‘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.


Creative group in the UAE gives female artists a chance to tell their story

Jana Ghalayini’s work at Art Dubai invited visitors to draw on their responses.
Updated 34 min 14 sec ago
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Creative group in the UAE gives female artists a chance to tell their story

  • Female-led art collective wants society to rethink the way women of color are perceived
  • Banat Collective publishes artworks in print and online and hosts events to encourage debate

DUBAI: Sara bin Safwan founded the Banat Collective in 2016 to connect with other like-minded people, championing
their art through the group’s website, banatcollective.com.
The group aims to help society to rethink the way women of color are perceived by showcasing contemporary art, poetry and other writings. The collective publishes artistic works in print and online and hosts events aimed at spreading awareness and encouraging debate.
“A lot of the artists are young and emerging and never had the chance to be either exhibited or publicized, so we interview them to offer a critical, insightful look at their work,” said Safwan, 25.


Now an assistant curator at Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Safwan graduated from London’s world-famous Central Saint Martins college in 2015 with a degree in culture, criticism and curation.
It was while studying in Britain that she developed a keen interest in post-colonial theory; the Banat Collective focuses on themes relating to both womanhood and intersectionality, which is an analytic framework to identify how interlocking systems of power impact those most marginalized in society.
“The mission is not only to connect artists but open up discussions about Arab womanhood in the region, because there’s not necessarily any other place to do so. We do that through art, poetry and other writings,” Safwan said.
“I use the word ‘womanhood’ to make it a more accessible term because if I use ‘feminism,’ it’s a very politically charged word that has almost been tainted by Western ideologies. And those Western ideologies don’t necessarily fit within our context as Middle Easterners.”
“In the Middle of it All” is the collective’s debut publication. Released in 2018, the book is a 31-artist collaboration of visual art, writing and poetry. Our book is a means to help us stand out — it’s thoughtfully curated and tackles a specific issue, which is ‘coming of age’,” she says.
“It’s a notion that’s taboo in the Arab world and either unheard of or misunderstood. It was a chance for female artists to tell their own story.
“Throughout the book, we go through many topics such as puberty, identity, sexual harassment and abuse, sisterhood, motherhood, beauty standards and all these other societal expectations.”
The collective held its first exhibition as part of March’s Art Dubai fair, showcasing a short film, “Ivory Stitches & Saviors” by member Sarah Alagroobi, which she describes as an “unflinching glimpse into identity, colonialism and whitewashing.”
Says Safwan: “It’s a tribute to all women of color who have been marginalized and, all too often, erased.”
Another work by Palestinian-Canadian artist Jana Ghalayini is comprised of a 26-meter-long piece of chiffon on which visitors can draw with chalk pastels in response to questions posed by the artist including “How does your environment affect your identity?”
Safwan adds: “The themes we explored were vulnerability and community — it was a way to introduce ourselves in person because previously we only had an online presence.”
Born and raised in the UAE to Honduran and Emirati parents, Safwan is now working with Alagroobi and Ghalayini to brainstorm ideas for future projects that include a podcast series on the notion of shame. The collective is self-funded and run by volunteers.
“I hope there will be more opportunities to showcase our work and collaborate with others. This year, we will be publishing more content,” Safwan said.

This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of The Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.