©Steve McCurry

A Great Adventure

The images that fill the 208 pages of Steve McCurry’s latest book, “Devotion,” explore the concept of human spirituality far beyond the boundaries of organized religions. In the book, writer Pico Iyer illustrates in words his interpretation of the concept: “Across every culture, we devote ourselves to our children, our faith, our families, and our greater purpose. We call it love, prayer, or service; in truth it’s just surrender to what can never be fully known.”

While McCurry is best known for his 1985 National Geographic “Afghan Girl” cover portrait of Sharbat Gula, “Devotion” reconfirms his place in the pantheon of photography for his complete body of work.

©Steve McCurry

Born in Philadelphia in 1950, McCurry has worked extensively for National Geographic and has been a member of Magnum Photos since 1986. In addition to receiving countless awards, he’s published more than 20 books, which have often served as catalysts for exhibitions and gallery shows, including his most recent at the Peter Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica.

McCurry studied film and fine art photography at The Pennsylvania State University before working several years as a freelancer. He then embarked on a life- and career-changing journey to India, where he fell in love with his muse, the country itself. “I’m fascinated with the extremes of culture and everything else you find in India,” he says. “You have extreme wealth and extreme poverty. You have so many cultures and regions that are different: Kashmir, Ladakh, South India, then you have Bengal and the Himalayas. They’re so different from anything I knew growing up. It’s an ongoing education. India is the birthplace of many religions. I’m continually learning about Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism, the Parsis, and there’s a large Muslim population.

©Steve McCurry

“Calcutta and Mumbai are amazing with their chaos and endless surprises,” he adds. “You’re delighted and you’re horrified. It’s some humorous thing, then some tragedy. And great people, too. You can always strike up a great conversation on a train or wherever you happen to be with somebody and get really philosophical.”

After several months of travel in India in the late 1970s, McCurry was smuggled into Afghanistan by refugees at the beginning of the Russian invasion. He spent weeks embedded with the Mujahideen, emerging with rolls of film that would show the true face of the conflict. He received the 1980 Robert Capa Gold Medal award, named after one of his photographic heroes, for his Time magazine coverage of the war.

©Steve McCurry

McCurry explains how the concept for “Devotion” evolved: “I’ve been fascinated with people who have a larger purpose in their life. Somebody who’s dedicated to a loved one or a cause. Maybe it’s a religious path or spiritual path and as a result it manifests itself in helping other people.” People who express compassion in those ways, he says, give life purpose and meaning beyond themselves. As an example, he cites doctors and nurses who leave their comfortable lives to work for Doctors Without Borders.

“When I think of the greater purpose I also think of social workers,” he says. “They could perhaps make a lot of money and have a comfortable life but instead they’ve gone in the direction of service or education, or maybe going into a war zone and trying to help people in need. Or it could be supporting animal rights or somebody who’s rescuing animals. This is what gives them purpose and fulfillment in their life.”

McCurry offers a heart-wrenching example from his own life: “My father’s devotion to my mother. He was willing to do whatever needed to be done to smooth the way for her. She had multiple sclerosis. It was slowly degenerative, so as time went on she needed more and more care. It was a Herculean task, and he did it with great love and compassion, not out of a sense of duty. So it’s not difficult for me to relate to the devotion a mother or a father gives to their children, often at the sake of their own life’s aspirations or career.”

©Steve McCurry

McCurry sees a difference in American street life since the days of his youth, which figures into his current work. “Kids don’t play on the street,” he notes. “When I was a kid, we used to play football and baseball in the street in front of the house or we’d go to a park.” He contrasts this to Cuba, where children still routinely play outdoors and people sit outside talking to their neighbors.

While there continue to be successful street photographers, America is far removed from the days when Helen Levitt and William Klein prowled the avenues of New York. In a mid-1990s interview, Klein said he couldn’t do what he used to do, camera-in-hand on the streets, because people would be too suspicious of his motives.

McCurry describes how this has affected his approach in certain parts of the world. “I think we self-censure ourselves in the U.S. and Europe. You go into a park in New York or London or Paris and you don’t even want to try because it’s a different time now, where somebody with a kid will question what you are going to do with the picture. It’s a different time with the Internet. I can understand that to a point. It takes the fun out of it. Even if you’re respectful and just looking for something playful or some particular moment, when you’re photographing in that kind of situation, you need time. You can’t just walk up and go, click! It takes time to watch things unfold and watch a situation develop. You simply can’t do that here. Whereas, if you were in another place such as in South Asia you can literally wander into a school—I’m a tourist or whatever and I want to photograph your school—and they would be completely honored to have you there.”

©Steve McCurry

It’s the difference, McCurry says, between feeling at home and feeling like an intruder. “In a place like India, for instance, as a photographer, you get up in the morning, you go out and people are doing all sorts of different activities. So you’re looking. And things are happening and there’s action. People are working. They’re playing. They’re washing, sleeping, eating. They’re talking. So you’re out there exploring with a camera and having this great adventure.”  

Mark Edward Harris is an award-winning photographer and writer based in Los Angeles.