Day 35 – The Afghan Girl

I spent the day doing a presentation on Steve McCurry for college so instead of writing in my blog I decided I’d be lazy and just copy the presentation! Enjoy!

Afghanistan, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who grew up thinking it was just a faraway country with a funny name. It wasn’t until this college assignment that I realised just how bloodstained its history is. A volatile mixing pot of cultures and beliefs that led to a long-running history of conflict and brutality. It has had more radical and subversive governments and insurgents that anyone could really begin to explore, with the resistance of the other being a predominant feature of the majority of them.

In April 1978 the Communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) seized control of the country. Their secular ways were popular with some but were in direct conflict with those who favoured the traditional Islamic restrictions. In 1979, the country was a turbulent place and the PDPA called upon help from the Soviet Union, who began what was to be a 10 year intervention, or invasion, depending on who’s side you look at it from. Civil war reigned with the PDPA and the Soviets on one side and the Mujahadeen Freedom Fighters assisted by America, The CIA, Pakistan and a Saudi group led by the infamous Osama Bin Laden, on the other.

In 1979, a relatively unknown photographer called Steve McCurry, whose experience included a History and Cinematography degree and a short stint at a local Pennsylvania newspaper decided to travel the world in search of geopolitical features for magazines. In May of that year McCurry met a group of Afghan refugees at the North West Frontier Province in Pakistan. They believed his photography could publicise their story to the world and so introduced him to Mujahadeen freedom fighters. They snuck him across the border where he spent several weeks as an illegal outsider, photographing in a war zone.

It was to change his life. He emerged as one of the only Western photographers to ever get images from that conflict and this in turn led to a job with National Geographic. But the experience also had a profound effect on him. He returned to Afghanistan and Pakistan more than 25 times after that. In one trip in 1985, while photographing in a refugee camp in Peshawar in Pakistan he took a picture of a 12-year-old girl.

The simplicity of the portrait, the vibrancy of the colour, the harmony of the clothing and the fear in those striking green eyes combine to make this a picture that affects everyone who sees it, least of all myself. It became the picture that defined not only a nations struggle but also the tragedy of one of the great evils in the world, wars fought over religious and social differences.

John Echave of National Geographic described the picture as the modern day ‘Mona Lisa’. Its ambiguity leaves us to take our own interpretation. My own reaction to it is a stark reminder of a visit to Port Arthur in Tasmania. For those of you who don’t know, Port Arthur was a penal settlement in the 1800s that had some of the strictest and brutal security systems in the British Empire. A place described as a ‘dark hellhole’ but that is surrounded by one of the most gorgeous landscapes I’ve ever seen. It gives you an uneasy sense of reflection.

For me the Afghan girl strikes me similarly. McCurry has captured the decisive moment where her eyes open to reveal the terror and fear of a life lived at only 12 years old that most of us could scarcely imagine, and yet the portrait is entirely beautiful. It was also voted the most recognizable photo in the history of National Geographic.

However Steve McCurry is a lot more than just the Afghan Girl. For me he has the ability to capture the decisive moment just like his biggest influencer Henri Cartier-Bresson. In this photo during the monsoons in North India he has captured perfectly the moment that reflects the situation. To me it is a reflection of the need for togetherness during a natural disaster. His use of linear perspective has set the scene by showing just enough of the water and the houses that we can almost imagine we are there. The lack of vibrant colour magnifies the rundown effect the water has had on the buildings. The contrast between the black dog and the white door, and also the size of the dog in relation to the door highlights the dog’s plight. But above all he has clicked the shutter at just the right moment, and you can almost read what’s on the dog’s mind.

He has the landscape ability of an Ansel Adams but yet he keeps his interest in people and their traditions to the fore. In this photo, taken of workers on the rice terraces of the Philippines, McCurry hopes he has “provided a record of lost moments of culture”. There is almost a majestic feel to this photo. The detail of the workers, who are obviously much closer to the camera, is in contrast to the faraway grandeur of the valley. The outline of the mountain and its echo in the grassy plantation provide a lovely frame for the workers. The valley has the lead-in line of a meandering river and the picturesque shapes of the mountain. The reflection of the light off the water also shows up the mountainside in fantastic detail. He makes it even stronger compositionally by waiting until the subjects in the photo form a triangle and this makes them appear easier to the eye.

His picture of Sri Lankan fishermen is almost a mixture of landscape, portraiture and photojournalism. It is one of my personal favourites. Again he records a way of life that is fading away in the face of improving and accessible technology. The diminishing size of the fishermen on the poles gives the picture its perspective, as does the barrel of water about to transform into a wave. The palm trees in the distance and the hazy atmosphere makes you feel that on another occasion this could be a celebrated landscape. It is almost in contrast to the hardship faced by the fishermen, highlighted by the struggle of the man in the swell of the water. Another element to the picture is the mirroring of the outstretched hands of the fishermen that gives the picture its rhythm and seems to connect them all.

Another photographer McCurry is influenced by is Eugene Smith. He says that he admires “Smith’s unique ability to combine the eye of a photographer and the attitude of an artist with raw honesty and uncompromising integrity.” In my eyes Steve McCurry does this too. In his book entitled ‘Looking East’ he assembles an impressive collection of portraits of people from South and Southeast Asia. An area of poverty and hardship but also with a beautiful prevailing spirit. He brings this out in every single portrait.

The picture of a coal miner in Afghanistan stands out. His hand bringing his cigarette up to his mouth creates a great diagonal line leading the viewer directly to the miner’s eyes. The eyes stare at you with a typical McCurry ambiguity, letting you ponder over the subject’s state-of-mind. He has elevated himself to a perfect position also as the man’s eyes just look up leaving two soft curves of white in the centre of picture. He makes great use of vertical and horizontal lines between the lines on the miner’s face and hands and the subtle yet powerful lines of the cuff of his sleeve. The dirt, the black of the background, the worn down cigarette, the haze of smoke and the slash of colour from the helmet and light all combine to give the portrait its atmospheric and revealing tone.

Beyond my opinion on his photos, McCurry has been a source of inspiration to many people around the globe. You can see his connection to people in all his pictures. They trust him and welcome him into their communities and cultures. When he tracked down the famous Afghan girl in 2002 he was surprised to learn that his 1985 pictures of her were had been the only photos of her ever taken, such is the reserve of Afghan women. However, despite a predominant shyness, she let him take some more.

National Geographic’s John Echave calls him a “rare breed”. The filmmaker Lawrence Cumbb believes his photos are almost like Rembrant paintings. Fellow Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey praises his hard work, saying “No one busts it like Steve”.

He certainly inspires me in all those ways but predominately it’s his personality, his humanity, humility and compassion that make him stand out amongst a sea of talented individuals. A recent convert to Buddhism, his spirituality shines through, as does his philosophical thinking. I will leave you with a quote posted by Steve on his blog attributed to the great Eugene Smith, “What use having a great depth of field, if there is not an adequate depth of feeling”.

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