Images that capture hope in times of strife

HEAT AND DUST A sand storm in Rajasthan in India, 1983. (Steve McCurry)

It truly is one of those images you will never forget. Say Afghan girl and National Geographic cover in the same sentence and young Sharbat Gula's face, draped in torn red, traumatised and anxious, yet fiercely proud, springs to mind immediately.

But Steve McCurry, who took that troubling picture in 1985, says he never thought it would become one of the most iconic images ever taken. "I knew she had a great look; her eyes were completely haunted. But I never dreamed it would make the cover of National Geographic, much less that it would still be appreciated nearly 25 years later," he tells Emirates Business.

The picture – and one taken following a 2002 search for her that led to a television documentary and the establishment of a fund for Afghan girls – are part of Faces of Asia, an exhibition of McCurry's pictures running at the Sharjah Art Museum until June 21.

It is accompanied by 100 pictures from across South Asia, a region the American photographer has returned to time and again in the past 28 years. "It's such an amazing mix of cultures, much more so than anywhere else," he says in explaining the region's attraction for him. "I've been to Africa, to South America, but nothing compares. Afghanistan is so different from Tibet, and in between are Pakistan and India. India alone has an endless variety of religions and cultures. And there's always something amazing going on. You either love it or hate it, there's no ambivalence."

McCurry spends nine months of the year travelling for work, and is whizzing around Jaipur, India, in what sounds like an autorickshaw during our telephone interview.

Over the years, he has been arrested (in Pakistan and Myanmar), shot at and robbed (in Afghanistan), beaten up and nearly drowned (in India). "At the risk of sounding boorish, there's a terrible beauty in horrendous situations," he admits, before dismissing, in the very next breath, the notion that troubled situations are attractive to him.

"I always work with a margin of safety. It's never about tempting fate. Sometimes the roof caves in, the plane you've hired crashes, but you always try to be careful. I don't want to be killed through photography," he says.

His most challenging assignment, he says, was in Iraq, in 1986, during the Iran-Iraq war. With restricted access and almost no co-operation from a government reportedly paranoid of foreign photographers, taking any pictures at all was hard going and he was forced to reduce his ambitions to Baghdad.

None of those dangers have dulled his desire for adventure, though, and on his wish list of places to go to now are Cuba, "for the time warp it is stuck in", Mongolia, in line with his interest in Buddhism, and Iran, because "it's such a misunderstood place despite the wonderful culture and the great people – yet all the Americans can think of is that it is the evil empire".

The Gulf is also on his list of places to shoot in, he adds. But rather than photograph the beautiful roads and sandscapes that impressed him on his first visit to the UAE, it's portraits he wants to do. "Anything original and organic, and something that shows how people do things slightly differently here."

As someone who has travelled to places like Afghanistan and Iraq and interacted with the local people, McCurry has turned into an unwitting ambassador for international goodwill, speaking both for Americans and for the so-called other side.

Talking to Emirates Business, he speaks both of how uninformed the average American is and how misguided American foreign policy is, as well as of exactly which specific situations the Afghans – or the Iraqis – need to take responsibility for.

"We can't say all people of a certain nationality are bad, we can't generalise, easy though it is. Each situation must be judged on a case-by-case basis," he adds.

He has a sharp word, too, for critics who say work like his, as that of a Westerner serving up images of Asia, is nothing but exoticisation and exploitation. "I don't buy that. Perhaps that Orientalist idea applied to lady artists from Europe in Arabia at other periods in history, but it's not applicable any more. If someone wants to say that, that's their prerogative. But what's the solution? That I'm not allowed to take photographs in India and Afghanistan? What do you say then to the fine Indian photographers who are shooting the same pictures side by side with me, such as Raghu Rai and Radhika Singh?"

It is worth remembering, that however exploitative any Western photographer's work in a developing country may be made out to be, in McCurry's case, at least, his return to Afghanistan in search of Sharbat Gula allowed National Geographic to set up an educational fund for Afghan girls.

Far from being an albatross around his neck that will forever impact how his work is judged, he says he looks at the glass as half-full instead. "An iconic picture like that is extremely rare. Only a handful of pictures or artworks are universally known and I'd rather be known for that one image than worry about trying to top it. Leonardo da Vinci – who I am not comparing myself with – painted half a dozen pictures, but everyone remembers the Mona Lisa," he says. "Besides, I'm happy to have a picture which has actually brought the subject a good future, made her life better, made mine better. I've had a lot of good karma with that photograph."



Faces of Asia By Steve McCurry at the Sharjah Art Museum until June 21. Call: 06 569 5050.

 

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