The ‘Afghan Girl’ photographer tells The National about capturing hidden history
Steve McCurry discusses living on the edge of Afghanistan
If you don’t recognise the name Steve McCurry, you will recognise his work. Most famous for his December 1984 portrait Afghan Girl, he captured the image of Sharbat Gula, then aged 12 and living in a refugee camp in Pakistan. This evocative image of the young girl with brilliant green eyes and wearing red headscarf became the poster image of refugees in the late 20th century. It was first published on the cover of National Geographic’s June 1985 issue. Born in Philadelphia in 1950, the award-winning photographer has spent almost half a century working in Afghanistan – having been smuggled into the country dressed in Afghan robes on his first trip in 1979.
Tell me about your first trip to Afghanistan back in 1979. What were your first impressions?
I was literally just wandering and exploring. I was smuggled in by locals; the government had been bombing and they wanted to show me what was happening. It was a story where no one really knew what was going on but I was able to see it for myself. I had never before photographed any area of conflict or any war zones. It was a complete shock.
Most people that go to an area like that wouldn’t return. What kept drawing you back over the following 40 years?
Well, it’s a dramatic story and it’s an important story. It’s an incredible, beautiful country. The people are extremely friendly and hospitable and I really felt a real affection for the country.
The conflict morphed and developed in different ways, so it was a story I wanted to keep following. This was systematic destruction of people’s, homes and villages. Although I had never covered any conflict, I felt like I had to do this.
What do you hope your photos capture?
I think there’s a humanity, a sense that despite our differences we are fundamentally the same. We all want the same things basically: we all want a family, we want to have a good life and I don’t know whether you’re African, Latin American or from Europe, but we have this shared humanity which hopefully the pictures are founded in. Often people think of Afghans as a caricature because of it being a conflict area. Generally we think of them as fierce, bearded warriors but the fact is, most Afghans are just living their lives very peacefully in small villages around the country and are just trying to make a living.
I hope that the pictures show what it’s like to be in the countryside and some of the culture.
Did you realise at the time that your photograph, Afghan Girl, would become so iconic?
No, there was no way of knowing. I knew that she had this very powerful gaze and she had this intense look. I knew it was an important picture but I had no way of knowing it would be as recognised as it has become. Afghans are proud of the picture because they think that it represents them in a very positive way. The represented all Afghan refugees in a very dignified way, with fortitude and resilience. We kept in touch with her over the years and we helped to support her.
We bought her a home in Peshawar and we had helped her since we found her [again] in 2002.
What was your reaction to seeing the woman she’d grown into?
Considering the circumstances – being an orphan, being a refugee, being a woman – I think that she’s done very well. She’s been able to raise a family despite her husband dying and one of her daughters dying from hepatitis. Life in Afghanistan is extremely hard for everybody and it’s a difficult place.
You’ve been put in many dangerous situations for your work. Has it been worth it?
Yes. I don’t have any regrets. I think travelling the world and seeing different aspects of the planet, human nature and seeing up close some of the problems, has enabled me to evaluate some of the important issues of our time. Having a front row seat to these historical situations and moments has been important and profound. I feel very fortunate.
What was the most frightening experience you went through during your career?
I was almost killed in Slovenia in a plane crash in 1989. I was in a two-seater and it crashed into a lake. Apart from that, being shot at hundreds of times in Afghanistan. Each time you think, why the hell am I here? There were times in Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge, and being almost drowned in Bombay by a bunch of drunk teenagers. I never looked for it but sometimes things happen and things go wrong.
What’s the biggest thing these experiences have taught you?
It’s this idea that we all come from different places, have different religions, different skin colours, different cultures, but we’re all basically the same. Wherever I am in the world, people love to laugh.
Even without language you can get people to laugh and share jokes. The great thing about photography is it transcends language. If we respect each other we get along really well, but when that starts to break down and people become greedy and there’s no compassion then things go terribly wrong in a hurry.
So much of the world is in a difficult place in the moment.
As an American, how do you feel about US president Donald Trump’s foreign policy?
He claimed Barack Obama was not an American citizen which is utterly outrageous. The reason he did that was because Obama is half black and Barack Hussein Obama has a middle name that everybody knows has origins in the Middle East and Islam. We can’t live in a world with those kinds of attitudes.
Steve McCurry’s Afghanistan (Taschen) is available in bookstores now