Taking Photographic Art to Another Level: Steve McCurry in Afghanistan
By Stuart Mitchner
âHERAT APRES TEN YEARS OF BOMBINGâ, Afghanistan, 1992. Archival pigment print. Courtesy of Steve McCurry.
When I got out of the heat on Friday to go to the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, she was there, Afghan girl, the image of the banner “Unguarded, Untold, Iconic Afghanistan: Through the Lens of Steve McCurry”. Taken in 1984 in a school tent in Pakistan’s Nasir Bagh refugee camp, the National Geographic cover photo gained worldwide fame as a symbol of the plight of refugees everywhere. Part of the fascination is that it’s never like you see her as much as she sees you. You can watch her as much as you want and she will outdo you, the strength of her gaze never diminishing, never letting you go. The effect is intensified by the way the image has been framed, the green background serves as a foil to the infinitely richer and more subtle shade of green of the eyes, the deep dark plum-earth tones of the scarf highlight an expression which has been compared to the impenetrable smile of the Mona Lisa. But while Leonardo da Vinci’s wife mysteriously appears, amused at a distance, to contemplate at leisure, Afghan girl is fiercely present, like a loaded gun pointed at your eyes. It is a reversal of superstition: it is she who steals souls, not the camera.
If I wrote an essay on the wonders of the human face, I would start with a passage from Herman Melville Moby dick in which this illiterate scholar Ishmael compares “a beautiful human forehead” to “the east when it is troubled in the morning” and goes on (you can almost hear the whoosh as Melville spreads his wings) to observe that “in most creatures, not in man himself, very often the front is just a simple strip of alpine land extending along the snow line. Rare are the fronts which, like those of Shakespeare or Melancthon , rise so high and descend so low, that the eyes themselves appear to be clear, eternal, tidal mountain lakes; and far above them, in the wrinkles of the forehead, you seem to follow the branching thoughts who descend there to drink, as the hunters of the Highlands stalk the snow tracks of deer.
What about these strange prose lands traveled in a single sentence? And why include a great American novel in an exhibition of photographs of Afghanistan? On the one hand, McCurry’s most powerful work is as extraordinary in its suggestiveness as this passage of inspired and exaggerated prose. An image like the ruins of a city in Herat after ten years of bombardment (1992) has the breadth and depth of a bravery creation, as if the photographer has taken reality to another level, as Melville does when he transforms a whale’s forehead into a literary adventure.
Another reason for Melville’s presence here is that Moby dick this is where I first heard about Afghanistan. Some 500 pages before I even got to the mountain lakes of this Melvillian rhapsody, I had been disarmed by the wit and sweep of the first chapters and the play of the author’s wit, as when the flippant Ishmael imagines his company’s placement on “The Great Providence Program” in which “Ishmael’s Whaling Journey” appears in small print between two headlines, “Contested Great Election for President of the United States” and “Bloody Battle in Afghanistan”.
“These are just bombs”
If there is an ounce of adventure in your heart, it is difficult to read these first chapters of Moby dick without wanting to go to sea with Ishmael, or at least put a bag on your back, hit the road, and end, like me, celebrating your 27 years in Kabul.
I had my birthday dinner at Khyber, a cafeteria-style restaurant for Westerners which from what I can tell survived the devastation revealed by McCurry’s 2002 photograph, Students attend classes in partially destroyed building in central Kabul. My stay in Kabul was before the Soviet occupation, when the road from Herat to Kandahar was built by the Russians and the section between Kandahar and Kabul by the Americans. A 1996 New York Times article refers to the project’s “Cold War madness” and the fact that Soviet tanks rolling on the freeway in the 1980s, along with the pounding heavy truck traffic, had reduced the road surface to “nothing but rubble stretching all the way to the horizon, roller coasters of vast uplifts and hollows” – which describes how it felt for this traveler before the Soviets thanks to driving all day and night over 500 miles of crushed gravel and asphalt in a makeshift Afghan truck-bus with wooden seats.
