Afghanistan Through the Lens of Magnum Photographer Steve McCurry

Karen Kedmey
Aug 26, 2015 9:28PM

Magnum photographer Steve McCurry has spent his career traveling the world—often disguised as a native or embedded among remote groups of people in places destabilized by war and unrest. Though his name might not be familiar, his portrait of a green-eyed Afghani girl that graced the cover of National Geographic in 1985 is one of the most recognized photographs in history. Now, more of his stunning work from Afghanistan is on view at Pictura Gallery, in the exhibition “In the Shadow of Mountains.”

The exhibition’s photographs are drawn from a collection built from McCurry’s numerous trips to Afghanistan over the course of more than 30 years. In fact, it was in this long-troubled country where he launched his career. Garbed in native clothing, he crossed the Pakistani border into Afghanistan in 1979, shortly before the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989) officially began. He embedded himself within a group of Mujahedeen fighters and he photographed them, ultimately smuggling his rolls of film out of the country by sewing them into his clothing. He then distributed his pictures to publications worldwide. They were among the first photographs to reveal the conflict to those not caught within it—and they earned him recognition and unabated assignments.


But McCurry captured much more than conflict in Afghanistan, as the selection of photographs at Pictura Gallery attest. These mid- to large-scale color prints show us street scenes, grand mosques, humble edifices, sweeping landscapes, and, always, people. In Afghan Women at Shoe Store, Kabul, Afghanistan (1992), four women covered in variously colored burqas stand with their backs to the camera, framed by displays of shoes at a marketplace. To a Westerner’s eye, their traditional dress seems to contrast jarringly with the brightly colored sandals and sneakers. In Portrait Photographer, Kabul, Afghanistan (1992), McCurry offers a clever reflection on himself through his dignified depiction of an Afghani photographer seated beside his own camera beneath examples of his portraits.

McCurry’s passion for his work and sympathy with the people who draw his lens comes through clearly in all of his photographs. As he once described his approach: “[It’s] about observation and curiosity about the world we live in…wanting to document and report a face that has an incredible story on it. That to me is such a wonderful way to spend your time. Take your camera and walk out the door without an agenda. It’s a free flow.”

Karen Kedmey

Steve McCurry: In the Shadow of Mountains” is on view at Pictura Gallery, Bloomington, Aug. 7–Sept. 26, 2015.

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