Having already read so much about Steve McCurry, the famous American photojournalist, I approached the tranquil and quiet halls of St James Cavalier in Malta’s capital city of Valletta, with due respect and reverence. I have always admired McCurry’s work. For me, he has the knack of being in the right place at the right time and, as Cartier Bresson would aptly put it, of capturing the “right moment!”
To the layman (or the profane viewer), McCurry is mostly known for his portrait of the “Afghan Girl.” A haunting image which still stirs up so much deep and perhaps, uneasy feelings in all those who view it.
This image graced the cover of the National Geographic magazine.
If ever there was a photograph which could awake emotions and mystery (not unlike the enigmatic Mona Lisa), this image is the one. Furthermore, the romantic facts behind this particular image makes it ever more so unique. McCurry literally moved heaven and earth to eventually retrace the young, scared child he had photographed in a Pakistani refugee camp seventeen years earlier. The resulting second photograph, of the same girl, (now a married woman), is perhaps now so much deeper and disturbing. The face looking back at us is still of a scared, deeply scarred woman who looks much older than she actually is. The hard life she has lived till now is visibly etched and written down in both her features and her eyes.
Those who have an interest in this image must make it a point to view the National Geographic documentary “Search for the Afghan Girl.“ http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/national-geographic-channel/extras/explorer-2/ngc-finding-the-afghan-girl/
The account is a fascinating, and yet, sad tale of the trials of Afghanistan and its people.
Yet, perhaps because of the fame of this image, some of McCurry’s most powerful work has not been showered the credit it deserves. To my mind, the exhibition held in Malta brought out this feeling so vividly.
I was attracted to each and every image hanging in the exhibition, trying to absorb the stories and the power that photography exudes – particularly when used by such photojournalists of the caliber of Steve McCurry.
One particular image which I could not take my eyes off was MOTHER AND CHILD AT CAR WINDOW, BOMBAY, INDIA, 1993. This photograph depicts a mother and child begging for alms incredibly captured through a taxi window during the Indian monsoon. The water droplets on the transparent car window add a surrealistic feel to the image, but what really makes the picture is the expression in the child’s eyes. There is so much emotion in those scared, suspicious eyes and the mother’s outstretched, begging hand adds it all up. This is a picture which definitely does not need a caption! This is what a journalistic image should deliver – a story, a message and a genuine clear attempt at making the viewer reflect on the realities of life. How would one react in her position? How lucky that we are not the mother or child in this image. Those who have a heart and are not immune to the many horrific images being thrown around us, must surely be moved and encouraged to sincerely try and help people in similar plight.
Another no less strong image is McCurry’s YOUNG BOY HOLDING TOY GUN TO HIS HEAD, ALTO CHURUMAZU, YANESHA, PERU, 2004
Here McCurry relates: “I saw the young boy weeping on the side of the road in a village in a mountaineous area of Peru. Some of the other children he was playing with where tormenting him. He had a toy gun in his hand, I walked over to see if I could help, but the child wasn’t able to respond because he was so upset. He walked away towards his house”.
Although McCurry’s account does defuse slightly the tension of the image, reducing it to the antics kids usually get up to, again the despair in the eyes of the boy rivets you there and one cannot help but try to read what must have been going on in the boy’s head during that particular moment. This is a masterly capture where the photographer has again managed to quickly and expertly gauge a fleeting situation and grab that instant which again makes the viewer stop and think.
For me, these are world class images which are as outstanding as Robert Capa’s and as incredibly well timed (if not more!) than Cartier Bresson’s!
Again McCurry’s mastery of grabbing these moments is clearly brought home with his image DUST STORM, RAJASTHAN, INDIA, 1983
McCurry captured this image while on a highway heading somewhere else in India. Looking out of his car window, he saw these road workers near Rajasthan, huddled together against the elements.
“You have to be prepared and open to what you are seeing along the way. “
For sure McCurry was not resting during his car trip! What a photograph! Not only does it capture such an intimate moment where human kind rallies round and helps in times of tribulations, but the image possesses such a strong design and composition. The trees shrouded in mist at the back give a sense of mystery and danger, the huddled figures, all dressed in warm colours, convey the bond between them, as does their circular position. The pots in the foreground give depth to the image as well as give the viewer an indication of why those people were in the desert. Phenomenal – the elements could not have been better arranged if one had them in studio controlled conditions! Was it luck? No – for sure McCurry makes his own luck.
