Creative Arts Book of the Week 30/04/14

Untold The stories behind the photographs

Steve McCurry

Who could have foreseen that when a young photographer travelled to Afghanistan in 1984 the school girl he would meet and photograph would become an icon representing the pain and conflict of an entire country and simultaneously propel him to international recognition. Photographing a young, shy Sharbut Gula in a refugee camp near Peshawar, on the Pakistan border, his photograph of the girl behind the red veil is still instantly recognisable.  It also led to a love-affair with a country that has never left him over the past three decades.

This book is a homage to all the diverse countries and people that Steve McCurry has photographed over the past thirty years.  I love it because it contains some of the most stunning images of people I have ever seen.  He sees the importance of building relationships with his subjects rather than taking photographs surreptitiously.  Each photograph captures the human spirit and tells a story simply by looking into their eyes.  But this book is not just a selection of photographs.  He tells us stories that are blends of third person reportage and first person observation.  Together with his collection of ephemera, such as old passports and bus tickets,  each compilation helps document his experiences from Indian monsoons to the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11.

” You could see the World Trade Center from my office window”, he says.

And the girl in the red veil?  In 2003, he went back to Afghanistan to try and find her.  Eventually she was traced to one of the most dangerous war zones in Afghanistan.  She and her family were brought back after a hazardous journey to meet McCurry and his production team.  She was only 30 years old and life had not been kind to her.   He was shocked by her appearance: he still had the image of the young girl in his head.  But he instantly recognised her green eyes.

He photographed her again and now supports her family when he can.  After all,  that one photograph launched his international career as a documentary photographer.  National Geographic, who originally published the photograph (one of two taken), set up The Afghan Girl’s Fund working with non-profit organisations to provide educational opportunities for Afghan girls and young women. In 2008 the scope was broadened to include boys and the name was changed to The Afghan Children’s Fund.

This book is large and heavy, so only borrow if you don’t have other books to take out at the same time.  Perfect for photography students and others wanting first hand accounts of national events or investigating the human condition around the world.  Steve McCurry writes in a very readable style and I was enthralled.  There is something fascinating to tell in every chapter along with his stunning photographs; making you think you are there with him and sharing every experience.



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