The life behind the lens


COVER STORY:From the Afghan refugee camps of the 1980s to the panic-stricken streets around Ground Zero, Magnum photographer Steve McCurry has captured images that shed light on the human condition. LAURENCE MACKINspeaks to him as the Gallery of Photography celebrates his work

N 1984, photographer Steve McCurry was working in a refugee camp in Pakistan, photographing the Afghans who lived there, having fled the Soviet invasion of their country. He ducked into a school tent and noticed one girl, perhaps the shyest, whom he photographed last.

“I didn’t think the photograph of the girl would be different from anything else I shot that day,” he said later. The image, however, came to define the magazine he worked for, National Geographic, and for many, it embodied the entire conflict: the still, quiet rage of a displaced person locked into her searing green eyes, the girl’s youth sharply contrasting with her dignity and barely concealed, almost haughty fury. It is tragic and mesmerising, and has since become one of the most recognisable photographs on the planet.

“We had thousands of enquiries about her and about what happened to her, and how people could help her, so there was a real big mystery around whatever happened to her,” says McCurry. “Generally you photograph people and there is not that continual interest. it seemed like almost every day we would get some sort of letter or query, it was something that was always present. We really wanted to find her.”

So 17 years later, McCurry and a team returned to the camp to try to find the girl – and find her they did, after tracing her from the camp to her home in the Tora Bora mountains.

“The fact that we were able to find her was a miracle, a little girl in the middle of Afghanistan – it was really unheard of.”

At this stage, McCurry was already regarded as one of the finest photographers in the business, and this was a crowning achievement.

The narrative of the Afghan girl, Sharbat Gula, is irresistible, but for photographers it is McCurry’s genius with his camera that is the real story. When we speak, he is in India, continuing to do what he has done for decades – “wandering around the world that we live in and photographing it, little vignettes of life and serendipitous moments that shed light on the human condition or comment on the world, I guess.”

McCurry was born in Philadelphia and graduated from the College of Arts and Architecture at Pennsylvania State University. He worked at a newspaper for two years before heading to India to freelance, and it was here that he began to develop his watch and wait philosophy to photography. From there, he travelled covertly into Afghanistan during the Russian invasion, smuggling out rolls of film sewn into his clothes, which went on to win the first of many awards for his work, and in 1986 he joined the prestigious Magnum photography agency.

Now 60, McCurry has lost none of his enthusiasm for his work or for his office. “We live in the world for such a short amount of time and to be able to wander and explore the world and to appreciate it, to have this adventure of travel and visiting different cultures and seeing this planet we live in, is about the most important thing I can do in my life.”

McCurry’s photographs have a luminosity and a colour treatment that is as individual as a Dutch master painter’s strokes. He has been closely associated with the now obsolete Kodachrome film produced by Kodak – it was the format he used to shoot Sharbat Gula. It had attained cult status among photographers for its rich hues and vibrant textures (in Utah, there is a state park named after it), and when Kodak announced it would discontinue the product in 2009, citing falling demand, it decided to give the last roll to McCurry, as a particularly satisfying coda.

So when the end was nigh, did McCurry scurry around trying to buy up as many rolls as possible? “No,” he laughs, “I had already moved on to digital, although I had an occasional film.” Avert your eyes, film purists – for Steve McCurry has long been on the record as claiming digital as the superior format.

“The most important thing is the quality. I totally believe the image quality is as good as film; if I thought I wasn’t getting the results, I wouldn’t have switched,” he affirms. “Being able to shoot in extremely low light and work around colour temperature and be able to review your pictures as you shoot, and evaluate the light and composition, the moment, the focus, all of these things is a major deal. To be able to see if you’re getting what you want as opposed to waiting . . . in many cases I was out for months, sometimes for six months, without seeing what was taken.”

If digital seems like a more hassle-free existence, think again.

“Shooting with a client now, the client wants to see the work as you’re shooting and may want jpegs [images] sent back to their home office. They even want some kind of post-production done in the field. The days of going to shoot and then going for a rest and having a night off are gone. Now you are in your hotel on your own, spending an hour or two or three doing all that post-production.”

It sounds like a lonely existence, and McCurry, like many photographers, seems to struggle to explain what it is he is after.

But this is understandable; the answers are in the pictures themselves, from the terrifying scale and symmetry of a ship breaker’s yard in Pakistan, the Dantesque vision of the Al Ahmadi Oil Fields in Kuwait in 1991, or the heartbreaking humanity of a begging mother and child at a car window in India.

The point, he maintains, is “to just observe, to slow down and really look at things and really appreciate things, simple things, things we would walk by and not notice because we are not appreciating the moment we live in. What else is more important than simply enjoying just our time here and making some observations along the way?”

This sounds well-reasoned and even idyllic, but McCurry’s career has taken him to some of the most dangerous regions in the world.

“All of my time in Afghanistan was spent with the mujahideen who were fighting the Russians. I went in about 30 times and probably half of those times were after the fall of the government in the 1990s and in 2001.”

In 2001, though, he found the story coming to his hometown of New York City. “I felt more like a victim, this situation, this tragedy happened in my neighbourhood, and the smell came up to my building. The plane had flown not very far from my apartment, following the Hudson river very close, so I felt like we had all been personally attacked.

“I went down to Ground Zero and spent virtually the whole day there, photographing the aftermath. It was like a nightmare, like suddenly . . . our brains were overloaded and you were in a state of denial that this power was suddenly gone; it seemed impossible. We didn’t have any information so you walked down towards the towers, you didn’t know the extent of the damage. When I got there, it seemed like the whole of lower Manhattan had been destroyed. This was a situation you simply couldn’t believe; it seemed like a dream. For weeks afterwards the smell of the fires came up to my apartment. It was a completely life-changing event.”

And so McCurry worked, shooting frame after frame, just like he has in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and in countless other areas around the world. Again he struggles to put it into words, but we have his astounding, eloquent photographs to tell the stories.

A gallery of Steve McCurry photographs is available at: