If you travel around the world–like the photographer Steve McCurry–one thing you’ll always encounter is people reading. Whether under a tree, in a crowded subway car, or curled up at home, it’s one human experience that is instantly recognizable and, for the 83% of the world’s population that is literate, relatable.
“These are pictures I think that we can all relate to,” McCurry says. “It’s a tribe of people around the world, readers.”
McCurry has worked as a travel photographer for nearly 30 years, most of which he’s spent traveling around the world capturing humanity through portraits of people from incredibly diverse backgrounds. (Perhaps his most famous photograph, Afghan Girl, was published on the cover of National Geographic in 1985.) But his new book, On Reading, doesn’t capture any one particular region’s citizens. Instead, it is a beautiful, humanizing look at readers across the globe.
About 10 years ago, McCurry came across a book from 1971 by the Hungarian photographer André Kertész, who’d put together images of people reading taken over a 50-year period. He was inspired to create a similar work in homage to the photographer.
McCurry says he’d always been interested in taking pictures of people participating in universal human experiences, like sleeping and reading, so he’d naturally built up an archive of images of the world’s readers. He remembers taking a picture of some kids reading in China back in 1984, more than 30 years ago, and marveled at how they could be kids today. He began to make more of a point of taking pictures of people reading on his extensive travels, and they’ve now been compiled into On Reading.
The collection of photographs covers more than 20 years, and the images capture a certain timelessness. In one, a woman in a Brazilian library pauses to read as she stands on a ladder; in Burma, a young boy lays on a street corner, a cushion supporting his elbows, his nose in a book.
In a time of social media and ever-present video, reading physical books remains a deeply rooted pastime, despite those who believed the internet would kill printed books and publications. Even bookstores are –because, it turns out, there’s nothing quite like holding a book in your hands.
“When you read, you’re taken to another place, you’re on a journey,” McCurry says. “It’s an activity but it’s also a meditation, relaxing, somehow. I think it’s a great endeavor, a great activity.”
When we spoke McCurry was hopping on a plane to Italy the same evening, on to his latest journey. His next stops were Ohio, then Munich, then back to Italy and on to Moscow. He hopes to travel soon to Iran, Madagascar, Kyrgyzstan, and Iceland.
One of the things that drew the photographer to the world’s readers is the sense of commonality he feels with them. His images speak to a great faith in human nature. “People get up in the morning all over the world, basically, do our ritual, and we go off to work, and, at the end of the day or the weekend, we try to eke out a little bit of joy, a bit of pleasure,” he says. “We all want to be loved and respected, whether you’re a taxi driver in Bombay or L.A. or South Africa. We have more in common than differences.”
As C.S. Lewis once said, in an epigraph printed at the front of the book, “We read to know we’re not alone.”
[All Photos: © Steve McCurry/courtesy Phaidon]