Anne Darling Photography

Steve McCurry (1950-)

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 family.

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 Abroad.

steve mccurry afghan girl national geographic cover

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 James Nachtwey 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.

steve mccurry

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

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.

steve mccurry

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.

steve mccurry

steve mccurry

Recommended Reading

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;
  • South Southeast (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
  • Steve McCurry (2005), a monograph on McCurry following a chronological order, which identifies major themes and looks at key works.

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