Critical review

Steve McCurry. Inspires young photographers

The main aim for this project is to prepare myself for assignment five, which is the last assignment of the course. To analyse what Steve McCurry does well and what issues his photography raises.



‘Steve McCurry is born in Philadelphia- Pennsylvania in 1950. He attended Marple Newton High School, later Penn State University. McCurry graduated in 1974 as a special in cinematography. He gained an interest in photography already at University; this challenged him to work as a photographer for Today’s Post. Even then McCurry has a huge interest in India, this is how all the trips around the world started.

McCurry received his first photography award (The Robert Capa medal for the best Photographic Reporting from abroad) in 1980, after his first trip to Afghanistan. McCurry put himself in danger many times in countries such an India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. There are many things we had to do in order to produce those photographs. He had to get into local dress in Pakistan in order to get through Pakistan-Afghanistan border; he had to sew film strips inside of his closing too.

McCurry had an experience in a plane crash when he has been taking aerial pictures, the plane crashed into the lake, he had a problem with his removing his seatbelt once the plane was sinking, however he managed to swim to the shore and boat picked him up. All I all his situation did not stop him from travelling and producing the best documentary photographs.

McCurry the most famous photograph is ‘’Afgan Girl’’; this image has been taken in 1984 in a refugee camp in Pakistan. Then the young lady, only thirteen years old, identify was unknown. This photograph made a storm in documentary photography; In June 1985 it appeared on National Geographic cover, it been nominated for several awards. After 18 years McCurry went back to Afghanistan and found her again, the picture became cover of National Geographic in 2002.

Rules of McCurry photographic composition:

  1. Rule of thirds

2. Leading Lines


3. Use natural lines to lead the eyes into the picture


4. Diagonal lines create great movement


5.Use natural frames like windows and doors


6. Find a contrast between figure and background


7.Get close to your subjects


8. Place dominant eye in the center of the photo


9. Patterns are aesthetically pleasant


10. Symmetry


Interview with Scott Shuman and Steve McCurry:

I found this video interview very informative, as here McCurry answers important questions how he handles photographic situations and what are the main details to create successful portrait.

McCurry works with the light, if lighting is not right, he asks subject to meet another day, if this is not the case photographer ask to walk with the subject to find better lighting and place. If lighting is not suitable for outside shooting, McCurry chooses inside places where this sort of lighting can create stunning effects.

McCurry inspiration is Henri Cartier- Bresson, as he took very well composed images, numbers of portraits too. There are many aspects where McCurry and Bresson’s work meet the same composition and lighting rules.

I have selected a couple of photographs to prove this:

BressonPound duchamp sartre_140-e585d76766a691010365c03f7fcb7a11d80d1769-s6-c30


McCurry always travels with the local person, who can explain the situation better especially in those countries where you can be in danger every minute. Also, there is a danger to do something against the local rules, this can only be explained by local people. I have imagined that photographers such McCurry does not work all the day, unfortunately his day starts from sunrise and finish at sunset. The most important to be there you can enjoy, this is what stimulates you to go forward. McCurry talks about the times when he could not get the right pictures, however the most important is to stay positive, even taking not so good images is part of your learning so we should not be offended by this.

McCurry talks about how to stay positive by taking pictures, we have to look at the bigger scale and the percentage of our successful shots, not every single image can have sparkle.

McCurry Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs (Phaidon):

“Compelling photography doesn’t require exotic travel, but I needed to wander and explore.”(Steve McCurry, Untold)


McCurry collected all the restaurant receipts, maps, photographic notes, first published pictures and copies of magazines for the thirty years. Every one of the listed has his own story.

The most important project Steve McCurry worked on is ‘’Moon Soon””. He has been inspired by Brian Brake’s project Moon Soon for the magazine in 1962.


CT035625 - SMALL.jpg

 McCurry produced his own photographic version of Moon Soon. There has been a huge flood in one of the cities of India, name Guder Ad. There was a horrible situation; people lived on the roof, you have to walk in the water up to your chest, lots of dirty water with dead animals in there. For McCurry it has been an amazing opportunity to record such a situation, to show all us that even this situation can be handled. He went to Bombay later on, where he meets a young lady with the child asking for some money through the taxi’s window, this situation only lasted for 7 seconds and McCurry managed to make two shots, after this taxi just drove off. McCurry’s interpretation is: her and his world met just for a second, to see such a big contrast there.

Diane Arbus perspective:


Diane Arbus talked about how difficult is to show images with correct understanding what your subject is really is. It is hard situation where two perfectives meet, one might think this is horrible, others just accept this as an everyday reality.

