Steve McCurry is a household name the world over, primarily for the photograph he
made of the orphaned 12-year old Afghanistan girl named Sharbat Gula which graced the
cover of National Geographic in June 1985. She became known as 'the Afghan Girl' because at
that time her name was not known - she was just a refugee, one of the Muhajir Afghans in South Asia
who fled their country after the Soviet invasion of 1979 and the long civil war that followed.
It was another 17 years before the girl was identified when McCurry returned to Afghanistan to
look for her using a reconstruction of the original image which a forensic expert had 'aged' electronically
to give an idea of what she might look like. Someone recognised her and a meeting was arranged between the
now 29-year old married woman with children of her own, and McCurry. She agreed to have her picture
taken again and National Geographic confirmed it was the same person by using iris recognition software. They
also offered financial assistance for the education of her daughters and general assistance for her
Steve McCurry's career started before that when he went to India as a freelance photojournalist and
crossed over the border into Pakistan which was controlled by rebels. This was just before the
Russian invasion, and the images McCurry brought back were among the first to show the conflict
to the rest of the world and won him the Robert Capa Gold Medal for Best Photographic Reporting from
National Geographic: The Photographs
Other conflicts which McCurry has covered include the Iran-Iraq War, Beirut, Cambodia, the Gulf
War, and more recently he as covered Angkor Wat, Kashmir, Burma, Sri Lanka and the collapse of the
World Trade Center in the terrorist atttack of 9/11 in New York. His work has won him many awards
including Magazine Photographer of the Year (1984), the World Press Photo Contest 1st Prize (four
times) and the Olivier-Rebbot Memorial Award twice.
He says that he "tries to convey what it is like to be a person caught in a broader landscape,
that I guess you'll call the human condition". But like
and Don McCullin, his photos
show the human condition changed by devestating circumstances such as war and famine but in a way
that is disturbingly beautiful. This is particular true of McCurry's portraits and the way in
which he uses colour as in, for example, the image below which shows McCurry alongside another of
his famous portraits known as The Red Boy.
Photo by Arupkamal via Wikimedia Commons
Like The Afghan Girl, Steve McCurry's subject has been captured by the camera at a point in time which
shows the same sort of seriousness and intensity. McCurry says: "Most of my images are
grounded in people. I look for the unguarded moment, the essential soul peeking out, experience
etched on a person's face."
Steve McCurry: The Unguarded Moment
In fact, the phrase 'the unguarded moment', is so often used by McCurry that it became
the title of a book, the cover of which you can see above.
"The Unguarded Moment" is a series of photographs of people living their ordinary, everyday
lives but in extraordinary circumstances such as the five young monks with their
hand-held computer games and toy gun (see below). The book also includes portraits of a
Tuareg woman in Mali, a gypsy boy in Marseille and pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, to
name just a few of the superb portraits that McCurry conjours up for us.
Two more images by McCurry demonstrate the compelling quality of his photos and why he
is now so famous for his portraiture, images which are never posed, looking like snapshots
almost, captured in the same spirit as
Cartier-Bresson's 'decisive moment' when the eye, the
hand and the heart line up in a portrayal of universally recognisable emotion.
I recommend the following books by Steve McCurry:
The Imperial Way : By Rail from Peshawar to Chittagong
1985), which contains 82 illustrations by McCurry showing the people, stations and landscapes
that he saw while traveling by train from northwestern Pakistan, through northern India,
to the southeastern corner of Bangladesh;
(2000), containing over 100 photographs of carved gods, weathered masonry, tangled vegetation and
orange-robed monks of the impressive temples and magical world of Angkor in Cambodia; and
(2005), a monograph on McCurry following a chronological order, which identifies major themes and looks
at key works.
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