“There’s a contemplative or meditative quality to photography, which I find to be a sort of peaceful state. When I’m walking around photographing, I get into a particular mindset where I become much more attuned to the world around me. It’s a joy to be alive, and maybe that’s what comes through. ... When I am photographing, that is the zone I am in. I look at my surroundings and see what is different and special about the place. I want to examine, explore and see what stands out. ... It’s the appreciation for that moment in time and appreciation for the planet.” (Interview with Steve McCurry by designboom español. Mexico City, 2015)
The Afghan Girl is McCurry’s most familiar photograph, and, after it was the cover image of its June 1985 issue, it eventually became the most recognized photograph in the history of the National Geographic magazine.
In 1984, McCurry was on assignment for National Geographic to photograph the growing numbers of refugee camps along the Afghan-Pakistan border as a result of the war in Afghanistan. Walking around the Nasir Bagh camp, he heard voices coming from one tent and realized that a school for girls was in session. He asked the teacher if he might take some pictures, and she agreed.
“I spotted this young girl, whose name I learned years later was Sharbat Gula. She had an intense, haunted look, a really penetrating gaze – and yet she was only about twelve years old. … There must have been about fifteen girls there. They were all very young, and they were doing what school children do all over the world – running around, making noise and stirring up a lot of dust. But in that brief moment when I photographed Gula I didn’t hear the noise or see the other kids. It was very powerful. … After a few moments she got up and walked away, but for an instant everything was right – the light, the background, the expression in her eyes.” (Steve McCurry. Untold: the stories behind the photographs. Phaidon Press, 2013. Page 75)
McCurry did not see any of his Afghan photographs until months later, when he returned to New York, so it was not until then that he realized how strong his image of Gula was. He discovered that “There’s a quality to the picture, an ambiguity in her expression, that is intensely striking. Not quite a smile, not quite a frown, a mixture of curiosity and wariness in her eyes that people respond to.” (Untold Stories p.76)
The Afghan Girl is a reminder of the continuing world-wide refugee crisis that is now spilling into Europe.
McCurry has been one of the most iconic voices in contemporary photography for more than thirty years, with scores of magazine and book covers, over a dozen books, and countless exhibitions around the world to his name. (Steve McCurry web site.)
Post by Karin Borei, HMA Project Coordinator, writer and editor as needed, and HMA blogger since our blog's inception in March 2015.