Steve McCurry and the power of colour

WEDNESDAY: Photographic art

…photography is an intriguing art because it speaks in silence and leaves the viewer free to interpret it.


The magic of colour

Steve McCurry is an American photojournalist whose talent and photographs are universally acknowledged as incomparably vivid. One of his most recognised photographs is the “Afghan Girl”, featured on the cover of National Geographic Magazine’s June 1985 issue.

Being a photojournalist is perhaps one of the toughest jobs on earth. Just as the outstanding war photographer Robert Capa once said that “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”, being too close sometimes puts the photographer’s life in extreme danger. Steve McCurry began his career by covering the Soviet war in Afghanistan. By sewing rolls of film into his clothes and disguising himself into native dresses, he was able to be among the first to report the conflict. His photographs won the Robert Capa Gold Medal for Best Photographic Reporting from Abroad, an award acknowledging the exceptional courage and strength photojournalists are able to demonstrate.

It was during the coverage of this conflict that Steve McCurry was able to immortalise those strikingly vivid eyes looking straight into the lenses of the camera.

The “Afghan Girl,” who until 2002 was an unidentified Afghan refugee, was later found and known as Sharbat Gula. At the time the picture was taken, Gula was about twelve years old. Ethnically Afghan, she escaped to the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in Pakistan in 1984 following an attack by a Soviet bombing on her village causing the death of her parents. The photograph became soon a symbol of the 1980s Afghan conflict and raised the concern of the refugee situation worldwide.

It is not, however, only the history behind the photograph which makes it so intriguing – it is the photograph itself. Steve McCurry is known among photographers for his vivid contrasts and singular use of colours that are able to talk through the photographic paper. McCurry’s photographs prove wrong Canadian photojournalist Ted Grant’s famous words “when you photograph people in colour you photograph their clothes, but when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls”. It is instead the colour emerging from McCurry’s photograph which not only captures Gula’s soul but also speaks for her, speaks to us as world citizens sitting back and looking at the atrocities of politics taking place in far away places, most of the time places which are abandoned by the media and do not make headline news.

Photography is an intriguing art because it speaks in silence and leaves viewers free to interpret it. The most fundamental characteristic of Steve McCurry’s photography is what Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of modern photojournalism and a photographic genius, called as the ‘decisive moment’. The secret behind great photography lies within this concept. Photography represents a fraction of a second in life, a moment which if missed will be gone forever, never to repeat itself. The movements of a person, the look in their eyes, the wind blowing a girl’s hair into the air, the light reflecting into a girl’s face are all elements of life which are in continuous change. It does take a lot of looking through the camera lenses for a photographer to see the exceptional and be able to grasp that fraction of a second and turn a camera click into art.

Henri Cartier-Bresson as well as the people living their everyday lives is what inspires Steve McCurry the most. What is most represented in McCurry’s photographs is in fact the essence of everyday life among people living in conflict areas as well as remote areas. McCurry has covered international and civil conflicts in Burma, Sri Lanka, Beirut, Cambodia, the Philippines, the Gulf War, the former Yugoslavia, and still continuing coverage of Afghanistan and Tibet. However, McCurry is not a war photographer, as his reportages of daily life in South Asia feature some of the most vibrant and spectacular photographs he has ever taken.

Article written by Roberta Cucchiaro, published in the LSE Student Newspaper The Beaver

Steve McCurry is extraordinary.


8 thoughts on “Steve McCurry and the power of colour

  1. Great eye for pictures – as soon as I saw the thumbnails I recognised the images. Think I’d seen them published in Wanderlust magazine at some point.

    You can have the best luck and equipment in the world but with out the right talent you could never capture images this striking and beautiful

  2. Steve McCurry is my favorite photographer, his photographs are not only the image but they do understand the soul, soon I will visit the exhibition of Steve McCurry on the premises of the museum Macro Testaccio to Rome to see the original shots. Beautiful pictures!

  3. Thank you for introducing me to the works of Steve McCurry – other than the Afghan girl I didn’t know much else! Truly awesome!

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