Mary Wakefield Mary Wakefield

Savage beauty

Steve McCurry, the celebrated war photographer, talks to Mary Wakefield about the ethics of making pain look pleasing

Could it, at times, be frustrating to have taken one of the world’s most famous photographs? Steve McCurry’s ‘Afghan Girl’ (1984) is, according to the Royal Geographic Society, the most recognised photo on the planet. You can summon it to mind in a trice: a beautiful young refugee of about 12, her head covered with a rough red shawl, stares out at the camera with those pale green eyes.

But what Steve McCurry’s vast, World Atlas-sized new retrospective portfolio shows is just how many other, perhaps even better, photographs he’s taken of the country over the past 40 years; how many other Afghan girls there are in the shadow of that green-eyed superstar. One portrait of a child in blue-grey taken in Ghazni six years later is especially intense.

If, after an afternoon with McCurry’s Afghanistan, I rather resented that original girl, it’s only a tribute to the rest.

McCurry’s known as a war photographer and his biography sure fits the bill: he caught his first break, just before the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, by crossing the Pakistan border in local dress. He escaped with his film sewn into his clothes. McCurry has shot in Beirut, Cambodia, the Philippines, the Gulf War, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Tibet. He has a Robert Capa Gold Medal for exceptional grit and courage. But for all that, McCurry is most definitely also an artist.

He talked to me on the phone from a hotel room in Portugal. Other phones were ringing in the background and the feeling of an itinerary was heavy in the air. But on the subject of how to learn his art, McCurry was suddenly focused.

‘If you love pictures you should want to look at great pictures and pore over them,’ he said.

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.


Unlock more articles



Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in