Photography's Gold Braceleta: Good Story

Recently in Istanbul, Steve McCurry explained how important a strong story line is in photography.


Dubbed the ‘photograph of the century’ and transformed into a world-famous icon, the photo of Sharbat Gula made a big splash when it appeared in National Geographic in 1985. For years there was no news of Gula, who had been orphaned during the Soviet war in Afghanistan and appeared to Steve McCurry in a refugee camp in Pakistan. Mounting a serious effort to find the girl in 2002, the magazine distributed her photo in all the refugee camps, finding her trail in the end. Living together with her husband and three children under difficult conditions in a remote area of Afghanistan, the ‘Afghan girl’ had changed considerably. But when new photographs of her were compared with the old, the iris of her eye clinched her identity as the same person. Making the Afghan Girl and her new face their cover again in April 2002, National Geographic not only fulfilled her dream of making the Hajj pilgrimage but also helped her financially.

Photo correspondent Steve McCurry is a name most people won’t remember, but there is practically no one who has not seen or does not remember his photograph of the green-eyed Afghan girl, which embodies all the drama of the Afghan people under Russian occupation. The man who discovered those haunting eyes was in Istanbul recently. Talking about his experiences as part of the daily Zaman’s 5th, now traditional, +1 Newspaper Design Days, McCurry shot countless photographs during his brief stay in the city.  Keeping a respectful distance from the recorder, McCurry loves most of all to photograph human faces that combine the different cultures, religions and languages of the countries of the East.

You’ve been in Istanbul three days. What have you photographed?  

I strolled around Sultanahmet Square and the neighboring streets. I took a lot of photographs, especially of cats and people sleeping. People lolling in the shade of a tree in the parks, cats meandering among the tombstones.

Which is more important, color, light, story or technique?

They are all equally important.

I thought you would say story…

Yes, actually, when you think about it, story is more important.


Why? You are a journalist yourself so you should know at least as well as I do why story is more important.

In the case of a piece of writing, yes. But there must be other criteria in photography.
In photography, too, story is the important thing. Every photograph needs to have a story. A good story is the gold bracelet of photography.

Bruno Barbey says that Magnum has shifted from documentary to artistic photography. Do you agree?

Yes, he’s right. There is such a trend at Magnum. The photographs at Magnum are 70% artistic at the moment.

What about your own photographs? Are you going in that direction as well?

I take documentary photographs.

Couldn’t we say that your posed photographs of people are artistic?

You probably could, but I don’t think so and that’s not how I work. For one thing, I don’t work in a studio. I take my camera and roam the world, recording what I see. That’s why I regard myself as a documentary photographer. A photograph can of course have artistic elements and still be documentary. There aren’t such clear lines between the two. I also don’t ask people to pose for me. I wait and try to capture the moment.

That leads directly to the next question, how do you manage to be in the right place at the right time?

No one can be in the right place at the right time. Absolutely no one can predict in advance what is going to happen. One can only try and strengthen one’s hunches through training. It’s entirely a matter of experience and patience. Most of the time I can sense when something good is going to happen. It’s very important to und
erstand and anticipate the world, and to gain experience with that over time.

Are there times when you have waited very long for a photograph?

It’s important to be patient, of course, but long waits of several hours just don’t work. Watching and waiting are important, but the main thing is to look and to see. You have to know, to have a sense for, how to look. And then of course, sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. Yesterday was a lucky day, for example. I was just wandering around and I got some very good shots in only 15 minutes. I shot my favorite photograph, ‘Women Praying in a Sand Storm’, at a completely unexpected moment. It was a pure stroke of luck.

What’s it like being on the road nine months of the year? Aren’t there people waiting for you back home?

Yes, actually there are people waiting for me every time. But I haven’t encountered a serious problem up to now. Sometimes the people I’m close to come with me and then everybody is happy. Above all else, I am happy with myself. I like to move around, that is my choice.