a conversation with national geographic photographers steve mccurry and micheal yamashita / by patrick carpenter

It’s a safe bet that most everyone older than the internet grew up within arm’s reach of a stack of National Geographic magazines. Likewise, most everyone who ever put a roll of film in a camera will likely admit to having imagined themselves photographers on some far-off, exotic assignment. But the reality is that most of us only get as far as photos of friends and families in backyards or on summer vacations, and our National Geographic dreams now arrive via the world wide web.

Mike Yamashita and Steve McCurry, two renowned National Geographic photographers, take spectacular photographs. You may not know them, but you know their work. They’ve taken you places and sharpened the way you look at the world – and they’ve been doing it at the highest levels for more than a half-century combined. You’ve probably never met them, probably wouldn’t recognize them, but that’s because their job is to be invisible, to blend in. They belong in the field, and the further afield, the better. Alone or in a crowd, at dawn or dusk, capturing the iconic moment.

More often than not, Steve and Mike take spectacular, iconic photographs of Asia -their continent of choice. They have built their reputations by building the visual standards of the magazines they have contributed to. They’re still doing it, but now they freely admit that the market, the places, and the opportunities are no longer what they once were.

It may be easier than ever to take a photograph – you don’t even need an actual camera – but it does not automatically follow that it is easier than ever to take a good photograph. Some things take time, and even in an art as instantaneous as photography, it can take a while to develop an eye, a method, a way of seeing. Technology can only take you so far, by stripping away the science and math and allowing you focus on composition and emotion. But even so, it’s still easier to take a bad photograph than a good one.

Over the course of a week of running around shooting, editing, critiquing, and generally not sleeping on a photo seminar in Bangkok (who sleeps in Bangkok anyway?), Mike and Steve took the time to share their knowledge, opinions, and experience about life and profession with a camera. What follows are excerpts from a running conversation with both of them. 

MY: Michael Yamashita

SM: Steve McCurry

Q: What makes a great photo?

MY: A good photograph is one that has great impact. It compels the reader to stop turning the page and it forces them to read the caption and then possibly they will read the story. The portrait or the landscape almost invariably in a National Geographic magazine story has a subject and a story combined - each image contains a tremendous amount of information. And the photos are not in the magazine because they are so beautiful. They are there because of their impact, because of this combination that gets you to stop and stare.

Q: How do you go about making that great photo?

SM: Go to the places that are going to yield the best photographs. It’s a combination of best personal experience and the place that will give you the best photographs. Let’s take photographing monks as an example. Everyone comes to Asia and takes photos of monks receiving alms. I’ve shot them thousands of times. The subject is a constant, but where you are going to win or lose is the background. They’re all walking, they’re all in the same clothes, so what is the determining factor is the environment. It’s the light, but more so the background. That’s the ONLY THING about that picture.

You want the highest odds. Go out and shoot those monks in Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, do it twenty or thirty times. You’ll find the highest odds are in Myanmar, when they leave the monastery. It’s a two-hour walk every day, and the background is constantly changing: up and down these incredible streets, dusty roads, all this stuff is happening every second, and people giving food are dressed in traditional outfits. So you have all these opportunities, and then if you cross the line and shoot from the other side, then you have even more. Plus, you are out at six with the morning light, so it is a win-win situation.

So if you want to make a good picture, go to the best place to do it.

Q: And then how do you frame your subject?

SM: Graphically, when you are looking at a scene, it helps to look at the elements more as shapes as opposed to trees or people or whatever it is, and try to organize those shapes into a coherent, pleasing structure or harmony. I think we look at pictures and we subliminally have our sense of what is pleasing to the eye, what has harmony, what has poetry, balance. It’s hard to articulate it, but you kind of know it when you see it: a combination of harmony and poetry, balance and emotional content.  But then when you look at a picture, and you are asking what it is about, you are looking for its emotional impact – will it make me laugh, cry? These are all elements that come together in successful picture making.

Q: Do you have any opinion on portraits with subject looking into the lens?

MY: Some of my picture editors will never publish a picture with the eyes focusing at the camera, whereas Steve’s style is to have the subject engaging with the camera. It’s a subjective thing. I have nothing against a subject’s eye contact with the camera so long as there is awareness but still a sincerity.

Q: What role does color play?

SM: I never think of myself as a color photographer. I think the strength of my pictures are in their story, in the narrative. The picture should not rely solely on color. I have no objection or dislike of a particularly beautiful color picture; I think I am trying generally more to avoid bad color than some clever depiction of color but I think it has to be more than that, it has to have a particular story or a point, as opposed to something that is just colorful. A good color photograph converted to black and white should still be a powerful statement. It should still have a powerful impact, a story.

