One of the first things that caught American photographer Steve McCurry’s eye when he arrived in Singapore recently was a woman sleeping on a bench at Changi Airport, newspaper sheets wrapped around her like a blanket. Naturally, he whipped out his iPhone for a snapshot.
“I’m fascinated with people sleeping; I like these snippets of human behaviour,” muses the lensman, who is best known for his 1984 Afghan Girl photographic portrait of Sharbat Gula for National Geographic magazine.
At 69, the multi-award winning McCurry, in town for the launch of the new Leica SL2 camera, says it is these small observations of daily life that continue to intrigue him.
Perhaps the Changi Airport picture might someday end up on his Instagram account @stevemccurryofficial. He personally curates his social media images for 2.8 million followers from a wide range taken during his globetrotting adventures over the past four decades.
“These are pictures I personally like. I think they’re successful pictures but they’re mostly unpublished,” he says. Often, he posts themed groups of images such as a series on street art in Cuba over the years or of people reading books in different countries.
McCurry, the first recipient of the Leica Hall of Fame Award in 2011, was commissioned by the brand to travel to China to put their new camera through its paces. He has long been beguiled by this continent, explaining, “I find Asia visually and spiritually rich. I think when you travel, you want to learn something; to be taken to another place in your mind. I find that in places like Burma, Tibet, China and India, there’s an ancient quality to the religion, literature, art and architecture.”
The Leica exhibition, which included shots of young Shaolin monks practising in a courtyard, showcases McCurry’s take on the “human element”. He says, “A good picture is something that captures your imagination, something that stays with you. It has to be simple and should have some sort of emotional component.”
His latest book, Animals, featuring his favourite images of animals and their interactions with humans, is his way of shining the spotlight on what he believes is the most pressing issue for the planet today. “There’s such a disregard for the environment and animals. It is sad how we treat wild life.”
As one of the world’s most famous photographers, McCurry is in the privileged position of being able to cherry-pick projects that strike his interest. In 2016, he became embroiled in a controversy when some of his pictures were found to have been digitally altered to remove people and objects. He responded by stating that he considers himself a “visual storyteller” and not a photojournalist.
“I am more interested in what moves me personally. As you get older, you realise life is finite and you want to do something about your personal expression. That’s where I’m at. I want to go somewhere and do what I want to do. And I want to tell my story.”