“Most of my photos are grounded in people, I look for the unguarded moment, the essential soul peeking out, experience etched on a person’s face.” – Steve McCurry


Graduating with honors from Penn State University, McCurry went to India with little more than a bag of clothes and rolls of film to freelance as a photojournalist. He dressed in native garb crossing from Pakistan into the then rebel-controlled Afghanistan. This was just before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. He came upon maybe 40 houses and some schools that had been bombed. He made photographs.

When he left, he had rolls of undeveloped film hidden inside his clothing — sewn inside his turban, stuffed into his socks and underwear. The resulting photographs were printed in The New York Times, Time, Paris Match and won him the Robert Capa Gold Medal award for “Best Photographic Reporting from Abroad.”

Steve McCurry in India

Covering conflicts

McCurry went on to photograph numerous armed actions — the Iran-Iraq war, the Lebanon Civil War, the Cambodian Civil War, Islamic insurgency in the Philippines, the Gulf War and the Afghan Civil War. His life was endangered on many occasions from nearly drowning in India to surviving a plane crash in Yugoslavia.

Toll of war

Steve McCurry honed his work on the effects of war on the bystanders, the human beings swept up in the conflicts, that war alters the landscape and the people in it. Commenting on his work McCurry said,

 “I look for the unguarded moment, the essential soul peeking out, experience etched on a person’s face. I try to convey what it is like to be that person, a person caught in a broader landscape, that you could call the human condition.”

McCurry does not photograph for the adrenaline rush, rather for the story. In tense dangerous situations, his camera acts as a shield because he knows it’s easier to see events through a viewfinder.

The “Afghan Girl”

It was December 1984. McCurry when McCurry found a roughly 12-year-old Pashtun orphan in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan. He heard the laughter of children in a one-room school tent for girls. McCurry picks up the story,

“I noticed this one little girl with these incredible eyes, and I instantly knew that this was really the only picture I wanted to take.”

It was the first time the girl had been photographed. The photograph (upper left in the opening gallery) went on to be “the most recognized photograph” in the history of National Geographic magazine who published it in the June 1985 issue.

The girl’s identity was unknown for 17 years until McCurry and a Nat Geo team found her in 2002. Her name is Sharbat Gula. McCurry noted,

“Her skin is weathered; there are wrinkles now, but she is as striking as she was all those years ago.”

Film and digital

McCurry prefers color transparency film although he does capture with digital cameras. Eastman Kodak sent him a gift of the last roll of Kodachrome film ever produced. He shot the roll and it was processed in Parsons, Kansas by Dwyane’s Photo in July of 2010. Most of them were published on Vanity Fair’s website. McCurry has several hundred thousand Kodachrome slides in his archives that he created over 30 years. McCurry pays a last tribute to his favorite film,

“I’m trying to shoot 36 pictures that ACT as some kind of wrap up — to mark the passing of Kodachrome. It was a wonderful film.”

Manipulation controversy

Manipulation of photographs digitally that are beyond what can be achieved in the darkroom is forbidden to the photojournalist. McCurry has been repeatedly confronted with his use of Photoshop in altering his work. While never admitting to changing his images, McCurry stated to Time Lightbox:

“Reflecting on the situation … even though I felt that I could do what I wanted to my own pictures in an aesthetic and compositional sense, I now understand how confusing it must be for people who think I’m still a photojournalist.”

Summing up his working style McCurry puts it this way …

“If you wait, people will forget your camera and the soul will drift up into view.”

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