Remember her eyes—the girl in that photo?
She stared out at us from the cover of the June 1985 edition of National Geographic magazine. She had the most arresting gaze and the most incredible green eyes. She gave a face to the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Afghans living in refugee camps in Pakistan.
The image of her face, with a red scarf draped loosely over her head and her eyes staring directly into the camera has been named ‘the most recognized photograph’ in the history of the magazine, and the cover itself is one of the most famous in National Geographic’s collection.
Today the ‘Afghan Girl’, Sharbat Gula, is a widow, mother of three girls and about 45 years old. After remaining a nameless mystery for almost two decades, she was rediscovered by Steve McCurry, the man who photographed her bewitching image all those years ago.
McCurry had unsuccessfully searched for her in the 1990s. He returned to the area in 2002, and with perseverance found she had returned to her mountain village of the Tora Bora in Afghanistan. With her then husband’s permission, she met with and was re-photographed by McCurry.
And that brings me to the main subjects of this post—McCurry and his vast collection of work.
Two weeks ago, when we were in Belgium, we passed by the Brussels Stock Exchange and saw that it was exhibiting more than 200 of McCurry’s images.
The ‘Afghan Girl’ has always been one of my favourite images and I found the prospect of the exhibition irresistible. So we joined the lengthy queue to visit The World of Steve McCurry, the most complete retrospective dedicated to this accomplished American photographer.
The large-format photos took us on a magical and, often, heartbreaking journey from Afghanistan to India, the Middle East to Africa, Cuba to the USA, Brazil to Italy, and much, much more.
Every visitor got an audio pack that had McCurry explaining 50 of the images. Of course, the spiels went by so quickly I can hardly remember any of them, but a consistent theme was people.
McCurry’s work often focused on the human consequences of war. He covered the Iran–Iraq War, the Gulf War, the civil wars in Lebanon, Cambodia and Afghanistan, and more. (By the way, Poor John and I lived in Lebanon during its civil war.)
McCurry once said, ‘Most of my images are grounded in people. 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.’
I do, however, remember one of his spiels fairly well. Kodak was discontinuing its famous Kodachrome transparency film and gave McCurry one of the last rolls to use in a series of portraits. That roll was processed in July 2010 by Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas, and the image in the exhibit is of Robert de Niro.
Another 150 photos covered some of McCurry’s other work, including his images for ¡Tierra!: the project.
¡Tierra! coffee is from Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms. The coffee’s name comes from Lavazza’s social responsibility project. It was created in 2002 to improve the social and environmental conditions and the production techniques of small communities of coffee growers.
McCurry’s exhibition goes through Sunday and I can’t find any references to a future showing. If you hear about one—GO!
P.S. I took these all photos of Steve McCurry’s photos. No way I could include all 200 here. I’ve tried to show a cross section of places, faces and circumstances.