Interview: Steve McCurry Captures Human Connection to Animals Around the World

Mahout and His Elephant at a Sanctuary. Chiang Mai by Steve McCurry

Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2010.
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For over forty years, legendary photographer Steve McCurry has been traveling the world and documenting the human condition through his iconic images. Invariably, his attention turned not only to humans and the way that they behave, but also to the animals that surrounds us. Most importantly, McCurry's interest in the complex relationship between animals, humans, and their environment was apparent in his photography. Steve McCurry. Animals, published by Taschen, is an anthology that gives a different glimpse of the iconic photographer's oeuvre while providing an interesting look at how we interact with animals.

From the unbreakable bond between man and pet to heartbreaking scenes of animals at risk, Animals brings depth and humanity to complex situations in a way that only Steve McCurry can achieve. Across more than 200 pages, McCurry's honest and moving photography speaks for itself. The images take center stage, with literary phrases relating to animals scattered throughout.

It's only when one reaches the conclusion of Animals that the secrets of McCurry's photographs are revealed. A full section of captions at the back of the book places each photograph in context, allowing the image layout to serve as a visual feast free from distraction.

We had the privilege to speak with Steve McCurry about his new book and his fascination with photographing animals. He also reveals some of his most memorable images from the book. Read on for My Modern Met's exclusive interview and pick up your copy of Steve McCurry. Animals at any major bookstore or online.

Boy Rests Against a Cow in Kathmandu, Nepal by Steve McCurry

Kathmandu, Nepal, 2013.

Man with His Falcon in Mongolia by Steve McCurry

Altai Region, Mongolia, 2018.

What is it about animals that have fascinated you throughout your life?

The idea of photographing animals and people may have been planted in my mind since I was first starting out as a young photographer. My sister gave me my first photo book, Son of a Bitch, a collection of pictures of dogs and their humans by the great photographer and friend Elliott Erwitt. It was the first time I saw a photo book with humor, pathos, and wonderful storytelling; I’ve been inspired ever since.

Woman feeding doves near Blue Mosque in Afghanistan by Steve McCurry

Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, 1991.

Boy with his Pet Rat in Galapagos by Steve McCurry

Chennai, India, 1996.

Why was now the right time to publish this collection of images?

I was going through my archive of photographs and noticed I had hundreds of pictures of animals. It’s a topic I’ve always been interested in, and have noticed within the past number of years that society is changing vis-a-vis our responsibility to animals. For example, years ago, the idea of emotional support animals would have seemed strange. Today, no one blinks an eye when they see people on airplanes with animals.

A girl of the Kara tribe holds a rooster by Steve McCurry

Omo Valley, Ethiopia, 2013.

Tourists lounge poolside as elephant passes in Sri Lanka by Steve McCurry

Bentota, Sri Lanka, 1995.

Are there any common threads you've noticed about our human relationships with animals after photographing so many encounters around the world?

I’ve noticed that humans need to be more aware of animal conditions. The situation for wildlife is becoming increasingly more perilous; so many species are facing extinction. Wildlife is being decimated to the point where, in a few years, some species will cease to exist in their natural habitats.

Camels Amid Burning Oil Field in Kuwait by Steve McCurry

Al Ahmadi, Kuwait, 1991.

Are there any particular photographs from the book or experiences that stick out?

Working in Kuwait in the aftermath of the first Gulf War was a surreal and unforgettable experience. There were 600 oil fields burning, panicked and starved animals were wandering about, and the landscape was dotted with dead Iraqi soldiers. It was heartbreaking to see these dying animals, which we were supposed to be guardians of. Those animals that were able to escape slaughter were abandoned and left to wander the streets looking for food and shelter.

Man holds a dog in front of a car in Kabul by Steve McCurry

Kabul, Afghanistan, 1992.

(continued) I remember photographing a man with his dog by his taxi which was destroyed when the building collapsed during a shelling in Kabul. The man was holding his dog tight while pondering the future. It was heartbreaking to see the man lose his only source of income.

 Monk and Cat in Aranyaprathet, Thailand by Steve McCurry

Aranyaprathet, Thailand, 1998.

(continued) I photographed this novice monk studying Buddhist writings in the late afternoon at a monastery in Aranyaprathet, Thailand, near the border with Cambodia. I watched the changing light as the monks went about both the mundane and sacred duties of their day. With the simple use of wood and fabric, of shades of saffron from mustard gold to deep orange, their environment was serene. The patient cat completed the scene of contemplation and peace.

Young Tibetan Nomad with his Goat by Steve McCurry

Litang, Tibet, 2001.

Man and his Dog in Rome by Steve McCurry

Rome, Italy, 1994.

What are the biggest lessons you think animals can teach us as human beings?

We humans can learn a lot about forgiveness and loyalty. Our family had a dog when I was growing up, and he was always waiting to greet us when we walked in the door and forgave us for making him wait to go outside and run. He was a member of the family and happily squeezed in the car for long trips even though it was crowded with people, suitcases, snacks, and more. Just being with us was a joy for him, and of course, we felt joy by having him with us.

Snow monkey in Jigokudani Yaen-koen park, Japan by Steve McCurry

Yamanouchi, Japan, 2018.

 A man walks with a herd of sheep in Germany by Steve McCurry

Magdeburg, Germany, 1989.

Mother and Child on Tonle Sap. Cambodia by Steve McCurry

Tonlé Sap, Cambodia, 1996.

What do you hope people take away from the book?

It is my hope that people will see animals as intelligent beings that deserve our love and respect. In most cases, our pets are totally dependent on us for their survival and safety. It’s our duty to protect them like our own children. Since we often create a special bond with certain animals, I would hope people should treat them with the care they deserve.

Steve McCurry. Animals explores the complex relationship between humans and animals around the world.

Steve McCurry Animals

Steve McCurry: Website | Facebook | Instagram

All images © 2019 Steve McCurry, Long Island City, NY. My Modern Met granted permission to feature photos by Taschen.

Related Articles:

Steve McCurry Shares His Philosophy on What Makes a Good Portrait

Steve McCurry’s Most Beautiful and Powerful Photo Stories

Improve Your Photography Skills with These 9 Photo Composition Tips by Steve McCurry

Steve McCurry Retrospective Presents 150 Striking Portraits of People and Cultures Around the World

Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Staff Editor and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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