Another image which again evidences McCurry’s knack for not only being in the right place at the right time, but also shows his uncanny ability to compose and design his photographs, even though they are occurring and disappearing in the click of a camera shutter, is BOY IN MID FLIGHT, JODPHUR, INDIA, 2007.
In one of the narrow alleyways of Jodphur, India, a boy flees McCurry’s camera. The little boy caught right in midair is exactly in the strong point of the image. The blue walls at both his sides, add to the dynamic perspective and lead the viewer’s eyes to the figure. Then, the red handprints on the left hand side of the wall add that touch of mystery and danger to the image. The cracked paint on the right hand side balance these well, also giving the image pleasant aesthetics and energy. This is the work of a Master, for sure!
When one keeps in mind that the bulk of McCurry’s work has been shot with conventional film and cameras, and most of the times in difficult situations, his results are so much more amazing.
Let us hope that the freedom digital cameras have given the photographer are not wasted on the current generation of photographers. Let us hope that more images of this power are captured to again prove that Photography can be so great a medium. Let us hope that more photographers go back to the basic capture of images which tell a story and which convey a message and leave fiction to the writers!
The exhibition’s images are all very strong. One is no sooner drawn to one photograph then he is inevitably attracted to the power of the next. I was also particularly taken with SHAOLIN MONKS TRAINING, Zhenzhou, China, 2004
This image, depicts the world famous Shaolin Monastery in China and shows the uncanny physical strength and discipline displayed by the Monks. Looking at the image one cannot but compare the Monks, hanging upside down by their feet, to the position of bats in their habitat! Yet the serenity on their faces, despite what must be a superhuman effort to maintain the position, is evident and shows the deep rooted ways of their lifestyle.
I got the creeping feeling that the simple lifestyle and incredible discipline of these Monks could be the answer to living a meaningful life on this earth. Definitely, a tranquil and simple regime has always seemed to benefit mankind whilst the complicated, materialistic rush for earthly wealth and pleasures has only got us more frustrated, sick and prone to depression. Have we got it all wrong?
McCurry seems to have a deep affinity with these Monks and their way of life. Various other images capture their hard, yet simple, lifestyle in an incredible, sometimes even humorous, way.
Another image, which at first glance does not really arrest you, but then really captures one’s eye on inspecting it at closer range. The image, WAITERS PASSING TEA, BETWEEN PESHAWAR AND LAHORE, PAKISTAN, 1983, shows Indian waiters precariously passing the breakfast tea between cars on a running railway train! The serenity and tranquil look on their faces, when doing what must be a daily chore, really makes one forget the dangers they are flirting with. In fact the image is slightly humorous and also hints at the way of life of the Indian. Not an easy way to earn a living, for sure!
I could analyze each and every image in McCurry’s exhibition and still not find the right words to describe the greatness of his work. Still, for the scope of this article, I want to mention two more photographs of this collection:
One is SLEEPING WITH SNAKE, TONLE SAP, CAMBODIA, 1996/98.
Here, a mother and child sleep in total exhaustion in their houseboat in Sap Lake, near Angkor Wat, Cambodia. One is first hit by the natural abandon and tranquility of the woman and child in deep slumber, then, all of a sudden, the viewer’s eyes grasp the danger coming from the writhing snake on the rough wooden planks beneath them. Again an incredible moment captured by the prompt reflexes and sensitivity of McCurry.
The last image I would like to end with is GIRL WITH GREEN SHAWL, PAKISTAN 2002. I wanted to conclude with this image as it feels to me like another yet, different attempt for McCurry to capture a mood and feeling like his Afghan girl picture. This time, this young child has again fled the civil war in Afghanistan and was living in Pakistan when the picture was taken. The delicate emerald green shawl , her beautiful rich blue eyes and serene gaze all evoke a deep sense of the religious – or do they? – Do they evoke more a child’s innocence, a child’s incomprehension of all that is going on around her?
This image is also featured in the same documentary I mentioned at the beginning. Curiously enough, another McCurry photograph taken an instant after this one shows the little girl bursting out in a genuine, happy laugh – showing a child’s innate feeling of hope and optimism for the future. Perhaps it is McCurry’s endeavour to try and depict a better future.
May that future not remain a mirage.
The Steve McCurry exhibition was brought to Malta by Eman Pulis and various other sponsors.
All photographs are the exclusive copyright of Steve McCurry.
Text copyright: Kevin Casha FSWPP Master, FMIPP, AMPS AMPA