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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.”