Steve McCurry is one of America’s finest photographers and photojournalists today, known for his colorful and introspective portraits of individuals from areas of conflict, especially his image, “Afghan Girl”. He focuses on photographing people from different parts of the world and different civil and political conflicts, whether in Afghanistan, Tibet, Lebanon, or former Yugoslavia, and shows the consequences of war and violence on humans.
McCurry was in born in Philadelphia, and graduated from the College of Arts and Architecture at the Pennsylvania State University. After university, he worked at a newspaper for two years before leaving for India to freelance. It was there that he learned to observe life around him patiently and realized that “if you wait, people will forget your camera and the soul will drift up into view”.
His career in photojournalism began when he crossed the Pakistan border into rebel-controlled Afghanistan just before the Russian invasion, disguised in native clothing. He returned with rolls of film sewn into his clothes and images that won him awards around the world, such as the Robert Capa Gold Medal, National Press Photographers Award, and four first prize awards from the World Press Photo contest. He was one of the first to show the conflict there.
The photographer’s most well-known image is “Afghan Girl,” a portrait of 12-year old orphan living in a refugee camp on the Afghan-Pakistan border. The girl’s penetrating gaze caught the attention of millions around the world, and was featured on the cover of the National Geographic Magazine. Almost thirty years later, McCurry found the same girl, now a 40 year-old woman, and photographed her a second time.
Sharbat Gula, left on the cover of National Geographic in 1985, and then nearly two decades later, after she was featured in a story in the magazine about being reunited with the photographer.
Credit: Steve McCurry/National Geographic Society, via Agence France-Presse
The reason why McCurry is one of the most influential photographers today is that he knows how to tell a story with a photograph. By looking at one of his images, we can better understand the subject’s life, culture, fears, and hopes. McCurry uses color in his photography to bring to life a world different from ours and allow us to imagine the landscape and people of an area on the other side of the planet. He brings together different elements, from clothing and color to facial expressions, to allow the viewer to interpret the photograph. For example, everyone who sees “Afghan Girl” remembers her green eyes, which look directly at the camera and show us her world. McCurry’s secret is to focus on each picture and make sure it has its own meaning:
introspective - thoughtful
conflict - argument or disagreement between two groups, can become violent
consequences - effects
freelance - working for different companies at different times instead of just one company
observe - watch closely
patiently - taking time
“the soul will drift up into view” - you will be able to see a person’s spirit
cross - to go on the other side
border - a line separating two countries
invasion - takeover of one group or country by another
disguised - hidden
orphan - a child whose parents are dead
penetrating gaze - a fixed look that is felt by the person looking at the look
subject - the person being photographed
facial expression - motions of muscles on face, which show a person’s emotions
assignment - a piece of work given to someone to do
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Yuri Nesen is a student at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Washington, D.C. studying Global Business, Diplomatic Studies, and Arabic. He enjoys watching animated movies, running and exploring new places, and he is a complete dessert fanatic.