There was a time, in my twenty years of National Geographic, where they would do a layout and all the pictures on the wall would be printed up in black and white.

Q: What of the notion that the way certain images of poverty, or war, or hardship are taken by professionals or portrayed in magazines actually make these hardships visually appealing or even romantic?

MY: The National Geographic style doesn’t publish pictures to romanticize poverty or hardship. There’s a lot of ugliness in the world, but illustrating it is not the mission of the magazine. There are a number of other sources for those stories if that is what you are looking for. We are storytellers, we are aiming to shock you with lots of storytelling ingredients in the image. And of course, there may be stories that have environmental impact, but our job is to make you look at the photograph, and not in a way that exploits suffering or portrays it as visually attractive.

Q: Can you share your typical day when working on assignment?

MY: I am always up at sunrise and always shooting through the sunset because I’m trying to maximize my chance to shoot with the best light. Photographers are paid to be lucky but we try to make our own luck by working in the best times of the day for sure. So I will have a subject to shoot – either at sunrise or sunset – and I will be in place thirty minutes before the sunrise, in the dark, to shoot the market or the monks coming down the street receiving alms or whatever it is. I want to be there before it starts just to know how it is coming together – how the boats are coming down the klongs towards the marketplace, I want to see all that traffic and photograph the whole thing as it develops. I’ll be there for whatever and however long it takes – from sunrise through to when the light is getting really hard, and when you are shooting in the tropics, 10:00am is already hard light.

Then it’s time to grab breakfast someplace nearby and to move indoors to shoot subjects that aren’t dependent on outside light: somebody’s home or some situation where I can shoot in open shade. Often this period is also the travel time; it’s the middle of the day, and I have to figure out where I need to go to be at my next destination. If there’s time, I’ll take a nap –my down time needs to be during that hard, hot light of mid-day when it’s just difficult to make pictures. Because in the late afternoon, I’m back out looking to put my subject in the best light or in the afternoon long shadows – what we call the magic hour. So they are long days. Of course now, with digital, I’ll be editing what I shot that day when I get back to my hotel that evening, catching up with any business and going over the next day’s itinerary.

Q: Why Asia?

MY: I’m Asian American and I am always coming back to this region. I blend in and I like the food – I say that I only work in countries where I can eat a bowl of rice at every meal. I started in 1989, so we’re talking over 30 years, and I’m currently working on my 32nd and 33rd stories for the National Geographic - both which are in China.

Q: One of your first major shoots in Asia for the magazine was on the Mekong shortly after the end of the Vietnam war.

MY: I did a story on the Mekong. I was the first photographer to go from the source of the river to its mouth, which of course is in the delta in Vietnam. It was in those days when we had the big assignments and it was a pivotal story for me, with a lot of pages in the magazine; I set a record at that time for double page spreads in the magazine with the story. The story was very ‘total access’, meaning not one small photo in the story, but just page after page after page of double spreads. The double page spread is my kind of picture: I always shoot horizontal, I very rarely shoot vertical, so my photos lend themselves to the spread format.

It was pivotal for me not only as a story (and it became a book) but also as one of the very first photographer-writer teams into the Vietnam delta after the war. Literally. It was not easy to get clearance to shoot in Vietnam, nor was it easy in Cambodia, and we were the first to enter Cambodia, and we were there right when King Sihanouk came back. And so there was great interest in this story and we could show everyone what this region looked like, because nobody had done anything there for some time.

For me it was very important because I am an Asian American and I tried very hard to stay out of the war, both for political reasons and for the fear that because of my features, if I went to Vietnam as a soldier, I could easily be shot by the American side by mistake. That wasn’t the first thing on my mind, but it was a consideration. But I protested against the war, along with many others of my generation, and as most young people in America who were growing up during this time, the war was a defining event in our lives us and it left impressions on who we are today. So it was a very powerful experience for me to get to travel to Vietnam for the story, and the research that went into the story, combined with the experience, made me sort of an expert on the subject, and the experience was a very personal one. And it culminated in my wife and I adopting a young Vietnamese girl, so you can see how, from many angles, the Mekong story was a pivotal one for me personally and professionally.

Q: Steve, you also did a story somewhat recently in Vietnam?

SM: My first trip to Vietnam was three years ago and I was impressed. Vietnam was such an important part of my growing up, but I found that the people had completely moved on – more perhaps than we have in America. They were very hospitable, very welcoming to me as a foreigner and as an American. I went to do a story on AIDS and I spent a lot of time outside Hanoi with four separate families in separate villages and they were most hospitable. I was with them every day for a month – two trips for two weeks.

