An Itch Called India

He first came to India 35 years ago and he’s been back more than 80 times. As he releases a retrospective book on the stories behind his images, the legendary photographer examines why India still fascinates him so much and what he’d like to do here next.

Steve McCurry in monsoon floods, Porbander, India, 1983. Credit: Steve McCurry—Magnum


How It Began

The first time I came to India was 35 years ago in February 1978, when I landed in Delhi. I had travelled to Europe, Africa and the Middle East by then, and I felt like it was time to go to India. I’d saved some money, so I bought a couple of hundred rolls of film and headed off to India. I remember it was about 4:00 in the morning as I went down to the hotel – it was next to Nirula’s in Connaught Place. It was a bit disorienting. Everything felt so new.

Next, I went to Mussoorie, the hill station north of Dehradun, and I remember being so surprised at how cold it was – I didn’t have any warm clothes. And then it snowed. Suddenly, my preconceptions of India were turned on their heads.

By the time I arrived in India, I had been taking photographs fairly seriously for four or five years. I had been working as a local newspaper photographer in Philadelphia, and I quit that job to travel and tell bigger stories with my camera. I knew I had to leave home. Being a good photographer doesn’t necessarily mean you travel to distant places, but I needed to get out of my comfort zone and explore things. I was very curious about how people lived in different parts of the world.

I stayed up in Mussoorie for several days before heading back. I travelled everywhere by train and road in 1978. The only time I actually flew was when I went from Patna to Kathmandu and back. I went to Madras by train, took a bus to Madurai, a bus to Bangalore, a bus to Goa, a truck to Bombay, a train back to Delhi, then up to Shimla and then on to Ladakh. I was travelling looking around for stories, just wanting to get familiar with the culture and the terrain and the people.

Before I arrived I’d thought of India as being homogenous, but I found such a range here in terms of climate and terrain – there are deserts and there are tropical forests and the Himalayas. And a variety of ethnicities, from Buddhists in Ladakh to Sufi Muslims in Kashmir, plus a large Christian and Hindu population. There was the spectrum of people living in a very ancient way and people living in a more modern way. There was extreme wealth and extreme poverty. Not that these extremes didn’t exist in other countries, but they seemed to be much more dramatic in India, which was rich and diverse in ways that other places weren’t.

I’ve now been back to India over 80 or 90 times and seen much more of it than the average Indian has. In that time, I’ve travelled all over the country to work on stories such as the one on the monsoon, the Indian railways, Kashmir, Tibetans and Buddhism. I’ve also worked in Europe, Africa, South America and other places in the world, but most of my time has been spent in South Asia.

I always aspired to work for National Geographic magazine. I wanted a global audience for my photographs. I think they now have over 30 foreign editions, but at the time I started working in India, there were a lot of Indians who subscribed to National Geographic and you could buy it at newsstands. That was the kind of global viewer I had in mind.

In the two years that I spent on the subcontinent during that first trip, I kept pitching stories to magazines on various aspects of India, and I went on a couple of assignments in Pakistan and a couple more in Afghanistan before the Russian invasion, after which my work became more internationally recognized.

The Toughest Assignment

What I find most special about light on the subcontinent is its unusual quality during the monsoon. With the clouds, the rain and the dramatic light, it’s a time that is very distinctive, very different.

Having already witnessed the monsoon on the subcontinent twice in the two years I spent there from 1978 to 1980, I thought this could be a very dramatic story to tell because India’s economy, especially back in the late ’70s, was based much more heavily on agriculture. As a child, I had seen the work of Brian Brake for a story on the monsoon in LIFE magazine. I really wanted to reinvent that story and do it in my own way. I imagined a story about how a country depended on these great seasonal rains to give it life. In some places, the heat would build up until the rains were welcomed with relief; but if it rained too much there would be floods, and if the rains failed altogether there would be disaster.

I pitched the story to National Geographic and I worked on it for nearly a year beginning in the spring of 1983, travelling through almost a dozen countries, including India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, China, Indonesia and Australia. The region I explored stretched from Afghanistan to Burma, and from Tibet in the north to Sri Lanka in the south.
Bicycles on the side of a train, West Bengal, India, 1983. Credit: Steve McCurry—Magnum
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I was also working on my ‘India by Rail’ story at the same time, photographing in places like Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Goa. It was inspired by Paul Theroux’s book The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), where I was trying to photograph the train system in South Asia. India’s train stations seemed like a microcosm of the country.  

The monsoon story, which was published as a book in 1988, was the most exciting and probably my toughest ever assignment in the subcontinent. I would race to where the action was but by the time I got there, it would often be over. Running around to get to the right place at the right time was frustrating and photographing in the rain was quite a challenge. Working in flooded streets was also difficult and dangerous.

