‘Afghan girl’ cameraman tells stories behind pictures

Updated 29 January 2014
0

‘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.


With Saudi roots and an Indian heart, Al-Kazi is an act the stage will never forget

Updated 21 February 2019
0

With Saudi roots and an Indian heart, Al-Kazi is an act the stage will never forget

  • Though an icon in India, few people know about Al-Kazi’s Saudi roots

JEDDAH: India has always been a hub of art and culture. Over the last century, movies emerged as the most expressive cultural medium, and the Indian film industry — commonly known as Bollywood — has since become a powerhouse of world cinema.

One can never do its history justice without mentioning Ebrahim Al-Kazi.

A renowned director and drama teacher, he worked as the director of the prestigious New Delhi-based National School of Drama (NSD) from 1962 to 1977, teaching many well-known future actors and fellow directors, including Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah and Rohini Hattangadi. He also founded the Art Heritage Gallery in New Delhi.

Though an Indian icon, however, few people know about Al-Kazi’s Saudi roots. His father, Hamad bin Ali Al-Kazi, was a trader from Unaiza in the Kingdom’s Qassim region, who subsequently settled in Pune, India, where Ebrahim was born in 1925. 

Early on in his career, Al-Kazi worked with the Bombay Progressive Artists Group, which included M.F. Husain, F.N. Souza, S.H. Raza, Akbar Padamsee and Tyeb Mehta, who would all later contribute to the design of his sets.

He worked in India, the US and Europe before becoming the director of the NSD, and later of the Asian Theater Institute, and is credited with staging more than 50 plays in his lifetime. He also contributes to the preservation of Indian cultural history through his Al-Kazi Foundation for the Arts.

In February 2015, Al-Kazi was honored at the second Saudi Film Festival in Dammam. He was later quoted in Arab media sources on his Saudi upbringing: “Our father was a firm believer in our cultural roots that went back to Saudi Arabia, and we spoke only Arabic at home. We had a teacher of Arabic and Islamic studies who came from Saudi Arabia, and lived as part of our family.

“Arab families (in India) did not mix very much with others, but my father had close ties with people other than Arabs,” he added.

Al-Kazi has also won many prestigious Indian awards. He was the first recipient of Roopwedh Pratishthan’s Tanvir Award in 2004 for his contribution to Indian theater, and in 1966 received the Padma Shri award. He won the Padma Bhushan award in 1991, and was given India’s second highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan, in 2010.