Steve McCurry’s photos show the complex relationship between humans and animals

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Steve McCurry has achieved legendary status with his documentary photography, and is perhaps best known for his portrait of the “Afghan Girl” with the piercing green eyes published in 1985.

But the influential American photographer, who has built his career around his daring coverage of armed conflict, has a lesser known passion: animals.

They are the subject of a new book simply called “Steve McCurry. Animals,” published by Taschen.

The book compiles the photographer’s favorite photos, from cats in Myanmar to camels in Jordan.

“Animals are one of my favorite subjects to shoot; they are completely unpredictable,” said McCurry in an email.

“Animals are in constant motion, have a mind of their own and rarely pay any attention to directions from a photographer. Understanding animal behavior is essential to making good animal photographs, just as understanding human behavior can help with taking someone’s portrait,” he said.

The idea of photographing animals and people has been on McCurry’s mind since he started out as a young photographer. His sister gifted him his first photo book, a collection of pictures of dogs and their owners by Elliott Erwitt, titled “Son of Bitch.”

“It was the first time I saw a book on animals with humor, pathos and wonderful storytelling,” he said.

Tourists lounge poolside as an elephant passes in Bencota, Sri Lanka. 1995. Credit: © 2019 Steve McCurry, Long Island City, NY

The images in McCurry’s new book take readers on a visual journey from Asia to South America, North America and Europe. Many of the photos include human subjects, but those that don’t hint at the presence of humans, or at least what they’ve left behind.

One of the most striking shots, winner of the 1992 World Press Photo award, was taken in Kuwait at the end of the first Gulf War. It shows three camels looking for food and water while a massive fire rages in the background. Former Iraq president Saddam Hussein had ordered his soldiers to set oil fields alight, creating an ecological disaster.

© 2019 Steve McCurry, Long Island City, NY

“Working in Kuwait in the aftermath of the first Gulf War was a surreal and unforgettable experience,” said McCurry. “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 animals, which we were supposed to be guardians of. Those animals that escaped slaughter were abandoned and left to wander the streets looking for food and shelter.”

McCurry’s collection extends far beyond war zones, to designer dogs in Beverly Hills, race horses in Hong Kong and goats in northern Pakistan.

A man walks with a herd of sheep near Magdeburg, in the former German Democratic Republic, DDR, 1989.

A man walks with a herd of sheep near Magdeburg, in the former German Democratic Republic, DDR, 1989. Credit: © 2019 Steve McCurry, Long Island City, NY

One he particularly likes is that of a 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,” he said.

© 2019 Steve McCurry, Long Island City, NY

The wide range of countries and cultures represented in the images reflect different cultural attitudes towards animals and pets.

Many of us believe that dogs are man’s best friends, but in some cultures they are viewed as dirty and unclean. In other cultures, dogs are even a delicacy,” McCurry said.

“Cows are sacred in India, but in other parts of the world, beef symbolizes pride in their cattle industry. These disparities are often difficult to understand, but it is important to understand the sensibility and sensitivities in each geographic region, in order to have a full understanding of the local culture.”

A boy rests against a cow in Kathmandu, Nepal, 2013. Cows are the national animal in Nepal, where they roam freely and are considered sacred by the 80% of the population.

A boy rests against a cow in Kathmandu, Nepal, 2013. Cows are the national animal in Nepal, where they roam freely and are considered sacred by the 80% of the population. Credit: © 2019 Steve McCurry, Long Island City, NY

McCurry hopes, too, that his images will inspire a greater respect for animals, and a desire to address the dire predictions of mass extinction caused by human activity.

“This is an unimaginable catastrophe, but one that is sadly coming to fruition. We are losing species every year; wildlife is being decimated to the point where in a few years some species will cease to exist in their natural habitats.”

A Mahout and his elephant at a sanctuary. Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2010.

A Mahout and his elephant at a sanctuary. Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2010. Credit: © 2019 Steve McCurry, Long Island City, NY

His comments about the climate crisis suggest a certain exasperation about the lack of action by governments worldwide to address the problem. He believes inaction on climate will lead to other alarming consequences for both people and animals.

“The warming climate is a major driver that is exacerbating the effects of overfishing, widespread pesticide use, pollution and urban expansion into the natural world,” he said.

A man reads the newspaper with his dog outside a restaurant in Rome, Italy, 1994.

A man reads the newspaper with his dog outside a restaurant in Rome, Italy, 1994. Credit: © 2019 Steve McCurry, Long Island City, NY

The book contains almost no text. The large images are only captioned with the place and date, and rarely interspersed with quotes from the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, Immanuel Kant and William Shakespeare. Only at the end of the book readers can find a more detailed caption for each image with a few words on its background.

“I think people see a picture and make up their own story, a fantasy about the meaning of the image,” explained McCurry.

“And sometimes their own interpretation is actually more interesting than the actual story.”

Steve McCurry. Animals” is published by Taschen.

Top image: A snow monkey in Jigokudani Yaen-koen park, Japan, 2018.

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