I spent four days in Porbandar on the Gujarat coast wading around the streets in chest or waist-deep water. Water that was filled with bloated animal carcasses and other waste material. Every night when I returned to my flooded hotel, empty except for a night watchman, I would wash my shriveled feet in disinfectant. To my horror, about three-quarters of the city was underwater – people were living on their roofs, they had no fresh water and no food. But it was fascinating how people could persevere through these situations and actually cope and do well under such difficult circumstances. That story was a defining experience for me.

Why I Keep Coming Back

After all these years and all these trips to India, it doesn’t feel like I’m stepping back in time anymore. To its credit, India has a very distinct culture and way of doing things even as the world becomes more global. Take Singapore, for example. There are a lot of wonderful things about Singapore and it’s great for international business, but it’s hard to identify what is unique to Singapore. Whereas in India, that Indian character or Indian-ness is very strong and you feel this strong pride in its cultural identity with the music, the food, the cinema, the literature and the way people dress.

With globalization, there’s an irrefutable trend towards homogeneity. Take Delhi, where I first landed – the main shopping area was Connaught Place. The individual vendors and the mom-n-pop shops that have been there for a hundred years are going away, and what’s left are these cookie cutter chain businesses. A shopping mall in India and a shopping mall in, say, Belgium or Kansas City, have a sameness to them. There’s no denying the fact that the new Delhi airport is identical to virtually a thousand airports around the world. It’s inevitable. We’re all merging, becoming homogenous in what we eat, the music we listen to. New architecture in India is no different than it is in Norway or Cape Town or Montevideo or Auckland.

I don’t know if this makes it harder for me to tell meaningful stories about India, because what remains arresting in visual terms is that there’s still a tremendous amount of street life here. There’s so much in India that you don’t see to the same extent in Europe or the US – people working, eating, sleeping on the streets. There’s a lot more human activity that you have access to and that’s the one thing that’s so wonderful about walking around in a city or a village. Human behavior and how people relate to each other, to the environment and to animals is much more visible in India than in other places.

What I look for in subjects is not what they’re wearing but the character in somebody’s face. In the end it’s all about the person, a face that tells an interesting story. You don’t want to rely solely on attire – I’m interested in human stories and human behavior, and the personality of the person I’m photographing.

It’s interesting because when we look back in 50 years, our work will be a testament to the way we were. In New York, 50 or 70 years ago, all men wore hats. Today, no one does unless it’s for the cold. In India, you didn’t have to be Sikh or Rajasthani to wear headgear. But today it’s not easy to spot a turban, even in a small town.

We’ll look back and marvel at our past, at a vanishing way of life. And we’ll be surprised and amused at how we once were, with a local culture that was unique.

What I’m Excited About Next

The last story I worked on in India, about four years ago, was on the Rabari, a semi-nomadic shepherd community based in Rajasthan and Gujarat. They seasonally take their flocks of animals to graze and look for water, but this way of life is changing too because of roads and fences and urbanization. There used to be all these wide, open spaces, but now these people have to walk down the side of a highway. It’s becoming very complicated, or even impossible, to take a herd of cattle down such routes. It’s a vanishing way of life.

There are other projects I’d like to work on in India, particularly in Calcutta. You have a real sense of the past in Calcutta, and you also have a very strong sense of Bengali culture. It’s a teeming city with a wonderful chaos. You have so many people coming onto the streets and it remains visually rich – the Durga puja statues are a unique thing in the world. The colonial architecture that’s still there transports you to another time. You don’t get that in a lot of places anymore. If Calcutta was in China, they would have torn all that down and you’d have aluminum and glass in its place. But Calcutta has retained its unique personality.

Another thing I’d still like to do in India is to take a road, a long highway. Travelling through the country on this one route, it would be fascinating to see how life is along this particular thread that runs through India. Writers and photographers have been taking road trips and writing about their journeys since the beginning of time, but I think that it would be a nice way to explore the range of cultures and the different levels of society. The journey and the people you meet along the way become an interesting tale to be told.

People value my work now, but I don’t feel any different today than I did 20 or 30 years ago. It’s wonderful and I appreciate people responding to my work, because in the end, I want to communicate and tell stories. I think writers and photographers want to share their view of the world. We want to take note of the things that fascinate us and show it to people and say that this was the most remarkable thing I saw. Or take something poignant or profound and share that. We probably wouldn’t write or photograph if we were alone in the world, because then, who would see it? Who would care?

Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs by Steve McCurry, £39.95/€49.95, Phaidon 2013, www.phaidon.com

Steve McCurry has been a professional photographer for more than 30 years. A member of Magnum Photos since 1986, he has been recognized with some of the most prestigious awards in the industry, including the Robert Capa Gold Medal, the National Press Photographers Award and an unprecedented four first prize awards from the World Press Photo contest. He was given the first Leica Hall of Fame Award in 2011. Follow him at https://twitter.com/McCurryStudios

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