Steve McCurry: Photographing the essential soul

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The Independent Culture

Photographer Steve McCurry, 60, is no stranger to adventure. An intrepid documentary snapper, his most iconic picture, “Afghan girl”, taken in 1984, is one of the world’s most recognisable photos, having graced the cover of National Geographic, helping win him numerous photographic awards and his ticket into the Magnum Photos agency.

Having risked his life in the early 1980s crossing the border from Pakistan to Aghanistan disguised in native clothing, McCurry provided the world with some of the first (and one enduring) images of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. The reels of film he smuggled out of the country sewn into the lining of his clothes were published widely in newspapers and magazines across the world.

But that one image of the "Afghan girl" - the piercing green eyes, haunted expression and ragged terracotta-coloured garb of the young Afghan refugee girl, then unknown, but later identified as Sharbat Gula-, became emblematic of, in the West at least, the protracted conflict between the communist government of Republic of Afghanistan, assisted by invading Soviet Union forces, and the rebel mujahideen militia.

Despite being named “the most recognised photograph” in the history of National Geographic magazine, it was used as the June 1985 cover image, and subsequently on numerous Amnesty International campaigns, McCurry said in a recent interview that "Afghan girl" is far from his best work.

The Philadelphia-born photographer's career spans three decades, the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf war, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, Beirut, the Philippines, Cambodia, New York after September 11, but he has kept his focus firmly on the human condition. “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,” McCurry has said. “I try to convey what it is like to be that person.”

Other striking images include: “Painted Boy”, a picture of a beautiful child covered in red dye, taken in Mumbai, India in 1996; “Fishermen at Weligama” is another highly original work, depicting naked-to-the waist fishermen in Sri Lanka halfway up sticks poking out of the sea, going after their catch; and "Woman at Polling Station", the eyes of a female voter in Yemen peering out from within a full burka.

Exhibitions of McCurry’s work have popped up all around the world with the latest opening at the UK’s Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The retrospective, which is being held in conjunction with the DVD release of a documentary about Gula called ‘Search for the Afghan Girl’, includes the iconic work alongside a broad selection of McCurry’s stunning colour photographs.

Click here or on the image above to see a gallery of McCurry's work

Steve McCurry's Retrospective will be at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery from now until 17 October. For more information please visit www.bmag.org.uk. Additionally “Search For The Afghan Girl”, the amazing story behind Steve McCurry’s most enduring image is out on DVD now.

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