With Steve McCurry I was first acquainted a few years ago when, at the beginnings of the Afghanistan war of 2003, his earlier works started featuring prominently in the press and on television. Perhaps the most haunting of his works was the photo of the young Afghan girl that he took at the beginning of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan of 1979 to the mid-80s. Her oval-shaped face, olive skin and piercing green eyes, set in a colourful embroidered veil, contrasted with mental images that I had formed of Afghanistan as a place full of women dressed in burqa, gliding like nondescript shadows across the desolate streets of a scarred country. Instead there were these eyes full of life, despair, hope, and a premature coming-of-age. That single photo helped to humanise the people of Afghanistan more than hundreds of war despatches put together, and to create empathy in the minds of Western consumers of McCurry’s work.
What I found most fascinating was that he managed to have that impact without visibly tailoring his work to the tastes of foreigners. His photographs usually strive to feature people that do not seem to be aware to the camera or do not appear to change their behaviour in response to its presence. I read an interview with him where he said that his technique is to sit around people holding his camera for so long and taking photos until they get so used to his presence that their souls finally flows out and he can surprise its naturalness. While that is a beautiful, and undoubtedly true, description of his artistic process, I can’t help but think that it is his artistic skill that chooses the moments that surprise that naturalness. His gift is taking advantage of that moment and not allowing it to disappear. Candidness.
That naturalness is, I think, what he manages to do with knowing subjects what street photographers can usually only do with unknowing subjects. In street photography we try to spy on life living rather than on life acting for the lens. Steve McCurry manages to overcome the people’s knowledge of his presence through hard work, patience and, most importantly, skill. For now, beginning street photographers like me will have to rely on the trick of being hidden from their subjects to make up for that skill.