Steve McCurry’s photos are as iconic as the Beatles at Abbey Road; to see a zebra crossing is to remember the musicians, to glance at green marbles is to recollect McCurry’s Afghan girl. The people he photographs become symbols for that place and time. Having first visited India in 1978 on a one-way ticket, he has returned countless times. His memories of the country—elephants and mahout, mother and son at the railway station—now find a place in India (Phaidon/Roli Books, Rs 3,500, 96 pages) which released earlier this month. In Delhi, he speaks to Nandini Nair about the perils of globalisation, his love for the monsoons and what’s next. Excerpts.
Let’s begin not with your photojournalism, but rather your recent Valentino Spring 2016 campaign, shot in Amboseli National Park, Kenya.
Oh, that was very cool. We were shooting next to this dead tree and I saw this cloud of dust coming and thought someone would say, ‘Let’s run for cover’ or ‘Protect the models’. We kept shooting and everybody stayed in their place. It is a real situation, no wind machine. It just happened. It was great.
The cover of India is a dust storm as well. What is the romance of storms?
I shot that as part of a monsoon story. I was looking for situations of heat build-up, just before the monsoon. I was driving from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer. This storm started and my first inclination was to roll up the windows. But then I realised, ‘Wait a minute, I am here to shoot’. I saw these women working on the road. Because of the storm they huddled together to protect themselves from the wind.
Why are rains one of your favourite subjects?
There are people running around. There are floods. It is a dramatic event. Everything goes from brown and parched to relief. And everything suddenly becomes green. Listening to rain on your roof and going to sleep, there is nothing like it.
In the four decades you have been coming here, what changes have you noticed as a photographer?
I am always struck at how we are all dressing the same way. India is becoming globalised and homogenised.
There is a bit of nostalgia for things, architecture, ways of dress, customs that were developed over hundreds or thousands of years, which in a matter of years will get discarded. Things evolve, there is an impermanence to life.
Is it less interesting for a photographer if everything is becoming homogenous?
Yes, because everything is becoming like one big airport. Steel, glass, square…
Is that why most photos in this book are from the 80s? Are these your memories of India?
It is just pictures that explain why I came back so many times. India was interesting and fascinating. It took you on a journey of discovery. You were delighted and horrified. You are never bored in India. It is more of a poem. It is just things that kept me coming back again and again.
You have shot a few Indian celebrities such as MF Husain and Amitabh Bachchan. Anyone else you’d like to shoot?
Historically, of course, Gandhi. This little man changed world history, and he did it in a non-violent way. He was a powerful figure and eccentric too.
What is keeping you busy right now?
I’m working on a book about people reading around the world, in Thailand, China, etcetera. The foreword is by Theroux.
I want to do a book of people sleeping. I could do a whole book in India on that!