In a career spanning some three decades, Steve McCurry has seen and experienced more than most of us will in a lifetime. He has worked in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Cambodia, Burma and many other countries, boldly capturing images of civil wars in the Middle East, the devastation of the Kuwaiti oil fires of 1991, grounded Japanese fishing boats following the tsunami in 2011 and harrowing scenes of New York City firefighters and ambulances from 9/11.
But what makes McCurry one of the most iconic photojournalists of our time is his inexhaustible talent for and devotion to documenting and celebrating human life with a still image. He takes viewers around the world to Tibetan babies with smudged faces, Shaolin monks training, Bangladeshi boys enjoying a splash, the inside of a shadowy Pakistani classroom mid-lesson, and his best-known subject, the green-eyed, 12-year-old Afghani orphan Sharbat Gula.
His abilities have earned him a myriad of awards, including the prestigious Robert Capa Gold Medal, the National Press Photographers’ Association award for Magazine Photographer of the Year, an unprecedented four first prizes in the World Press Photo contest, and the Olivier Rebott Award, which he won twice.
Despite the wide recognition for his work, he humbly says his name is “rarely recognized.” His character is modest and light-hearted, his insights pragmatic and unpretentious. That is reflected in his work, which respectfully shares a unique perspective to how others live, and offers us human existence with a wide appreciation for diversity and exoticism.
Groove Korea sat down with Steve McCurry during his three-day visit to Seoul in September to discuss the “rush” of working in conflict zones, his near-death experiences, his insights on working in Asia and his current exhibition, “Between Darkness and Light.”
After living in India for two years in the 1970s, McCurry found himself in Pakistan as the Soviets’ grasp was quickly closing Afghanistan off from foreign journalists. He met a group of Afghan refugees who helped smuggle him into the country, where he was able to cover the internal conflict in 1979. He emerged barely recognizable, with facial hair and garb that made him indistinguishable from the locals. Having sewn the rolls of film into his clothing to get the images out of the area, McCurry was among the first put a face to the devastation of the Russian invasion – which consequently ignited dissent.
After 12-year-old Afghani girl Sharbat Gula’s parents were killed during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late ‘70s, she and her four siblings fled the country to a refugee camp in Pakistan. It was there that McCurry met and photographed her in 1984.
Her face, which appeared on the cover of National Geographic the following year, became an emblem for the conflict in Afghanistan and the hardship of refugees worldwide. At the camp, McCurry was not aware he had just shot what would be considered one of the most recognizable photographs of all time: “I knew at the time that it was an extraordinary portrait, but you know, shooting film, and there’s all this commotion, and then the light, it’s hard to really know … But I never dreamed it would end up on the cover or eventually become an icon.”
After 18 years and five failed attempts to find her, McCurry, along with National Geographic, located and identified Sharbat Gula in 2002 using biometric technology that matched her iris patterns to those in the photograph. “We didn’t know if she was alive, and it was good because we really wanted to try and find her and help her, because she was famous, and she wasn’t reaping any of the benefit of that,” McCurry said. “I think that she eventually realized this was going to be a big benefit (to be located). When at first we found her, she didn’t know what to think.”
A dangerous life
Capturing the consequences of civil and international conflict is one of McCurry’s focuses and greatest strengths. He navigates war zones seemingly with ease, crossing volatile borders as if they were your back fence. Over the past three decades he has recorded the Cambodian Civil War, the Islamic insurgency in the Philippines, the Iran-Iraq War, the Lebanese Civil War, the Gulf War, the ongoing war in Afghanistan and the conflict in Tibet. He likes the rush of working in these areas and when asked how he enters countries as a journalist so easily, he plainly answered, “Well, I wear of lot of different hats,” implying that officials make different assumptions about his occupation. “I’m also around that age where one could plausibly be retired,” the 62-year-old added.
McCurry has lived a dangerous life to get where he is now. He has been arrested in Pakistan and Burma, and has been on the brink of serious injury or death on various occasions. In Afghanistan, he survived mortar, machine gun fire and having his hotel room being broken into at gunpoint in the early hours. In Bombay, India, he was beaten and nearly drowned by a group of youths during the Ganesh Chaturthi festival. After all that, he states his closest brush with death was a light plane crash during an aerial photography project. “I was in an airplane in Slovenia, and the plane crashed. It was a small plane, a two-seater, and it went into a lake. And I was upside down in the water,” he said. “I was banged up. I had a seat belt on and all that, I had a helmet, but I had a lot of bruises.
