Everyone knows Steve McCurry for his famous shot of the startled green-eyed Afghan girl that appeared in 1985 on the cover of National Geographic. What luck, people say, to have taken the most recognized photograph in the history of that magazine. But it was, like all incredible images, only partly a question of luck. I knew Steve before he took that picture, and if the shot proves anything it's that in a career of astonishing photography Steve has demonstrated that this was no accident. It is one of his many brilliant shots. For example, no railway runs near the TajMahal. Yet Steve discovered some train tracks and found a way of shooting a picture in which a great drooling steam engine rolled through the foreground with the Taj in the background, a perfectly symmetrical and contrasting pair of images, representing near and far, old and new. It was a much reprinted image, and for years the cover of my Great Railway Bazaar. How had he managed it? "I found the right spot and kinda waited," he told me. "How long?" I asked."Three weeks."Seventeen years after the fact, showing the same dedication, he located the Afghan refugee and identified her: SharbatGula, now a careworn woman. The effects of time figure in all his work. So does courage. In the course of doing stories together I have found Steve's stamina, his stomach for the road, for the crowds, for bad weather and for hassles to be much greater than mine; and I don't travel with two tripods and five bags of equipment. "The only place I could sit was on top of the coach," he once said of a terrible trip through Bangladesh. "There were about fifty other people. It was kind of interesting when we went under bridges."He has a characteristic laugh, a dry little chuckle, whenever he mentions a hair-raising incident. I have never heard him complain about an assignment, but only express gratitude for the chance of finding an amazing sight or a wonderful person. I met up with him in Hawaii not long ago, where he was on assignment. In a city of expensive hotels and beachside spas, he was staying at a budget hotel on a busy highway, at the perimeter of the airport. He had no assistant; he was using old-style rolls of film. But his frugality made sense: his subject was Buddhism. Steve has no appetite for luxury. As the pictures on these pages demonstrate, people in traditional clothes thrill him, and some of the long talks I've had with Steve were laments about the disappearance of distinctive ways of dressing among the peoples of the world. You can see this love for tradition in his pictures--men in turbans, women in saris or robes, ancient jewelry; people at work, nearly always struggling with old tools, the drama of it, the lineaments of a vanishing world. But something special is given to each scene, the McCurry genius for finding heightened color, and there is something old-fashioned if not ancient in this. The pictures here could be showing people centuries ago, their pieties and their clothing unaltered by time. He seems to have all the time in the world to find these pictures, and yet the morning after arriving in New York from an assignment he saw the World Trade Center in flames, and within minutes--as people were running away--he was running toward the burning buildings. His images of this horror are some of the most memorable I have seen. Steve is a great photographer because he is a resourceful traveler and a humble person, and absolutely hawkeyed for the way things are, for the color of life, its uplifting luminosity.
Introduction to South SoutheastPublished with permission by Steve McCurryBack in 1978, when I first left for India - really left with that young man's, door-slamming sense of forever - I'd already been all over the world. But this time was different. This time I had slung over my shoulder the camera that I was determined would somehow pay for a serious case of wanderlust - wanderlust as the ancient traders had it, hauling the teas, dyes and spices that still stain the roads and permeate the air of the most colourful part of the world.Years later, colour is still what takes me south-by-southeast to Asia - colour and life and light. The Buddha-, Shiva-, Allah-laden light of 1,000-year-old temples, the rain-like light of Burma and Cambodia, and the rocket-pulverized dust of Afghanistan where tribal wars continue to rage. Wherever you go in that part of the world, there is the riot of life carried out in the streets and bazaars. And, like the overpowering weather, there is religion that controls life with a force the West hasn't known since the Renaissance.It is this unbroken continuity with the past and ancient beliefs that still takes me back to Asia, and it's a quality unique in the world. In India in particular, where millions have no home but the streets, virtually every life event is carried out in public: prayer, eating, sleeping, nursing, crude dentistry, even bodily functions. In the secular West, where nothing is sacred, everything seems hidden; yet in Asia, where nothing is hidden, everything is sacred.Above all, I feed on the colours of Asia: deep henna, hammered gold, curry and saffron, rich black lacquer and painted-over rot. As I reflect back on it, I see it was the vibrant colour of Asia that taught me to see and write in light. Go down that alley. Follow that child. Find the brightness of life in the dusty, never-painted drab of Calcutta. Wait for the light at its deepest and most intense like a farmer's rain. It is amazing now, in the camera's third eye, Asia's dust spins such golden clarities and abundance, such undersea depths.Still, colour alone, or structure's sake, are not for me what finally make a good picture. What makes for a powerful image - much like Asia itself - is the confluence of all these elements within the rude stream of life. It is colour and structure all subordinated into the sacred right then of the only-offered-once. More than twenty years later, I still keep shooting in South and Southeast Asia, because the place - like the light and belief that powers life - is inexhaustible.
