For 20 years Steve McCurry has been travelling the world. Along the way he has taken thousands of portraits, guided by only one rule: always avoid bright sunlight. Peter Popham reports
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The Independent Culture
OVER THE past two decades Steve McCurry has photographed people in terrible places: places like Afghanistan, where barely one stone stands upon another after the years of war, places of grinding poverty in the Philippines and India, areas of environmental catastrophe such as Kuwait after the Gulf War; dozens of places in different countries where life is a struggle to a degree that comfortably-off people in western Europe are ill-equipped to fathom.

Yet in these photographs that which Samuel Beckett calls "the wealth of filthy circumstance" is stripped away. The familiar stigmata of poverty or war are absent. Colours and props are few, the background is often no more than a black void or a darkish blur or a framing window. And this stripping-away of cliche heightens intensity: these strangers speak to us with a directness from which we flinch. The strength of Steve McCurry's portraits lies in their simplicity and their minimalism. They have now been collected as a book.

Like many other freelance photojournalists, McCurry commutes restlessly between home in the West - New York in his case - and the places where these faces await him. His freelance career started in 1978, when he went to India on a trip around the world and, as he says, "got stuck there". "I was doing little tiny stories that barely covered expenses," he recalls. But in 1979 he went up to the Chitral mountains in Pakistan's North-West Frontier province. "When I was there I met Afghani refgees who offered to take me to Afghanistan. They took me into Nuristan province on the border with Pakistan, disguised as a Nuristani. I was very nervous. I remember, after setting the trip up, lying in bed and hoping that my contacts would forget about it. But they didn't, and after that it was a matter of pride to go through with it. I walked past the Pakistani border guards, totally petrified that I was going to get arrested. Once past them it occurred to me that I was now in a war-zone with no protection of any sort. But as the days went by I got accustomed to it."

Of this trip to Afghanistan, McCurry says, "If I only ever did one trip, that would be the one." His timing was lucky, too: "Next thing the Russians invaded and I was selling pictures all over the place." Few photographers had been working in the country, which suddenly became headline news. McCurry's knowledge of Afghanistan, and his contacts there, led to the assignments for National Geographic magazine that have been the backbone of his work for the past 20 years.

Working for National Geographic is the dream of most photojournalists, because instead of having to scamper around and finish a job in a matter of days, as is true when working for most magazines, a country or a city or a tribe can be studied at considerable leisure: McCurry's National Geographic assignments range in length from six to 12 weeks.

The extended timescale enables him to work in situations that are generally considered next to impossible - notably in places where Islamic fundamentalism has taken a grip, such as Afghanistan. Under the Talibans' fanatical rule, photography is barred as being anti-Islamic, and all but the youngest girls and the oldest women hide their faces from all men except their husbands and close relatives.

Even in places like that, though, McCurry says, "There'll always be one woman that wants to be photographed. Independent-minded, confident, a woman who has control over her husband, who enjoys having her picture taken. But there may only be one."

The painterly quality of McCurry's portraits has, he says, been present from the beginning. "I'm always very careful and conscious of what I do," he says. "There's not one photograph in the book taken in bright sunlight - they are all in shade. In the sun, people squint and their eyes close. I want to see their eyes wide open. Simple is best in portraiture - very simple, very direct, very few colours - a couple of colours and you've got to get out. Just two or three colours is enough, and the balance has to be right. For that reason, it's much more difficult than black-and- white photography. You still need to design the picture, the element of composition has to be there, but you also have this colour thing.

"Almost all the pictures in the book are quick portraits, chance encounters - I meet people and I have to make the picture just there or I will never see them again. Usually it is not the kind of situation where you can go back.

"Faces tell you a lot," McCurry says. "Character, life experience reveals itself. Sometimes you can see the character of a whole culture in one face."

Steve McCurry's `Portraits' is published by Phaidon Press, price pounds 9.95

Main picture: Muslim girl studying the Koran in a Marseilles school, 1989. Far left, top to bottom: 97-year-old in Pakistan, 1981; Christmas pageant on Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, 1991; nomadic shepherd in Kashmir, India, 1995. Top, left to right: Mennonite farmer, Paraguay, 1986; during the rice harvest in Timbuktu, Mali, 1987; shepherd in Afghanistan, 1985. Left: shepherds' baby in Tibet, 1989; girl at a pageant in Bombay, India, 1993

Top row: on a rubber plantation in Malaysia, 1990; woman at Gay Pride parade, Los Angeles, 1991; refugee boy in Afghanistan, 1992; 12-year-old street fighter, Kabul, Afghanistan, 1993; in a schoolyard in Sikkim, India, 1998; boy in Afghanistan, 1990; Bombay, 1996; fortune-teller in Kashmir, India, 1996; 12-year-old student, Afghanistan, 1993. Second row: Jodphur, India, 1996: orphaned girl, Afghanistan, 1990; opera performer, Hong Kong, 1985; schoolboy, Afghanistan, 1991. Third row: woman in Tibet, 1989; child in Nepal, 1979; girl in Haridwar, India, 1998. Fourth row: refugee girl, Afghanistan, 1990; Tahoua, Niger, 1986; pet-shop worker, Los Angeles, 1991; girl working on a reforestation project, Kathmandu, Nepal, 1983; Buddhist woman, Ladakh, India ,1993; girl in Nepal, 1998