Steve McCurry’s name may not trigger immediate recognition, but his most famous picture certainly will: Afghan Girl, taken in a refugee camp in Pakistan in 1984, a 12-year-old called Sharbat Gula whose startlingly bright eyes took the shot all the way to the cover of National Geographic magazine. McCurry’s career is considerably more than this one picture, but such is its fame it provides significant ballast to his reputation and elevates him into photography’s elite.
So what does this admiring profile tell us? McCurry is a pretty truculent customer, unwilling to give much away; but uncompromisingly direct when he wants to be. There’s a little archeology into his troubled childhood, including an unlucky hand injury and a spell at Christian boarding school. His career gets into gear when he follows the mid-70s hippy trail to India and ends up crossing the border into Afghanistan to cover the country’s civil war that followed the communist coup in 1978. (McCurry is pretty vague on the politics of the fighters he accompanied.) The Soviet invasion in 1979 proved to be his big break, driving a major media appetite for pictures that only a few months previously he, as an unknown photographer in a barely noticed conflict, couldn’t sell.
McCurry’s association with war zone photography was, as he tells it, not his choice; really, he says, he was bitten early by the travel bug, and his motivation was essentially to explore the unexplored. (We see him on empathic form photographing a remote community in Papua New Guinea, including a young boy whose father is dead and whose mother has abandoned him.) Naturally, he talks about how he got the Afghan Girl picture, randomly coming across a girls’ schoolroom in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in Peshawar; he takes pains to refute claims he deceived her. The film-makers also include a bit of 2017 interview material in which Gula professes herself happy with the picture. McCurry also has to deal with another controversy – about digital manipulation of his pictures – which he rationalises by saying he is a “visual storyteller”.
Be that as it may, McCurry now seems to be at a similar stage to the likes of Sebastião Salgado; his globetrotting means he appears to have evolved beyond mere reportage, and is now in the position to make major statements about the planet and the environment. In a rather sweet final sequence we learn that this single-minded, largely private man became a father in his late 60s, and is determined to record the vanishing natural world for his young daughter.