I found it very easy to work in Vietnam because people were open to photography, to me, and there was such a strong, individual culture and I found it very inviting. I would love to go back to Vietnam because I am interested in Buddhism and I know that Vietnam has a strong Buddhist culture.

Q: So is there a future for this type of photo-storytelling?

MY: Print is dying and there are fewer magazines and newspapers to work for.  On the other hand, the ability to exhibit your work is easier than ever. There’s an internet and everyone is taking pictures like crazy and of course posting their photos and because of that the entire industry is going down, in that the professional cannot make a living anymore. Whereas in the old days, there was a filter, and the filter was the picture editor, who, as a purveyor of quality, would say this picture is good, this one is not good, this one deserves to be printed and so it was printed in some form: magazine, photography magazine, and so on.

Now, of course, anyone can put up pictures, so it is better than ever to show off your work, but the problem is that this also means there is that much more bad stuff out there and it’s burying the good stuff. Also, outlets for professional photographers like selling stock are also dying because magazines are going to the public internet sites and offering people the absolute minimum to use a particular photo in their magazine, and the people are usually happy just to be published, so they help drive down the market price and help eliminate assignments that would otherwise go to professionals.

But it’s not all bad news. At the same time, we are also seeing news magazines like Time and Newsweek ramping it up and publishing a lot more elaborate double-page spreads or full-page quality shots. It used to be that a story would be illustrated with multiple images: detailed shots, environmental shots, etc. But now what we are seeing is the single, best shot speaking for the entire story. Every story IS one picture. So there are fewer photos, but what is there is top quality, and a lot of ‘bang!’ impact. Today you just need one great picture and a caption. The rest of the information you’re getting out of the text.

Q: Are there many new or young photographers coming up through the ranks?

MY: Unfortunately, the age of the photographers is getting much older because they aren’t being replaced by younger ones coming up. When I was a young photographer in my twenties, walking the halls of the Geographic, it was much different. Now there are interns, and the college photographer of the year usually gets a shot where they are brought in and given actual work. So there is a system in place to nurture new talent…but generally speaking, no. The editors are not willing to take a chance now with unproven talent; they are hesitant to give a big story to someone they don’t feel safe in trusting and therefore these stories are given time and again to the proven professional. Because they literally cannot afford to fail. In actuality, you are never allowed to fail: You fail once, you never get another chance.

So there is no real training ground, and most magazines aren’t doing the big story anymore, stories that involve multiple countries or destinations like my story on Marco Polo, or the South China Sea - stories can take months to complete and can take you to 12-13 countries. No one thinks that way anymore.  No one gives you a year in the field.

Q: Are there opportunities for young photographers to travel with the proven professional and learn on these assignments?

MY: I and the photographers I know don’t take interns along on assignment because we require the expertise of locals who know the territory, who can interpret, and actually most of these people aren’t photographers, they’re what we call fixers: their talent is in being exceptionally well connected and knowledgeable and able to spontaneously organize the logistics so that I can get the shot I need.

SM: To me, photography is solitary. And you have to be present in the moment. You have to decide whether to go right or left. The moment you have someone next to you, you start talking and then you are outside the moment. If your mind is somewhere else, you might as well go back to the hotel. And if you are with someone, then maybe suddenly you are doing their thing and getting away from yours.

I travel with a fixer, because it increases the possibility of good work; I want to have the capability to talk to somebody for translation, setting up the agenda, etc.

Q: So then why are these seminars still so popular and what type of photographer attends your course?

MY: Usually there are some professionals, they are aspiring to work for Geographic and taking the course to improve their photography. Because they are professionals, I always tell them their job during the course is to produce print-worthy pictures, and they should also raise the bar on the daily review. But the challenge with them is that they usually come in with ingrained habits, so it can be harder to get them to take a different approach. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the true amateurs, who tend to have the biggest learning curve because they don’t know anything, they do not have any bad habits, and are the easiest to teach. And then the third group are those in-between. It’s the most diverse group because some know more than others, but they all want to know how good they are, and if they can make it as a professional. They come to the seminars to test the waters and see how their stuff compares. They can be really good, and real go-getters. They tend to be the most highly motivated in the class and they are the ones who ask the most from the teachers. 

Q: And what is the outlook you’d like them to take away from the seminar?

SM: You want to ultimately be doing pictures you believe in and sustain you and your career. It can’t just be work, because if it is, then you want to retire and I don’t want to retire. Life is too short, and I want to be in the best places taking the best photos.

You don’t want to live your life only for the photography, there has to be some enriching experience. Because if you go out shooting all day and you get no good photos, which happens all the time, you still have had a great day, great experience.  At least it was fun.  So go have fun, but go where the best opportunity for great photographs are.