“Flying low over Lake Bled, on assignment in Slovenia in February 1989, the pilot took the plane dangerously close to the water’s surface. The wheels caught and we went down, the propeller shattering as we hit the water. The plane flipped, and the fuselage began to sink in the icy lake. My seat belt was stuck, but an instinct for self-preservation kicked in and I was able to wrestle free. The pilot and I swam under the aircraft to the surface. My camera and bag are still 65 feet down.”
So begins Magnum photographer Steve McCurry’s latest book, Steve McCurry Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs (Phaidon). The book spans 30 years of McCurry’s career and includes fascinating ephemera from his travels: diary entries, photos of him at work and some of the 20-plus passports he’s gone through over the decades. McCurry survived the Slovenia plane crash, as well as armed robbers and bombings in Afghanistan, but what comes through in his images is wonder, rather than suffering. He manages to make the world seem enormous and quite small; exotic, and somehow familiar.
Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, McCurry was a wild child who preferred playing in the woods to studying. His first encounter with photography, at age 11, was through a LIFE magazine photo essay by Brian Brake on India’s monsoons.
“It just transported me to another world,” he told TIME. Inspired by photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, he knew he’d found his calling.
“My first good photograph was in Mexico City,” McCurry once told CNN. “There was a [homeless] man sleeping in front of a furniture store … below this brand-new sofa in the window. The juxtaposition was, I thought, a perfect kind of image. That’s what set me on my way to being a professional photographer.”
After graduating college, McCurry spent a few years at the Today’s Post in King of Prussia, Penn., shooting high school graduations and Kiwanis meetings, honing his skills — but he knew it wasn’t for him. He left for India in 1978, intending to stay for three months. He stayed for two years.
“India was like another planet to me,” he told CNN. “I’ve been back 80 or 90 times … and there’s still many places I haven’t seen.”
A year into his time abroad, he met Afghan refugees who told him about the brewing mujahedeen resistance to the violent pro-Russian government. He agreed to document their plight; they disguised him in traditional dress and brought him into the country illegally.
“My possessions included a plastic cup, a Swiss Army knife, two camera bodies, four lenses, a bag of film and a few packets of airline peanuts,” he recalls. The conflict — and McCurry’s professional profile — escalated dramatically when the Soviets launched a full-scale invasion. Their jets were flying “so low and close they would fill my lens,” McCurry writes. “We just prayed they wouldn’t see us and start strafing.”
As dramatic as his adventures have been, McCurry has always focused on the human cost of war, rather than conflict itself. It’s important, he says, to maintain a rigorous detachment in the face of suffering in order to do the job—and it also probably helps that he isn’t married and doesn’t have kids.
McCurry’s detachment, however, is hardly a form of callousness.
“People, wherever they are in the world, want to be respected and loved. If you respect people, doors open,” McCurry told Al Jazeera. Another key lesson is patience. He researches a place before picking up the camera, visiting five to ten villages in a given country before focusing on the most interesting one. He also rarely works alone. “I can’t stress how important it is to work with a trusted assistant or guide. That person really has your life in his hands, and he can make or break your story.”
Not all of McCurry’s work carries him into war zones. Pirelli, the Italian tire company, commissioned McCurry to shoot its 2013 calendar in Rio. Most fashion photographers shoot nude female models for these corporate calendars. McCurry’s models not only wore clothes, but he selected women associated with humanitarian causes. Commissions like this, he says, allow him to make strong work without compromising his vision.
“There’s a meditative aspect to it,” McCurry told Art Space. “When I’m walking around photographing, I get into a particular mindset where I become much more attuned to the world around me. It’s a joy to be alive, and maybe that’s what come through.”
Steve McCurry has been a photojournalist for over 30 years. He is the recipient of the Robert Capa Gold Medal, the National Press Photographers Award and four first prize awards in the World Press Photo contest. Steve McCurry Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs will be published by Phaidon in September 2013.
Myles Little is an associate photo editor at TIME.