Published: April 2002
Steve McCurry

What was your best experience on this assignment?

Meeting the Dalai Lama in Mysore, India, was definitely the high point of the assignment for me. I photographed him interacting with farmers, teachers, students, and a variety of other Tibetans. I also had a one-on-one portrait session with him inside one of the monasteries. He's probably the most famous person in all of South Asia, but he's very down to earth and approachable. He is as genuinely interested in the smallest person as he is in someone of prominence. He is a compassionate man with a quaint sense of humor. The Tibetan people see him as the embodiment of compassion and at the same time something of a father figure. While we were together, he gave me his full undivided attention. He never made me feel that he had something more important to do than to be with me in the moment.

What was the worst?

I was entering a hotel in Xining, China. The winds were very high that day, so I had to lean against the eight-foot-high (two-meter-high) door to open it. I don't know if the door was faulty or the wind caught it in an odd way, but the whole thing just crashed down on me. Big shards of glass shattered around me. I fell to the ground with excruciating pain in my elbow. The doorman, receptionist, and hotel manager all ran out and were hovering over me, speaking Chinese and wearing worried looks on their faces. I thought they were trying to give me money for treatment at a hospital. I told my interpreter, "They don’t have to give me money. I just need to go to a hospital." Then my interpreter said, "No, you don’t understand. They want you to pay for the door." That was amazing! If that had happened anywhere else, the hotel would have been sued. But the attitude in China was very different. I could have been seriously injured or killed, but the hotel staff seemed to care more about their door. I ended up flying back to New York to have surgery on my broken elbow.

And the quirkiest?

I was driving along a road in Tibet when I came upon a large movie crew, including about 300 real soldiers in period uniforms. It turned out that they were filming a movie on the Chinese liberation of Tibet, an event that Tibetans see more as an occupation. The article deals with the situation in Tibet during its recent past and today. It was surreal to see that pivotal time reenacted right in front of me and completely by chance.