TIME LightBox talks to Steve McCurry as part of our series “The Photo That Made Me”, in which photographers tell us about the one photograph they made that they believe jump-started their career, garnered them international attention, or simply reflected their early interest in photography.
This is Mexico City in 1972, two years before I started working for a newspaper in Philadelphia. I took a semester off from Penn State to travel through Central America and Mexico and photograph. I was taking an independent study class, but it wasn’t about the class, it was about going down there and wandering around, exploring.
I came across this homeless man lying on the street below this very comfortable, fancy sofa in a store window. I thought it was ironic that here he is curled up on the street and there’s a whole other world that he can’t participate in juxtaposed right above him.
At this point, I was really struggling to find the right image. This was one of my earliest situations that I personally felt was successful. And it really encouraged me. The photographers that I’d admired and respected when I first started discovering the world of photography were Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, André Kertész, and much of their work was about wandering and exploring and observing. It was capturing life as it unfolds.
This picture of mine embodies simply walking out in the street and being curious and observant and seeing things which one wouldn’t see if you weren’t photographing or paying attention. When you start looking and slowing down, there are all sorts of wonderful things that you see which you would miss otherwise.
This isn’t some grand epiphany, but I think that this picture symbolizes my sensing that this kind of work was what I wanted to pursue. It’s hard to pick one picture that makes you who you are as a photographer. Certainly the Afghan Girl was an obvious choice, but I was already a number of years into my career when I took that picture. To me, it’s more about something that you think is successful and you get a certain amount of joy from.
Just weeks after this trip to Mexico, I came to New York City and showed this body of work to [photographer] Lisette Model (at that point she was in her 80s) and she was very encouraging and complimentary. Within a year, I decided to embark on a lifelong quest to do this. I always knew I wanted to travel and then suddenly I found a purpose and it was a perfect match.
Steve McCurry is a multi-award winning photojournalist whose work frequently appears in National Geographic and has been featured in major magazines worldwide.
As told to Marisa Schwartz, Associate Photo Editor at TIME.com, with extra reporting from Tanner Curtis