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A Photographer Captures Extraordinary Moments Of Everyday Indian Life

Holi, a festival that welcomes spring, is celebrated with public spraying of colorful powders. Rajasthan, India, 1996.
Holi, a festival that welcomes spring, is celebrated with public spraying of colorful powders. Rajasthan, India, 1996.

Photographer Steve McCurry has been frequenting — and documenting — India since 1978. His new book, Steve McCurry: India highlights the extraordinary moments of ordinary, everyday life across the subcontinent.

We caught up with the man most famous for his portrait of a fiery young girl in Afghanistan and asked him about some of the more colorful scenes — and colorful people — that caught his eye.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Is there a theme that ties the book together?

This is sort of a diary — a poem about my time in India.

Bicycles hang on the side of a train traveling from Dacca to Peshawar, West Bengal, India. April 1993.
Steve McCurry / Courtesy of Phaidon
Bicycles hang on the side of a train traveling from Dacca to Peshawar, West Bengal, India. April 1993.

I'm from Mumbai and I know how crazy chaotic Indian cities can be. How do you focus in and decide what to photograph?

It's a question of enjoying your day, your life and enjoying walking down the street observing, and being curious — until you see something that catches your eye.

One photo that stuck a chord for me is the frail man, collapsed at a train station.

A man lies on a train platform. Mumbai, 1994
Steve McCurry / Courtesy of Phaidon
A man lies on a train platform. Mumbai, 1994

That was disturbing because obviously this guy, he's is not doing well. But people are just zooming by, seemingly oblivious or unaware of his plight. And this is something that happens not only in India but all over the world. People in cities everywhere, when they encounter a difficult situation, they tend to just walk by.

How did witnessing that sort of urban indifference affect you?

Vijay Nath, 12 exhibits his harmless sand boa. His family stays on the lookout for police: Snake handling has been outlawed since 1972. Gujarat, India, 2009.
Steve McCurry / Courtesy of Phaidon
Vijay Nath, 12 exhibits his harmless sand boa. His family stays on the lookout for police: Snake handling has been outlawed since 1972. Gujarat, India, 2009.

I do frequently try intervene in these situations, when there's somebody on the street obviously in need. There's times when I'll buy someone a meal or give someone a ride. I bought a fellow a pair of shoes once. There are those little moments where you do whatever you can.

Another really cool shot is the portrait of the little boy with a snake around his neck. Is that thing going to hurt him?

No, no. That's a pet snake, so it's not particularly dangerous.

That boy belonged to a caste of snake-handlers. They would get money performing with these snakes on the street. And if there was a snake in somebody's house, they would get paid to get rid of it.

I noticed in a lot of your portraits, including the one one of this little boy — and your famous portrait of the Afghan girl — your subjects look directly into the camera.

It's true. I think it helps viewers make that personal connection with the subject.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

An elderly man from the Rabari Tribe, photographed in Rajasthan, India, 2010. The Rabari traditionally lived as nomads in Northwest India. As grazing lands have disappeared, their way of life is changing.
Steve McCurry / Courtesy of Phaidon
An elderly man from the Rabari Tribe, photographed in Rajasthan, India, 2010. The Rabari traditionally lived as nomads in Northwest India. As grazing lands have disappeared, their way of life is changing.

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