‘’What I’m trying to describe is that it’s impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else’s. And that’s what all this is a little bit about. That somebody else’s tragedy is not the same as your own“. (Diane Arbus)

McCurry understands portraits and their meaning differently:

I would hope that my work in a way shows the shared humanity that we have. I have been photographing people all over the world and I think what I have always tried to do is show what we have in common.” (Steve McCurry, Novermber 6th, 2014)


This is the best explanation why McCurry photography is so successful, connection between photographer and subject is much stronger than technical elements, lighting, correct expression.

Themes and subjects:


McCurry talks about how he decides on the theme and subject, simply his advice is to photograph those things that are important to you, has a meaning to you. McCurry works many hours on his photographs, this is searching for the right picture, once you find the right subject and the right place your image becomes special. There is important that the images we take have an important story. This is where photographs open the door to communication, photographers and viewer’s communication.

The photograph is an undeniably powerful medium. Free from the constraints of language, and harnessing the unique qualities of a single moment frozen in time.” (Steve McCurry, Behind photographs: Archiving Photographic Legends [Foreword])

McCurry advice is to reduce researching time and spend more time on shooting, as too much preparation and research can lead you to failure. For example if you are given a week to create photo story and leave 5 days for research and 2 for shooting, you are at risk that you will run out of time. However, if you spend 2 days researching and 5 days shooting this increase your images success level straight away.

We have to wonder and absorb in the location in order to start feeling the local mood and try to understand the local people. McCurry proved with these photographs that not a destination where you travel is most important; he made so many great shots on the way to those destinations. In photography, we can not plan things, as things changes so quickly you have to adjust to it.

Ethics and privacy in Mccurry photography:

My life is shaped by the urgent need to wander and observe, and my camera is my passport.”(Steve McCurry, Amateur Photographer Magazine)

I will have to disagree with the sentence above. No one has a right to get into another life with a camera and even more publish this image across the world.

I have in mind, ‘’Afgan Girl’’., this is the most successful image of the time.


Looking at those eyes, we can tell that thirteen-year-old girl was scared and not prepared for the shooting. This raises the question did McCurry used the moment when this girl is vulnerable? Has this situation made the shooting process easier?

Also, we have to mention Article 8 of the Convention of Human Rights (the right to respect human’s privacy).

Article 8 – Right to respect for private and family life

  1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.
  2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

This question in the UK has been raised in 2008 when famous writer’s JK Rowing son in a pushchair was intentionally photographed by press photographer and later were published in many press magazines.

Looking back at ‘’Afgan Girl’’ does she has right to the privacy? Did she understand how far this image will go? Did she ever want to be represented this way, as a refugee?

It seems like everyone made money out of this; McCurry, magazines, but what about the main subject of this photo story? If this image would be taken in the UK and published, this would get an attention of government institutions, child rights protection, but does it really matter what country you are born in to protect your rights?

Obviously this image is not as bad as ‘’Somali Child’’, the images were taken in Somali at the worst drought. Also western aid could not reach that place during the war, this mean that people just kept dying there. There is also a question if this image won’t be published would reader truly understand what is happening there?


I think that this image had to be published, however, I always think from the other side, if this would be my child? Would I be OK if someone would photograph him and published around the world? I would say no as the biggest part of parents.

If we compare those two images we can clearly see that McCurry has aesthetics in his images, he never goes too far into situations like this.

All in all Mccurry is a great photographer, he has his own and unique photographic voice, I am able to see his passion in photography through his images, all the interviews I have seen with him, he talks about how hard we have to work, wander around and search for the right shot, most important we have to enjoy of what we do to be a successful photographer. Beside that McCurry is a photographer, he is taking part in photography society; there are many interviews, many lessons and much more of his suggestions how to become the best-known documentary photographer.

‘’It’s important to be curious no matters what profession you are in’’ McCurry said.

McCurry is searching for the right angle to shoot, also details are important such as clothing’s or eyes, together with isolation from the rest of the world, shows us the connection between photographer and his subject, connection between western and eastern worlds. All this process is normally done before he even start shooting, then is the hardest work to convince them to be photographed:

‘’The challenge is to convince them within 15 seconds to be my subject, ‘’he said. Respect is essential to establish that trust.’’

Another important part of his successful photograph is to work with translators otherwise it may cause problems, especially in eastern countries.

isnto it, and carved out something that’s become special. And that takes a lot of time and a lot of work – that’s not for everyone. Regardless of how successful you are, it’s important for you to spend your time photographing things that matter to you. You need to understand the things that have meaning to you, and not what others think is important for you. Having a blog is one of the easiest ways for your to get your work out to a wide aReferences:



Harold Evans – Pictures on a page

James Curtis – Making Sense of Documentary Photography


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