Above: Ahmadi Oil Fields, Kuwait, 1991
Magnum is probably the most famous photo agency in the world. Even if you haven’t heard of it, chances are you’re familiar with its images, be they Robert Capa’s coverage of the Spanish Civil War or Martin Parr’s very British holiday-scapes. Unlike most agencies, Magnum’s members are selected by the other photographers on the agency, so becoming a member is a pretty gruelling process. As part of an ongoing partnership with Magnum, we will be profiling some of their photographers over the coming weeks.
Steve McCurry’s photo of Sharbat Gula, titled Afghan Girl, appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985 during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It quickly became one of the most famous photos in the world. McCurry’s work covering the mujahideen’s long fight against the Soviet war machine in the mid-to-late 80s further cemented his position as a hugely influential photojournalist. Since then, he has documented the human impact of wars across the world and collected numerous awards for his photos. I gave him a call to find out about nearly getting killed on the job, and the effect of seeing so much horror over so many years.
Mujahideen fighters, Afghanistan
VICE: Hi, Steve. Afghan Girl is probably one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. Is it ever annoying that, from all of your work, one image is seen as so representative of your career?
Steve McCurry: Not at all. In fact, the contrary. I don’t think that has ever occurred to me.
You worked in Afghanistan for a long time. How do you feel the situation in the country has changed since the Soviet war?
It’s always a dangerous place, and there has always been ongoing fighting. Any time you’re in a combat situation, it is dangerous. I think in the beginning there was a lot of goodwill toward foreigners, or to pretty much anybody who was willing to support or help the people there, which included the West, and, effectively, pretty much anyone aside from the Soviet Union. India, Europe, China, and the US were all welcomed. Now there is obviously opposition in Afghanistan—the Taliban see the West and NATO as the enemy, so by virtue of my birth, they now see me as the enemy. Before they were taking hostages and asking for ransom, now they just kill you for political reasons.
Does Afghanistan feel more dangerous than other places you’ve worked?
All these places, war zones, present different problems. Afghanistan, Iraq during the Gulf War, places like Beirut or Cambodia. But yes, perhaps Afghanistan was the most dangerous. When I was there back in 1979–80 with mujahideen fighters, I was often days from help, out on location, perhaps two days from the nearest road, often with men who were not well trained and with whom you had a lot of communication problems and language barriers. You were being bombed with mortars and artillery and aircraft, and you’re with a bunch of ragtag fighters, who were certainly brave, but maybe short on training.