Steve McCurry – Stories from the Field (Speaker Series 2014)

On 2 April, 2014 I attended a lecture series by Steve McCurry, entitled “Stories from the Field”. McCurry was in Vancouver, Canada promoting his latest book, “Untold: The Stories behind the Photographs.”

He began his lecture by showing a short video presentation, outlining his photographic journey, explaining how he became interested in photography and travel. His love for travel was triggered at a very early age when he working in a drugstore. He became enamoured with the foreign tourists who came into the shop and at the first opportunity he got, he was off to Europe. Thus began his traveling and photographic career.

During his video presentation, he imparted what he called “Steve’s Maxims”, some insightful words of wisdom and experience. They were as follows:

  1. Follow your passion: he stated that he would never retire from photography. He was shooting more assignments now than he had done twenty years ago and he foresaw that he would just carry on doing it.
  2. Surround yourself with good people: when in the field it is vital to employ or have reliable people around you; someone who will have your back in tricky situations. He told the story of a driver that he first came across in India who he has used for the past thirteen or so years. He not only used this driver in India, but in the Middle East as well because he trusted him implicitly and they had built up a fantastic working relationship over the years.
  3. Keep your travel days down: by this he meant that you should keep the research to a minimum, find your story and attack it. If one only has five days in a place, don’t spend four days on the research and only one day shooting. When faced with too many options he will pick three specific locations and shoot those. He used one of his assignments in Yemen as an example. There was so much to photograph and he didn’t have the time, so he selected a city scene, a coastal scene and a scene in the mountains, as can be seen in his Yemen gallery.
  4. Be part of the conversation (whether it is social or political). He encouraged the audience to be a witness with their photography, to report and tell people what life is like and hopefully that it would affect a change.
  5. Make quality time for photos: When you find a scene that looks interesting you should stay with it and work it. Be attuned to what is happening around you. Explore the scene, wander and get lost in the moment. Let the moment wash over you. This is when the magic happens. Photography is not about the pictures, it is about the journey – take care not to let it slip away. When photographing people, if you see a good situation, spend time photographing the person and get emotional expressions. People’s expressions change by the second and within a short frame of one minute one can capture a whole range of nuances.

After his video presentation, he presented a slideshow of his various assignments on a massive screen that filled almost the entire stage. He jokingly mentioned that he was quite in awe of the huge screen as National Geographic’s screen was half the size. It definitely took the viewing experience to another level to be able to view his images on a screen that was at least 9 metres wide and 7 metres high as opposed to 24 inch prints or on the computer screen.

Of course he mentioned the Afghan Girl and told the back story of when he first took her photo when she was twelve years old. He was photographing some children in a classroom which was set up in a green tent in a refugee camp on the Pakistan border. He noticed her immediately, but didn’t photograph her straight away. Rather he proceeded to photograph about six other children, gradually working his way towards her, made a few images of her and left. Interestingly enough, National Geographic almost didn’t run with that story, but at the last minute the editor changed the cover and the Afghan Girl went on to become a major iconic photograph.

Seventeen years later, McCurry and his team returned to Afghanistan to see if they could find the Afghan Girl. McCurry did not know her name, so the only clue he could provide to the villagers was the photo he had taken of her when she was twelve. Luckily he remembered the name of the village where he had originally found her and by chance was approached by a man who had heard about his inquiries. This man turned out to be her brother. The brother also had those striking green eyes. After hearing the story, he took McCurry to meet her. McCurry then, with her husband’s permission, went on to make some images of her as wife and mother. He found out that her name was Sharbat Gula. He mentioned to the audience that National Geographic had provided a house for her and set up a fund so that she now receives regular income as her husband and daughter have both passed away.

Steve McCurry’s maxims, I believe, are applicable to every genre of photography, but the most important piece of advice is definitely to remember that it is not about the picture, but it is all about the journey. The journey will deliver the winning photograph.