Saddam Hussein’s scorched-earth policy in Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War resulted in an environmental catastrophe. On assignment at the time to document the ongoing devastation for National Geographic magazine was US-born Magnum photographer Steve McCurry. Capturing his famous images of Kuwait’s Ahmadi oil fields required avoiding land mines planted by Hussein’s forces and fire trails caused by the Iraqi destruction of more than 600 oil wells. And the photographer was facing another daunting challenge: towering smoke clouds rising from the oil fires had plunged the area into darkness. Like many journalists who regularly confront hazards in their line of work, McCurry gets enormous fulfillment from shooting pictures and revealing stories to the outside world that bolsters his resilience to the dangers involved.
“It’s always a calculated risk. Clearly you want to err on the side of caution and you want to be as careful as possible, but sometimes there are just risks worth taking, and we all evaluate that in different ways,” He tells The Majalla. The award-winning photojournalist stares meditatively during the interview—it is easy to imagine he is composing a photograph. As a question finishes there is a silent pause, which he interrupts with a short blink—like the snap of a camera shutter—before giving a slow, considered answer: “It’s what makes the world an interesting place, because we all see it a little bit differently.”
McCurry enjoys iconic status in the photography world, though most people know of him because of someone else’s face—or more specifically, someone else’s eyes. “I knew it was a powerful picture,” he says of his now world-famous picture “The Afghan Girl,” photographed inside the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in Pakistan in 1984, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. “But it’s hard to know what you have when you’re shooting, because things happen quickly, and people move and you shoot . . . there’s a lot of commotion, a lot of voices and dust.”
Sharbat Gula was a recently orphaned 12-year-old, Afghan refugee when McCurry took her photograph outside a makeshift girls’ school in the camp. Although Sharbat wouldn’t know it for two decades after the image was taken the haunting portrait—capturing her disquieting gaze and penetrating, green eyes—would become one of the most recognizable images around the world when it appeared on the front cover of the National Geographic in 1985. It is still the magazine’s most iconic and influential cover image.
McCurry admits he never predicted the attention that photograph would generate. For 17 years after her picture was taken, Gula remained unknown to the outside world, until eventually, in 2002, the photojournalist managed to track her down in Afghanistan—she had returned in 1991, and was now living there with her three daughters. It was only then that she saw her famous portrait for the first time. “I think in war, for me, the parts that are the most interesting are not the war itself, but the consequences,” McCurry says. “There are so many innocent people who get caught in the middle, and it’s one thing for soldiers to fight other soldiers, but when civilians and children start to get caught up in the conflict . . . That’s the story I want to cover.”
In 1979, McCurry was smuggled across the Pakistani border into Afghanistan by anti-Soviet mujahideen rebels with rolls of film sewn into his clothes. (He admits that the advent of the digital age has changed the logistics of photojournalism on that one level, at least.) His subsequent images of this conflict won him the Robert Capa Gold Medal for “best photographic reporting from abroad,” and transformed him into a world-renowned photojournalist.
Although he studied filmmaking at college, McCurry became more interested in photography after taking classes in it at the same time. He says: “I liked the idea of being able to walk out the door with a camera and just film whatever struck you.” His travels with his camera began with trip down to Central America as a student, “and then, the next year it was Africa and so forth.” McCurry says he takes inspiration from the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose photographs he admires for “the amazing stories they tell, the humanity and the art.”
Rich colors and powerfully stark representations of people and daily life are characteristic of McCurry’s own photographs—taken on six continents spanning over three decades. This year he released his first behind-the-scenes photography anthology, which includes personal memorabilia and his own notes, entitled Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs (Phaidon 2013). The book is testament to a career that began in 1978, at 27, when he left his photography job at a Philadelphia newspaper. In the years since, his job has taken him to some of the most unusual, beautiful and dangerous places in the world. The book also includes some of the photographer’s previously unpublished work, including a rare image of Gula covering her lower face with her shawl. It was the one initially chosen for the front cover of the National Geographic .
A chapter containing few images of people features his chilling photographs taken in the rubble of the World Trade Center in New York after of the attack in 2001. (McCurry had also captured the collapse of the towers from the rooftop of his studio.) “In documentary photography you’re documenting and photographing the world as it is, and some things are beautiful and sublime and other situations . . . There are situations, other stories that need to be told,” he says. “People need to be informed about the world we live in.”
Speaking to The Majalla, he described the destruction of the Kuwaiti oil fields as a “doomsday situation.” He continued, “There were all these littered vehicles [along the highway]. Some of the animals [in the zoo] had been shot to death and others were let loose to wander the streets.” In the city itself, he says, “There was no running water, no electricity; no food to speak of . . . You’re in a sort of empty city and everything’s been looted and power stations are destroyed . . . It was really a very desperate situation. To see a modern city just brutalized like that—it was shocking.”
But these desperate situations also intrigue McCurry on an artistic level: “Examining and saying how we help people react under extreme circumstances . . . The human spirit is an amazing story, and what we are capable of doing. It’s fascinating to me how people react when faced with such important and extreme situations.” McCurry pauses before offering another reason behind his motivation: “I think we all want to make some kind of contribution on some level or to communicate to show our fellow man empathy, ultimately to help people try to make the world a better place. It would be a pity to think that we are so selfish.”