In a digital press conference to introduce his photo exhibition at Leica’s Ernst Leitz Museum, award-winning photographer Steve McCurry talks about the future of photography and his iconic photo of the green-eyed Afghan Girl
A young and restless photojournalist from Philadelphia, Steve McCurry left his newspaper job in the late 70s and bought a one-way ticket to India, his first trip out of the US, to explore South Asia.
This two-year walkabout somehow led him to the border of Pakistan where he met a small group of Afghan refugees displaced by the Afghan-Soviet War. McCurry’s plan was to enter Afghanistan, then closed off to foreign journalists, to photograph the brutality of the Afghan-Soviet War.
To do that, he lived amongst the Mujahideen for months, dressed as a local with a full beard and weather-worn features, and successfully entered Afghanistan with rolls of film discreetly sewn into his clothes. The haunting images he managed to capture garnered worldwide attention, eventually winning him the Robert Capa Gold Medal for the Best Photographic Reporting from Abroad, an award dedicated to photographers exhibiting exceptional courage and enterprise.
In 1984, he found himself back at the Afghan-Pakistan border where a chance meeting with a 12-year-old Afghanistan orphan would materialise into the most recognised photo of the 20th century. The portrait known as “Afghan Girl” appeared on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic — cementing his name and reputation as a world-class photographer.
A photography legend
With a career spanning over 40 years, McCurry has seen and done it all, visiting war zones, refugee camps and rural villages across 26 countries and seven continents. His most unforgettable time was working in Kuwait in the aftermath of the first Gulf War — 600 burning oil fields, panicked and starved animals wandering about, and a landscape dotted with hundreds of dead Iraqi soldiers. He described the scene as “a vision of hell”.
One has to wonder, with much of his career spent in war zones, did he ever come close to the brink of death? “I was in a plane crash in Slovenia, been held at gunpoint several times, shot at, and put in jail. I am lucky to still be alive,” says the 71-year-old, who, like a cat with nine lives, somehow remains unscathed.
For a time, he fixated on the perils of war and the effect it had on people and their surroundings. “I look for the unguarded moment, the essential soul peeking out, experience etched on a person’s face. I try to convey what it is like to be that person, a person caught in a broader landscape, that you could call the human condition,” he once said in an interview.
His pictures, always grounded in people and stories, deliver emotional, real and at times harrowing narratives of human struggles and joy, depicted with rich colour, depth and contrast.
In 2016, McCurry faced some criticism when some of his pictures were found to have been digitally altered to remove people and objects. He did not deny any wrongdoing but merely stated that he considers himself a “visual storyteller” and not a photojournalist.
For him, a strong image is not about the technical aspects of the camera or the settings, but about the joy of exploration and emotion of the content. “The basics of photography and composition are secondary to being able to capture the spirit and intimacy of a picture. A good picture is something that captures your imagination and that stays with you. It should be simple and have some sort of a visceral and emotional component,” he says.
He describes his creative process: “I never set out with a concrete plan to take pictures or force anything. I just enjoy being on the street, talking to people and falling into a rhythm. After a while, the pictures start emerging and you start seeing things, how they connect or seeing juxtapositions of shapes and objects.”
An exhibition with Leica
McCurry has been the recipient of numerous awards including Magazine Photographer of the Year awarded by the National Press Photographers’ Association, and four first-place prizes in the World Press Photo Contest. He has won the Olivier Rebbot Memorial Award twice.
In 2014, he was awarded the Centenary Medal for Lifetime Achievement by the Royal Photographic Society in London, and inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame in 2019. He is also a long-time member of the elite Magnum Photos collective, an international photographic cooperative founded by a group of leading 20th century photographers including Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
In 2011, he earned a place in the Leica Hall of Fame, and in 2019 was one of the first testers of the Leica SL2. To him, the SL2 — the only mirrorless camera designed and crafted in Germany — “is probably the best camera ever made and continues to be an incredible piece of equipment”.
Together with Leica, McCurry is holding a photo exhibition in Germany called The Eyes of Humanity at Enrst Leitz Museum in Wetzlar, from now till end-October. The exhibition, which features 90 of his best works, focuses on catastrophic and crisis situations such as the burning oil fields of Kuwait in 1991, and the destruction of the World Trade Centre Twin Towers in New York on Sept 11, 2001.
