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Paul Theroux: What was your impression of Rio – things you loved, things you wanted to emphasize?
Steve McCurry: I had been to Rio twice before, during Carnival – it was fun, lots of dancing, very sensuous, and hot. On another occasion I was on that hill overlooking Rio that you see in the calendar and just by chance found that again, with the capoeira. The first time I was in Rio it seemed to me mythic, with mountains, beaches, and incredible light. It is one of the world’s greatest cityscapes. Nothing comes remotely close to Rio. There’s one particular neighborhood called Lapa, a very funky location, with people hanging out at night, lots of seedy hotels, and graffiti, and it’s adjacent to the Santa Teresa neighborhood with its old tramlines. This interested me more than the beaches and Copacabana, I found the smaller neighborhoods more visually interesting.
Visually interesting in what way?
The quality of light, the moodiness, the mystery - these were more accentuated at night. I have always gravitated towards dark, moody lighting situations. I rarely photograph in bright light or during the day. I like shadowy, muted situations where there’s subtle contrast in the color palette, and where there’s light from shops and houses and streetlights.
Wasn’t it strange for you, working with models?
Some of the women were models, but this is about their charities, and so I wasn’t photographing them naked. It’s not about their bodies. Or their sexuality. You can do sexy shots anywhere, including the lobby of a hotel. For what I was trying to do I needed setting, background, a sense of atmosphere. I was creating a scene – a foreground, a background, a sense of place. What is it about Rio that makes it Rio? The graffiti, the bars, the bodegas, the incredible light, the shape of the aqueduct, the neighborhood, the shadowy sexy girl walking up the aqueduct. There’s’ a lot of street life, bars spill into the street. I liked that.
Also the time of day?
Yes. Take that shot of the model sitting in the doorway, with the graffiti of the Brazilian flag, and the woman at the window. It’s a whole scene. When I saw that flag I thought it would be fun to play with the colors of the flag – green and yellow, the dominant colors, that color scheme emerges. It was raining heavily that whole night, and that gave a wonderful sheen to the street. I started at about 8 at night and I shot for about four hours, because we needed tarps for the rain. I had the model for the whole day but I wanted to shoot at night rather than during the day. She’s a top model but she’s sitting in a narrow doorway, with families and kids brushing up against her wearing wet raincoats, and she’s probably thinking “What did I get myself into?” Because I was across the street shooting, fifty feet away, she couldn't see me. I had a tarp over me, and there were all these people coming and going. I just loved it, especially that woman hanging out of the window.
How is it different – photographing people who are actually posing for you?
My hope and expectation was to photograph these models as real people. They’re professional models, they pose, they can’t help themselves. They start to do their moves. In fashion they need to show their clothes off in the best possible way, so what they’re doing is giving themselves a particular look, hands behind the head, to dramatize the clothes. But I was trying to photograph them as real people without all the razzmatazz. That was one thought. On the other hand, that’s what they do – they’re performers. I thought: Let them do it, they’re beautiful, playful, they know how to look, a lot of it was my photographing them doing their thing, but trying to dial it back – the moves, the drama, the posing - to make it more real. As a street photographer – photographing people you want to get a range of emotions.
Is that how you describe yourself, ‘a street photographer’?
Yes, I would say I am a street photographer doing “found situations” and the most interesting way to work is to walk down the street, capturing life as it unfolds, by chance.
What challenges did you face in Rio?
They said there was a security thing, but we were in a big crew. We were in a favella for two days and had no problems. Three of the favellas I went into were safe to the point where we had no security, no guns – we were free. I felt safe. I wanted to shoot in a favella, like a slum in India, damp, crowded, dark, people on the street, hanging out - that's what I loved.
What about the crowds?
That's happened my whole life. If you stop in India a crowd gathers, but it doesn’t faze me at all. Working on the street in all that chaos doesn't affect me. It kind of like being in a storm – but in a cocoon in a storm. One thing that is always a challenge is that you’re working against time – you start to shoot and it all has to happen in a two-hour period. It’s the world of hair and make up and location, and a model that might have to catch a plane. So it all has to come together rather quickly. But it has to be your vision. You have to be true to your own inner voice. It’s all intuitive, all done by instinct, and if you lose your way, you’re lost. You’re walking around a village or a city, and the adventure is: Do you go left or right? But you follow your nose. You’re exploring. You want to do it on your own terms and in your own way. Some of those streets are a dead end, but eventually you find something, the happy accident and you find your best situations.
I was moved by the image of the girl at the stall selling peppers.
She was a girl I happened upon, not a model. I shoot a lot of pictures. I look for an in-between moment, where there’s a sense of tension in the picture. When people are kind of at rest. If they’re moving I want to get a sense of movement in a picture. So it’s not static. I want to capture how people move, or how they position themselves, the infinite variations of that. I want something natural and real and authentic, as much as possible. I shot maybe fifty of that one girl.
You’re well known for walking into Afghanistan in 1979. What impelled you to take that very dangerous trip?
It seemed an important thing to do, an adventure, a great opportunity to witness life in a remote part of the Hindu Kush. I was also looking at the Kalash people near Chitral, about two days north of Peshawar in a remote valley. They were not Muslim, but sort of pagans you might say and I spent some time with them. They were way in the hills. They’re probably still there, hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Probably not more than a few thousand of them now. I was in Afghanistan a month on the first trip. Then went back in August, and made more pictures. This was in Kunar in Nuristan – everywhere we went we walked. People were dressed in much more traditional way than now, and for weapons they had old Enfield rifles.
What was your big breakthrough as a photographer?
It was in 1980 when those Afghanistan pictures started being published in Geo, Stern, and Paris Match. The pictures of Afghans fighting against their own government. I had a big spread in American Photographer of Afghan portraits. The New York Times picked up some of them, and used them prominently, on the front page. That was cool. The pictures were months old, but the were historic.
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