Getting to know Steve McCurry
I was late to the McCurry party. Of course, in some seldom visited corridor in my subconscious, the face of the Afghan Girl had lodged herself within it given how she so profoundly reverberated within popular culture. But I didn’t know further about the insanely famous and culture defining photographer responsible for her immortalisation. It was only in 2016, when I was doing my obligatory visit to Crosswords in Bombay did I actually get a name to this genius eye. I was seduced by the passion of a sales staff who was clearly a McCurry groupie and waxed lyrical about the history of each portrait photograph. Being a sucker for smooth talkers, and always a long-time fan of books with more pictures than words, Steve McCurry’s ‘Portrait’s’ was soon in my bag and on my coffee table back home. And as I went through all the portraits he captured throughout his travels in the Eastern hemisphere, I fell in love with not just what he saw, but how he saw what he saw.
It has always been a childish wonderment of mine that despite the fact that the human face comprised of a pair of eyes, a pair of ears, a nose and a mouth, we are all so distinguishable from each other. Each face is overflowing with its own idiosyncrasies despite being largely comprised of the same ‘ingredients’ and this is just one of nature’s miracles. I think what first drew me in McCurry’s vision was how deeply he made me aware of this miracle by virtue of how deeply he lured me into another soul simply through capturing the raw beauty of the human face.
This fall, while we found ourselves walking around the Old Town of Prague, we coincidentally stumbled into his exhibition. I was delighted to spend the afternoon reminding myself of the power of his work and also with discovering different reasons why his visual perception could touch the world. From his interviews and reading through some introductions of his work, McCurry appears to be a searcher, an adventurer, a soul looking to connect and understand the human condition. His work is not without scandals and there are those that criticize him for his seemingly patronizing, white-man-burden complex but this post is mainly about how I personally interpret his pieces. His photography to me, orientates around a more visceral culture, a truthful moment, the painful extremities of conflict and universal realities. The following is a breakdown of the very basic emotive reaction I experience to some of my favourite portraits of Steve McCurry (I checked with staff who confirmed I could take the photos in the gallery).
I felt that I could almost taste her happiness. The kind of fleeting moment where you free yourself from clouds of past regrets, future anxieties or present dissatisfactions. And in truth, this is all that is really needed for a burst of happiness to explode from your chest. A swing, the roof of nature, some sense of safety and protection, even if transient. McCurry has other snapshots which depicts this kind of joy within simplicity and I think what I find so magnetic in them is a sense of freedom. For me, happiness is closely linked to a feeling of being free from any desire but to celebrate a present a moment in time. It is also infectious. When looking at this photograph, you can’t help but smile not just in response to but also in support of her joy.
This I think arouses in me a sense of awe, of respect and of inspiration to reach this level of dignity. His face, strong and benevolent, expresses a type of love and contentment you would expect a grandfather to wear when watching his grandchildren play. It made me feel that this is the strength I am forever seeking in life – to be loving and content in times of great turmoil (such as when one has to wade through neck deep dirty water during the monsoon season, hoisting one’s weapon of livelihood to protect one’s future) and to be equally composed and tranquil in times when even sheer ecstasy was appropriate (winning a competition, falling deeply in love, having a long awaited child). It speaks of a gracious acceptance of the temporal nature of life, a peace made with the cycle of success and failures that we are bound to endure. The story behind this photograph can be found here.
This is technically not a portrait (to me) because part of its composition is also the premise, the architecture, the light and the ambiance, and not just the naked human face. I read that the asylum photos in Kabul were taken when McCurry had a chance to access an incarceration institute in Kabul and that he had witnessed many disturbing acts of savagery and violence towards the detainees which I won’t go into here. Even without the knowledge of this grim backstory, it is a photograph which evoked a lot of pain for me. When someone you love loses their mental lucidity, it feels very much like a bereavement as you lose their previous self. To overcome that loss requires the fortitude of a warrior, and to celebrate their new identity requires the love and compassion of an angel. When studying his face, I feel he is orbiting far into a different realm, and those whom he left behind, mourn for him. My hope is that as a society we will be coherently educated and in turn educate each other about all forms of mental illness and eventually normalise its concept and manifestation, as with any physical ailment. This way, incarceration and ostracisation, which is part of the problem, can be fully behind us and both the sufferer and the sufferer’s loved ones can endure this condition with all the love and dignity required to heal from such a trauma.
When I was young, old age frightened me. I don’t think I am alone to fear that living too long and becoming both a burden and an irrelevance to society is a dreadful prospect. Yet I think as I get older, and after having sustained various unfortunate life events, I appreciate that living a long, full life is a privilege. There is a noble beauty in the history he wears on his face, each line bearing witness to a range of soul changing experiences. And so I surprised myself when I stopped to not just study but somewhat enjoy what this photograph represented to me this autumn, aware that in the past, it would have been too difficult to really look at it without some form of horror or pity. I guess I really am transiting from one phase to another.
For all three portraits, I think what strikes me the most is how what is often so arrestingly beautiful to the eye, to the mind, to the being is that of authenticity. When you exist so fully in your moment of truth, you touch others by what they recognise within themselves. It is neither the clothes, the style, the make-up or the accessories which transcends these portraits but rather the purity of the human face expressing a natural sentiment. That confluence of valour and vulnerability, of curiosity and reticence that co-exists in all of us and which we re-experience, when staring into their eyes. Each three faces are of course, also photogenically blessed with above average cheekbones, penetrative eyes and symmetrical features but it is a beauty not without depth and context.
Of all the three portraits, the Afghan Girl, (Sharbat Gula) of course has generated so much interest, opinion pieces and follow-ups by other journalists and McCurry himself who tracked her down many years since the photo was taken in 1984 (a very interesting interview with McCurry about the photograph here). At the time of this post, the last report was about her unfortunate deportation to Afghanistan but the hopeful news that the Afghan government would assist her return. As we absorb more about the story of Sharbat Gula, it also helps open the humbling window of what the reality is for more than 60 million people in this world, and reminds me why we should continue being invested in learning about each other.
I stepped out of the gallery feeling invigorated with the reminder of some simple life truths. We don’t need much to experience a moment of contentment. To meet misfortune with dignity is to reach for the higher self. If we are blessed, we will grow old – it is a privilege to live long and fully. There is a piercing loneliness to this world and it is our collective responsibility to be part of the solution. It also reinforced in me the desire to keep celebrating how connected we all are with each other, no matter the polarizing forces which seeks to keep tearing us apart because we are all made of the same ingredients. A genuine thanks to Steve McCurry and his extraordinary gift indeed, for being able to transform the afternoon of one tourist in Prague from that of generic cultural discovery to one of poignant elevation.
Note:- For those who are even more behind than me on his work, knock yourself out at his website here https://stevemccurry.com