McCurry is currently living in Philadelphia with his wife and daughter. In a virtual press conference to introduce the exhibtion, Options finds out more about his life in pandemic times, the future of photography, and his follow-up meeting with the much older Afghan Girl.
What do exhibitions like this mean for a photographer like you?
Being able to showcase my work in an exhibition is a platform to show people the things that matter to me. It is critical today to have an understanding of the times we live in, as well as how people interact with each other in their communities and the environment.
Why do you only shoot in colour?
Actually when I first started out working for a newspaper, I only shot in black and white. It was very tricky to print in colour back then. But with advancements in technology, colours now are so vivid and true to life. We live in a world of colour and colours seem more authentic to me. I want to photograph the world as we see it, to reflect the way it was when I was there. To get that kind of rich colour saturation, I tend to underexpose my photos or shoot in low light settings.
Do you still use film?
I’ve shot with film for 30 years and transitioned to digital 20 years ago. Personally, digital is so much easier than working with film because you can see your pictures immediately. But mirrorless technology, compared to DLSR, is the future of photography. One of the greatest features of Leica’s SL2 mirrorless system is that you get a much more accurate preview of the picture. It has certainly changed my process, allowing me to work in much lower light and more difficult situations than I could in the past.
How has photojournalism changed?
When I first started, there were lots of magazines and newspapers and lots of assignments. We were sent all over the world but that’s pretty much gone now. These days, publications are getting their pictures from wires like Reuters and Getty. Now, anyone with a cell phone can be a journalist. For example, the George Floyd video was taken by an ordinary person and that really changed the world. Virtually anybody with a phone now can create meaningful and important pictures. There are photographers doing wonderful projects with cell phones, but I personally feel you can never get the same result from a phone that you get from like a professional camera.
Why do you love to photograph Asia?
My love of art, photography and travel culminated in a strong desire to document disappearing cultures in the East. Asia is just so fascinating because everything is so radically different from the way I grew up. The different customs, traditions, food, music, architecture and religion; Asia is so visually and spiritually rich. I fell in love with the Buddhist way of life, which pays particular attention to compassion and acceptance. For me, there’s a kind of relaxed introspection watching the monks, studying, meditating and doing their routines. They are well-meaning people trying to improve their minds, trying to learn, and trying to make the world a better place.
What’s life like for you in the pandemic?
From being away for most of the year to being home 100% of the time, it’s been a very unusual time for me but a blessing in disguise. Not only do I get to spend quality time with my wife and daughter, I have finally found time to go through my archives and revisit thousands of old slides and negatives that have never been seen by anyone. I’m also working on two new books, one of which features portraits of children from all around the world.
How did you discover the famous Afghan Girl?
In 1984, I was approached by National Geographic to photograph the refugee camps along the Afghan-Pakistan border. One morning, I walked past this tent which was actually a girls’ school and I went in and asked the teacher if I could come in and observe and photograph her class. As I was surveying the room, I noticed that one little girl in the corner with these incredible green eyes. She had a really penetrating gaze with a haunted expression, and in that moment, I knew this was the portrait that I had to shoot. As I was taking her pictures, I saw shyness and curiosity in her expression, but also sadness because she was orphaned and a refugee living in such terrible conditions.
You reconnected with her 17 years later. What was that like?
After 9/11, the war started back up and we decided to go back and do a documentary about Afghanistan. We were all wondering what happened to this refugee girl, who is she and where is she now? I really thought it would be impossible to locate her again because Afghan women are extremely conservative. Fortunately, we were able to find the school where I had originally photographed her, and through the teacher and other people in the camp including her brother, we were able to finally find 30-year-old Sharbat Gula. She was living a very simple life in a village several hours drive out of Jalalabad with her baker husband and children. After almost two decades, her skin looked weathered, there are wrinkles now, but she is as striking as she was all those years ago. Together with National Geographic, we bought a house for her, took care of her medical expenses and financed her children’s education, as our way of giving back.
PHOTOS: Steve McCurry courtesy of the Ernst Leitz Museum, Wetzlar 2021 and Leica