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Lonely Planet Traveller, June, 2013                                                                       PHOTOGRAPH: STEVE McCURRY

CAPTURING ASIA’S UNIQUE MOMENTUM

Award-winning photographer Steve McCurry shares his memories from thirty years of work in a continent that is home to more than half of humanity

A BENGALI WOMAN leans from a train carriage, her face framed by a scarlet shawl, her stare calm and unyielding. The scene is commonplace; the image indelible. It’s vintage Steve McCurry, with simplicity, richness of colour and candour. ‘You have to be alert to your surroundings and you have to be able to react,’ says the 63-year-old, when asked about capturing such fleeting moments on camera.

He could just as well be talking about his career. It was this ability to react that led the then 28-year-old McCurry to flee the repetitive sterility of life as a photographer in suburban Philadelphia for the fervour and unpredictability of India. So too, to respond to a plea from Afghan refugees he met in a village in northern Pakistan in 1979 to publicise their unspoken plight. He agreed to let them smuggle him across the border into Afghanistan just before the Soviet invasion sealed off the country to Western journalists.

His resulting pictures, revealing the human cost of the conflict, launched him into the major league of photojournalism. That and his unforgettable portrait of Sharbat Gula, a Pashtun refugee orphaned by the Soviet bombing. Cloaked in a ragged robe, hypnotic green eyes suffused with dignity and injustice, ‘Afghan Girl’ graced the cover of National Geographic in June 1985 and went on to become one of the most recognisable photographs in history.

Afghanistan has enticed McCurry back nearly 20 times, but it is Asia as a whole that continues to enchant and intrigue him. ‘I find myself drawn to places that still have their original culture intact, where the rich history and mythology are still a big part of people’s lives,’ he says. ‘I’ve spent a lot of time in the region but I also feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.’

Now into his fifth decade of photographing the continent, he’s well placed to comment on its changes – though his photographs are equally articulate on the subject. A 1983 image shows a steam locomotive being manoeuvred into an Agra rail yard, the radiant Taj Mahal appearing beyond like a vision through the smoke. It’s a meeting of the timeless and the obsolete, India’s steam trains now decommissioned, the tracks past the marble masterpiece long-since rerouted.

The changing face of Asia clearly conflicts McCurry. ‘The reach of the modern world is expanding,’ he says. ‘Places like Burma and India are a perfect example of this. It’s a bittersweet thing. On one hand there’s the thriving economies, better healthcare and access to education – the things everyone should have – but there is a price to be paid in the loss of traditional cultures.’

McCurry’s coverage of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan ultimately won him the Robert Capa Gold Medal for photographers demonstrating exceptional courage and enterprise. Scores of other conflicts followed, including Beirut, the Balkans and the Gulf War. Whether he covets, or merely tolerates, danger is a moot point; it is a constant presence. He has been arrested, incarcerated, shot at, mortared, robbed and come close to being drowned by irate worshippers at a festival in Mumbai; so too, to freezing to death in a blizzard while on assignment in the Nepalese Himalayas (‘I was fortunate to find a herd of yaks and follow them back to a village’).

McCurry describes his modus operandi as ‘just wandering, without any particular agenda or plan, and observing life as it unfolds.’ And nowhere offers life in such abundance and enthralling diversity as Asia.
It was wandering that brought him, via a beaten-up taxi, to the Rajasthan town of Jaisalmer in 1983. The
rains had failed for 13 straight years and an enormous dust storm presaged the arrival of the yearned-for
monsoon. Here he encountered a group of barefoot women, clustered together for mutual protection, saris drawn tight against the elements. ‘In the strange, dark-orange light and the howling wind, battered by
sand and dust, they sang and prayed,’ he recalls. ‘Life and death seemed to hang in precarious balance.’

Hanging equally precariously were the monks he photographed two decades later at the Shaolin Monastery in China. He found them suspended, bat-like, from metal beams as part of their martialarts training. ‘The monastery is a fascinating place with an ancient history and heir of mysticism,’ he says. ‘It was a rigorous discipline, with the young disciples hanging motionless. I like the stark contrast of the colours and the stoic look on their faces.’

Colour, contrast and composition are all pillars of McCurry’s work, but it’s the humanity, ‘the soul peeking out’, that he strives for. ‘I’m most interested in human behaviour and how people relate to one
another and to their environment. The important thing to remember is that, whatever country or
nationality, people are fundamentally the same.’

See more of Steve McCurry’s work in Steve McCurry: The Iconic Photographs (far left; £39.95; Phaidon) and Portraits: Steve McCurry (left; £14.95; Phaidon).