This photograph recorded in 1983 the contrast between a mighty technology – the steam locomotive – and the transcendent aesthetic of the TajMahal, with its light-reflecting surface. The steam engine, once an important symbol of Indian national culture, is now a thing of the past. So in addition to staging a powerful rhetoric, McCurry’s photograph captures a lost moment in culture. Even the tracks near the TajMahal have now been removed. The character of McCurry’s work, then, lies in the power of its record and its rhetoric. The photograph of engine set against architectural splendour holds fast an idea – a way of thinking about contrast and culture that can be carried forward to other images in other times.
Afghan Girl, at NasirBagh refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan 1984 The green-eyed Afghan girl became a symbol in the late twentieth century of strength in the face of hardship. Her tattered robe and dirt-smudged face have summoned compassion from around the world; and her beauty has been unforgettable. The clear, strong green of her eyes encouraged a bridge between her world and the West. And likely more than any other image, hers has served as an international emblem for a difficult era and a troubled nation.
Fishermen along the southern coast of Sri Lanka cast their lines in the traditional way atop poles so they can work in shallow water without disturbing the fish. South coast, Sri Lanka, 1995.
Steve McCurry<br />
Steve McCurry, recognized universally as one of today's finest image-makers, is best known for his evocative color photography. In the finest documentary tradition, McCurry captures the essence of human struggle and joy.<br />Born in Philadelphia, McCurry graduated cum laude from the College of Arts and Architecture at the Pennsylvania State University. After working at a newspaper for two years, he left for India to freelance. It was in India that McCurry learned to watch and wait on life. "If you wait," he realized, "people will forget your camera and the soul will drift up into view.“<br />His career was launched when, disguised in native garb, he crossed the Pakistan border into rebel-controlled Afghanistan just before the Russian invasion. When he emerged, he had rolls of film sewn into his clothes and images that would be published around the world as among the first to show the conflict there. His coverage won the Robert Capa Gold Medal for Best Photographic Reporting from Abroad, an award dedicated to photographers exhibiting exceptional courage and enterprise.<br />He is the recipient of numerous awards, including Magazine Photographer of the Year, awarded by the National Press Photographers Association. This was the same year in which he won an unprecedented four first prizes in the World Press Photo contest. He has won the Olivier Rebbot Award twice.<br />McCurry has covered many areas of international and civil conflict, including Beirut, Cambodia, the Philippines, the Gulf War, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Tibet. He focuses on the human consequences of war, not only showing what war impresses on the landscape, but rather, on the human face.<br />McCurry's work has been featured in every major magazine in the world and frequently appears in National Geographic, with recent articles on Tibet, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and the temples of Angkor Wat, Cambodia.<br />A high point in McCurry's career was the rediscovery of the previously unidentified Afghan refugee girl that many have described as the most recognizable photograph in the world today.<br />McCurry has published books including The Imperial Way (1985), Monsoon (1988), Portraits (1999), South Southeast (2000), Sanctuary (2002), The Path to Buddha: A Tibetan Pilgrimage (2003), Steve McCurry (2005), and Looking East (2006).<br />
A roof overhead is new for Punkti, a shepherd's daughter in Rajasthan. Family men still live under the stars, staying close to their animals.<br />
Drumbeats draw a crowd as acrobats from the Nat nomadic group perform outside Jodhpur in Rajasthan. Uncounted in the census and lacking permanent housing, the traveling entertainers find it difficult to qualify for government benefits.<br />
April's issue of National Geographic magazine features the rediscovery of the "Afghan girl," 17 years after photographer Steve McCurry took her picture, which became the National Geographic Society's most recognized photograph in its 114-year history. McCurry first met the girl with the haunting green eyes at a refugee camp in Pakistan in 1984. Repeated attempts to locate her again and identify her had been unsuccessful until January this year when McCurry and a National Geographic team made a final visit to the refugee camp, which was about to be demolished, and through a series of contacts found her again. <br />Her name is SharbatGula, and she lives in Afghanistan with her husband and three children. The story of McCurry's search and his reunion with Gula appears in the April 2002 issue of National Geographic magazine, which is available on newsstands now. The issue also carries an article on Tibet with photographs by McCurry. <br />McCurry, who spends six to eight months a year traveling on assignment, was online Wednesday, April 10, at 2 p.m. EDT to talk about finding SharbatGula again and his life as a photojournalist. <br />McCurry's 22-year career as an award-winning photojournalist has taken to him to many areas of civil and international conflict, including Yemen, the former Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Beirut, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Kashmir. He does not describe himself as a war photographer, however. He focuses instead on the human consequences of war, showing not just what war impresses on a landscape, but rather the human face. <br />"I look for the unguarded moment, the essential soul peeking out, experience etched on a person's face," he says. <br />