Every now and then there is a photograph that everyone sees. It becomes an icon. It’s printed on college posters, postcards, calendars until it transcends its original meaning. This happened with Steve McCurry’s portrait, which he called “Afghan Girl,” of Sharbat Gula. It first appeared on the cover of the June 1985 issue of National Geographic. A young woman with searing green eyes stares directly at you, her head loosely covered with a rust colored shawl, her face young but betraying, somehow, a much older soul. It is unforgettable for its beauty and depth.
Not too long ago, McCurry spoke at the Rubin Museum of Art with National Geographic president and CEO, Gary Knell, about his photographs and their lasting impact. Steve McCurry: India, an exhibition of the photographer’s images of the country, will run at the museum through April 4. As Knell presented McCurry’s photographs on a screen behind them, McCurry described the circumstances that had produced each one: stints in international jails, entering war-torn countries, and more. “I always wanted to make pictures that would have legs 10 or 20 or 50 years on,” he said.
McCurry shared how he got the shot of Sharbat Gula. He wandered into a girls’ school on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. When he saw the shy Gula with her haunting look, he instantly knew that was perfect. Instead of approaching her directly, though, he used a stealthier tactic. “I began photographing other girls to make her feel jealous,” he said. As soon as McCurry’s editor saw the photograph, he confirmed, “There’s our next cover.” McCurry and Knell touched on National Geographic’s philanthropic efforts. In 2002, the magazine started the Afghan Girls Fund to give back to the community that had welcomed McCurry and provided a subject for such an evocative image.
And what does McCurry think makes a good photographer? “It’s something in the DNA,” he said. “You have to want to be there and tell the story. It’s the best job in the world.” Here, a slideshow of some of his most startling and beautiful photographs from the exhibition.
Steve McCurry: India is on view at the Rubin Museum through April 4, 2016.