In the Times account of a trip in the mid-1990s on the highway between Kandahar and Kabul, a 12-year-old boy whose job it was to pick up unexploded bombs littering the side of the road said: are just bombs. I carried a lot of them, âleading someone else to say,â Our kids know them allâ¦. Bombs, shells, mines, they have lived with them all their lives.
The Beatles in Herat
The children I saw playing in the streets and alleys of Herat and Kabul were from a generation that had nothing to do with bombs, shells and mines. At the same time, it is possible to imagine that one of the boys or his older brother became the young Afghan soldier in McCurry’s photo from 1993 or perhaps the Mujahedin planting landmines in 1979.
Faced with this vision of Herat after a decade of bombing, I might be looking at a painting of a devastated metropolis in Ghenghis Khan’s time. When people asked me what I meant when I said I loved Afghanistan, I would mention the arrival of the first morning in Herat and look forward to the procession of camels I had seen in the distance as the truck was approaching the city, and how it was to imagine Tashkent and Samarkand a short drive away, and how lovely it was to lounge cross-legged on a wicker couch drinking tea from a cup and a delicately adorned saucer while the cafÃ© radio broadcast The Beatles. People thought I was making it up. Paul McCartney singing “Michelle” in Afghanistan? What about the Taliban?
Obviously, these are questions posed after 9/11 and the US bombing raids and when McCurry photographed children being taken in the ruins of a building in Kabul. The splashes of yellow and red covering the walls of the crumbling roof to which a fragment of a chalkboard has been attached reminds me of the mural that my friends and I had free room and board for the painting, in the dining room of a hotel that was almost certainly destroyed during the faction fighting of the 90s or the US campaign to crush the Taliban.
The twin towers
One photograph museum-goers will be hard-pressed to ignore is Men in the tea shop, taken in 2002 in Puli Khumri, a town in Baghlan province, northern Afghanistan. What catches your attention is not the presence of six bearded and turbaned men, it is that they are sitting in front of a vastly magnified color photograph of the lower Manhattan skyline showing the twin towers, windows lit, against a sky so flowery a shade of red, you must be wondering if it was painted by an artist suggesting a disturbing connection between the towers still standing and the central satanic-looking figure in whom McCurry saw a resemblance to Osama bin Laden. While the other men seem to ignore the image on the wall, the bin Laden lookalike seems to relish it.
McCurry witnessed the collapse of the Twin Towers from the window of his apartment in Greenwich Village. He was also among the first photographers of the scene. And a year later, in Afghanistan, he walks into the tea room and sees the big picture on the wall and a man with a face like Bin Laden’s. While McCurry’s photographs of Herat ruins and the rooftop classroom in Kabul suggest some tales, Men in the tea shop appears to shift from photojournalism to storytelling, a distinction McCurry made in his own defense after being accused of staging or tampering with some of his photos, including even Afghan girl.
In a recent article on the subject in TIME, McCurry states, âI’ve always let my photos do the talking, but now I understand that people want me to describe the category I would put myself in, and so I would say today , I am a visual storyteller. The years of coverage of conflict zones are a distant past. With the exception of a brief period in a local newspaper in Pennsylvania, I have never been an employee of any newspaper, news magazine, or other media. I have always been independent. “
In the Michener exhibition, which runs until October 23, what you see is the work of a photographer who, at his most inspired, has taken his art to another level. The stories are there for you to imagine whether or not you set foot in Afghanistan. Speaking up for McCurry, Sarah Leen, director of photography for National Geographic, said of the Afghan Girl cover of the June 1985 issue: âNo other image in my memory is so immediately recognizable and loved by so many people around the world.
The Michener interspersed passages of Caravans, James A. Michener’s 1963 novel about Afghanistan, with McCurry’s photograph. Michener and McCurry are both from southeastern Pennsylvania, and McCurry said reading the novel was among many invited on his first trip to Afghanistan in 1979. It is also worth mentioning that three of the children attending school in the ruined roof in Kabul are girls. . In fact, Afghan women have a gallery for themselves at Michener where rugs woven by women from designs by artists such as the late Michael Graves of Princeton are on display along with a selection of works from the Young Women’s Photography Initiative. from Imagine Asia.