“The purpose of the flight was to get pictures, but that didn’t happen. I lost the camera,” he said with a laugh.
Yet some observers still describe McCurry’s work as a product of him “being in the right place, at the right time.” The professional tends to have a more pragmatic view: “I think that if you are out working every day, you’re bound to happen across extraordinary situations … There are so many variables that go into that, being presented with an extraordinary situation: Are you going to be able to have the composure and the wherewithal to make a good picture? I think if you’re in the game for 20 or 30 years, you’re bound to.”
He describes the harrowing images taken of Ground Zero in New York on 9/11 as some of his most challenging shots: “Because it was so hard to actually get access to the situation, it was emotionally draining, but also profound in its nature.”
On the morning of September 12, amid the extreme security enforced by police, firemen and soldiers, he cut through a boundary fence to get access to the site. He was eventually removed by the extremely hostile emergency workers, and threatened to have his head “beaten in with a shovel.” Yet, once again, McCurry was not overly concerned for his personal safety, only for the need to document one of the most appalling moments in the world’s history.
In reality, luck plays no part in McCurry’s career. As said in his favorite quote by Teddy Roosevelt, “The credit belongs to the man actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.” With an approximate catalogue of one million images and documentation of six continents over three decades – he’s been to India alone over 90 times – the formula of McCurry’s success is a no-brainer: time, patience and hard work.
“If you want to be a writer, you have to write. And if you want to be a photographer, you have to photograph. Also, it’s something that takes time, and there’s an element of craft that needs to be developed. It takes discipline, passion and commitment. It’s not something you can casually do, any more than you can casually be a writer, a violinist, a surgeon or a carpenter,” he said.
Despite being a benchmark in his profession and immortalized by his iconic “Afghan Girl” photograph, Steve McCurry is a strikingly unpretentious man, who could be your neighbor, your teacher or your dad. He is soft-spoken, relaxed and patient. His diet is simple, without meat or spices, and he says he prefers to be an observer rather than participate. He values subject matter and composition, and his shots are defined by his courage and personable nature, not his equipment.
When asked to choose the most interesting subject he’s photographed in all his years, he answers, without hesitation: “Aung San Suu Kyi.”
For 15 of the last 21 years, the Burmese military government had detained Suu Kyi, the political opposition leader and chairperson of the National League for Democracy there, on the grounds that she was “likely to undermine the community peace and stability” of Burma. In 1991 Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace prize for “her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.” She later used the prize money to create a health and education trust for the Burmese people.
McCurry traveled to the country to photograph her in 1996 for the New York Times. In November 2010, Suu Kyi’s 15 years of house arrest came to an end. “She is a remarkable person,” McCurry said. “She was under house arrest for 20 years … and I think that must have been very difficult for somebody who had traveled the world and come from a very illustrious family.”
The present and the future
After 30 years of hard work, McCurry is finally able to relax a little in recent times. He is a member of Magnum Photos — an international cooperative of photography’s elite — and a frequent and senior contributor to National Geographic, as well as countless other publications including Time Magazine. The fruit of his labors is sweet. With numerous assistants, an office in New York fitted out with his own printing lab, and strong relationships with other big names in the industry — he was granted a request to Kodak for the last ever roll of Kodachrome film — he is able to comfortably enjoy his craft.
McCurry, who was on his fifth visit to the peninsula for the opening of his current exhibition, “Between Darkness and Light,” enjoys frequenting Korea’s temples and monasteries and working throughout the Asian continent. “I’ve been working here (in Asia) for more than 30 years. Asia has a wider range of culture and geography than any other place in the world. In Asia, you have this great disparity between the rich and the poor, people living in an ancient way in a modern world. This is where the action is, photographically, culturally and personally.”
He aims to inspire his audience and exhibit images that people like and enjoy. In “Between Darkness and Light,” his second exhibition in Korea, McCurry presents 100 exceptional pieces of artwork which are a thematic look at his use of light and color.
In every exhibit, there is a strong pulse of life. He evokes emotions from delight to despair, but doesn’t try to convince his viewers of anything.
“It’s kind of a thematic look at my use of light,” he said of the exhibition. “Most of my way of shooting is in fairly low light conditions. My eyes are very sensitive to the light and I find I prefer working in less light. I find it more mysterious, or more provocative. People photograph better in situations where there’s more emotion.”