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Keeping focus on human consequences of conflicts: Steve McCurry

Steve McCurry, the photographer behind the iconic “Afghan Girl” image that appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine, says he was always more interested in the human consequences, and not the fighting, in war zones he has covered.

india Updated: Oct 06, 2018 23:37 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
HIndustan Times, New Delhi
steve McCurry,Afghan Girl,htls2018
Steve McCurry, Photographer and Visual Storyteller and Raghu Rai, Photographer and Associate, Magnum Photos during the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit at Taj Palace, in New Delhi, India, on Saturday, October 6, 2018. (HT Photo)

Steve McCurry, the photographer behind the iconic “Afghan Girl” image that appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine, says he was always more interested in the human consequences, and not the fighting, in war zones he has covered.

And the man known for his simple photos full of graceful beauty that usually capture people going about their daily lives is a confessed fan of camera phones, saying he uses his mobile phone every day, and that he would “never” go back to using film.

“I never thought of myself as a war photographer, although my work in Afghanistan is, I think, some of the most dangerous times in my life,” McCurry said during a conversation with photographer Raghu Rai at a session on “The Magic Moment” at the 16th Hindustan Times Leadership Summit.

“I never really was interested in the actual combat or the fighting. I was always interested more in the human consequences, the refugees, the people who were caught in the middle of these conflicts — suddenly they’re living a very peaceful life and then find they are between these warring factions.

“I remember hundred of villages were destroyed in Afghanistan and they [the villagers] were all forced to flee for their lives. For me that was the important story, it wasn’t the combatants or the fighting,” said McCurry, who started his career in India.

It was this focus on victims of conflicts that led to the photograph of the “Afghan Girl” — identified many years later as Sharbat Gula — that appeared on a 1985 cover of National Geographic.

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, McCurry was working in 1984 on the Afghan-Pakistan border, where there were hundreds of refugee camps.

“I was at a camp one morning, I was on my way to lunch and I heard these voices coming from a tent, which was a girls’ school. I walked in and, before I had a chance to ask permission, I saw this little girl in a corner who had these incredible eyes,” he said. “I knew instantly this was the only picture I wanted to make that day. The light was perfect, the background was perfect, her expression was perfect and I literally didn’t have to do anything. I just had to make sure the picture was in focus and sharp and it turned out to be something that changed my life.”

Though McCurry traced Sharbat Gula in 2002 and subsequently helped her with financial aid and a home, she was forced to leave Pakistan after it emerged she had fake identity documents. After she moved to Kabul, her family had limited her contacts with the outside world, he said.

As for the future, McCurry is content shooting with his smartphone, besides his camera. “I’m actually a big fan of cellphones and…I’ve published these pictures in books, they make sizeable prints. Photographers are doing very serious work with cellphones. I think that the quality of this is probably as good as the camera I was using 40 years ago.”

First Published: Oct 06, 2018 23:37 IST