The Name Behind That Famous National Geographic Cover, Steve McCurry Captures the Face of Conflict

Whether or not you know it, you’ve seen Steve McCurry’s photographs. His international photojournalism has earned him a permanent place in the history of modern photography, and his unique ability to capture charged moments of humanity is unparalleled. His portraits taken amid conflict and everyday life around the world have become icons since his best known work, Afghan Girl (1984), a photograph of a young refugee confronting the viewer with startling green eyes, became the most recognized National Geographic cover in history and a symbol of the international amnesty movement.  

Utilizing a mastery of composition, rich color, and dramatic light, McCurry’s portraits are built upon an a calling he describes as looking “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.” His career was launched in 1980 when he won the Robert Capa gold medal for his coverage of the Soviet war in Afghanistan; the series, taken while living with the Mujahideen and smuggled out of the country sewn into the hem of a coat, became the first images many Westerners had seen of the violence from behind its closed borders, humanizing the conflict. In 1984, he seized the unique opportunity to photograph Afghani women in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp and his image of Sharbat Gula, a 12-year-old Pashtun girl, became the iconic cover of National Geographic

Since then, McCurry’s career has been a whirlwind as he continues to travel and photograph internationally, focusing on the human element inherent in cross-cultural conflicts and working for a multitude of publications as part of the Magnum photo collective. His ability to tap into moments that cut through cultural barriers is unchanging, whether his lens has been focused on Moro insurgents in the Philippines, or celebrities like Robert DeNiro, whom he photographed as part of a project using the last produced roll of Kodachrome film. His stunning oeuvre of works produced over the last 30 years takes source material from six continents and innumerable countries, and has been published in more than a dozen catalogs and exhibited internationally. 

—K. Sundberg

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