In 1968 he started studying film history cinematography and filmmaking at Penn State, but ended up getting a degree in theater arts and graduating cum laude in 1974. His interest in photography steamed from taking photographs at Penn State for their newspaper, The Dailey Collegian.
His photojournalism career began with his coverage of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. He disguised himself in native dress and sewed his film into his clothes in order to hide it. His images were among the first of the conflict and were widely published. His coverage won the Robert Capa Gold Medal for Best Photographic Reporting from Abroad.
McCurry continued to cover international conflicts and his work has been featured worldwide in magazines and he is a frequent contributor to National Geographic. He has been a member of Magnum Photos since 1986.