‘Afghan girl’ cameraman tells stories behind pictures

Updated 29 January 2014
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‘Afghan girl’ cameraman tells stories behind pictures

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.
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 recognized photograph in the magazine’s history.
McCurry says he has always gravitated toward 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 symbolize 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 Makkah — 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.


Abu Dhabi Festival reveals exciting 2019 lineup

Updated 24 min 32 sec ago
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Abu Dhabi Festival reveals exciting 2019 lineup

  •  Dubbed ADF19, the festival will feature more than 100 events across 25 venues in Abu Dhabi, including 18 productions, two co-productions and two commissioned artworks
  • The festival will also shed light on artists with disabilities, with the central theme announced as “Culture of Determination”

The month-long Abu Dhabi Festival, set to be held in March 2019, announced its art-and-culture filled lineup in a press conference at the Emirates Palace hotel on Monday, with the packed itinerary set to entertain culture vultures in the capital in what will be the festival’s 16th edition.

Dubbed ADF19, the festival will feature more than 100 events across 25 venues in Abu Dhabi, including 18 productions, two co-productions and two commissioned artworks. If that isn’t enough, the festival will also feature more than 500 artists from 17 different countries.

The festival’s headline program includes performances by the Korean National Ballet — set to perform “Giselle,” a romantic ballet about a peasant girl with a passion for dance — and the Korean Symphony Orchestra. Korea has been singled out as ASF19’s “Country of Honor” and organizers are focusing on sharing its classical talent with audiences in the Middle East.

“Abu Dhabi Festival… has been contributing enormously to the region’s intercultural competence, so I’m very happy that Korea could be a part of the wonderful celebration,” the Republic of Korea’s Ambassador to the UAE Kang-ho Park told the press via video link on Monday.  

The festival will also shed light on artists with disabilities, with the central theme announced as “Culture of Determination.”

Festival founder Huda I. Alkhamis-Kanoo took to the stage alongside Peter Wheeler, CEO of the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi, to sign a cooperation agreement at Monday’s press conference and a March 16 concert titled “Stand Up For Inclusion” was announced as one of the main events during next year’s festival.

The festival will also host an exhibition called “Distant Prospects,” presenting the history of European landscape painting through renowned pieces by key figures in the Late Renaissance and Baroque eras.

Other highlights include a performance by award-winning US jazz pianist Justin Kauflin on March 11, a dance show by the Sara Baras Flamenco Ballet Company on March 21 and a full-length, three-act plotless performance by the Paris Opera Ballet, backed by the Pasdeloup Orchestra — the oldest symphony orchestra in France — on March 29 and 30.