‘Afghan girl’ photographer tells stories behind images

afghan girl

Photographer Steve McCurry remembers exactly how he got his famed 1983 shot of two Pakistani waiters passing a tea tray precariously along the outside of a moving train.

“I leaned out the window and someone was holding my legs but I was thinking, ‘Oh no this is not going to end well’,” he said, recalling the photograph he took one morning three decades ago as breakfast was served between Peshawar and Lahore.

Hanging perilously from hand rails between the dining car and first class, the waiters dressed in white uniforms and green and gold turbans were passing the tray along the outside of the carriages because the connecting doors had been locked for security reasons.

McCurry, 63, whose many memorable images have earned him a reputation as one of the foremost photographers of his generation, says he weighed up the risk and decided it was worth it.

“I’d rather take the risk than not take the risk and then always wonder if I should have. I think there’s nothing worse than being timid,” he told AFP in an interview in Paris.

“Sometimes you just have to evaluate the risk and say ‘you know what, I have to do this’,” he said.

It’s just one of many stories behind the photographs recounted in McCurry’s latest book, “Steve McCurry Untold”.

In it, he revisits not only some of his best-known images but also decades’ worth of notes, letters and other ephemera such as tickets and receipts.

Packed away and forgotten in drawers and cupboards after returning from assignments over the years, they give a sense of the planning and technical difficulties involved in capturing such pictures.

“It’s almost like archaeology, things, layers, stacks of things accumulated as years and decades passed,” he said.

“Documents and pictures that were not part of the story, that were never published, but were still a piece of the puzzle,” he said.

‘Everything was perfect’

McCurry’s career has taken him all over the world but he says the majority of his time has been spent between Afghanistan and Burma and in Sri Lanka and Tibet.

Arguably his best-known image is that of the young “Afghan girl” he photographed in 1984 in a refugee camp in north-west Pakistan at the time of the Soviet occupation.

Camps had sprung up along the Afghan-Pakistan border and many refugees had been living there for years in conditions of great hardship. Between August and November 1984 McCurry visited most of the 30-odd camps.

It was on a visit to one of these that he encountered the girl, whose name he later learned to be Sharbat Gula, and whose photograph appeared on the front cover of National Geographic magazine in June 1985.

Coming across her in a class at a camp school, he immediately noticed her piercing green eyes and set about taking her portrait.

“For a few seconds everything was perfect, the light, the background, the expression in her eyes”, he recalled in the book.

In fact, that photograph nearly did not make the front cover as another of the same girl had been selected.

But the magazine’s editor-in-chief made a habit of viewing the photographs that had been considered and discarded for the cover and was immediately struck by his other shot.

The image prompted an immediate reaction from readers and was later voted the most recognised photograph in the magazine’s history.

McCurry says he has always gravitated towards portrait photography.

“I love portraits, I love examining the human face,” he said.

In 2002, without even knowing her name — the photographer went back to Pakistan with a film crew to try and find Gula.

In the intervening years her image had come to symbolise the suffering of the Afghan refugee but her life in Afghanistan had been hard and she was unaware of its impact.

The family did not ask for money but McCurry and the magazine made it clear they wanted to help.

Over the subsequent years they were able to ensure in various ways — such as medical treatment and a pilgrimage to Mecca — that she and her family also shared in photograph’s success.

McCurry said meeting people in such conditions of suffering or hardship and then leaving without being able help them materially or change their plight was something all photographers and journalists had to grapple with.

“It’s a terrible thing and it probably affects you deeply,” he said.

“But the only way we really know what is happening in the world is by people reporting on it… so I guess we just have to think ‘how can I contribute?’.

“And the way I can contribute is by photography and raising awareness so people are informed,” he said.

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